David Cronenberg: Shivers (1975)


Shivers is the moment David Cronenberg came into his own as a filmmaker, even though he himself said it “was the beginning of my career as a movie-maker, and the end of my career as as film-maker [sic].” Cronenberg is uncharitable to himself in this assessment. To be fair, unlike Stereo or Crimes of the Future, Shivers is not an experiment where Cronenberg is allowed free reign. It doesn’t serve entirely as an avenue for exploring esoteric concepts nor does it enjoy the limitations nor freedoms of no-budget experimental filmmaking. Instead, it is a rousing genre picture that weds Cronenberg’s cerebral obsessions with the thrills of a grindhouse B-movie. It explores the sorts of concepts you`d expect of a Cronenberg film while also satisfying the genre crowd with bloody violence and inventive thrills. In short, Shivers shows Cronenberg having his cake and eating it too, proving that he can conjure conventionally-appealing entertainment that still has the capacity to shock with its imagery and dazzle with its ideas.

At the time of its release, Shivers (also known as The Parasite Murders or They Came From Within in parts of Canada and the US) was the highest grossing Canadian film of all time. It achieved that small honour by placating the underground cinema crowd of the 1970s, who were used to gory horror pictures and softcore pornography in the mainstream movie theatres. Cinépix (now Lionsgate) distributed the film, pairing it as a softcore double-feature with films like Snuff and other low-hanging fruit of 1970s cinema. It did not do well critically, but amassed an impressive haul at the box office, especially when compared to its small $180,000CAD budget. 

In many ways, Shivers resembles the sorts of pictures Cinépix paired it with during its initial 1975 release. The plot follows the residents of a state-of-the-art high-rise building in Montreal, Quebec, who descend into a sex-crazed panic when parasitic slugs begin infecting the residents. The film begins with an introductory video for the high-rise, named Starliner Towers, which seems straight out of Stereo with its arch tone and inflated voiceover—it even has Ron Mlodzik narrating the video as the towers’ manager, Merrick. However, once we’re introduced to the concept of the towers, the film takes an immediate turn to provocation. 

We see an older man murdering a young woman in a schoolgirl outfit, disfiguring her corpse, and then committing suicide. The scene’s nudity and copious amounts of blood cue us into the B-movie bonafides of the picture. It introduces the picture’s main horror concept. We soon learn that the murderer was Dr. Hobbes, who was designing some kind of replacement organs for the Northern Hemisphere Organ Transplant Society (a Cronenbergian name if there ever was one), and that he had transplanted the girl, Annabelle, with some parasitic organ that he intended on neutralizing by murdering her. Of course, his plan doesn’t work as Annabelle had already spread the parasite to other individuals, including Nick Tudor (Alan Migicovsky), a married businessman living in the tower. The parasite begins to spread and turn the tower’s residents into sex-crazed zombies who aggressively seek to have sex with whomever is nearest them in order to pass on the parasite. In essence, Shivers is a zombie picture where the infection is transmitted through an STI parasite that turns people into rapists.

If you simply take the film’s concept at face value, it’s easy to view Shivers as a conventional B-picture because it operates along standard horror movie conventions. It has a milquetoast hero, Dr. Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), who, along with his attractive sidekick, Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry), works to learn about the parasite and combat its spread throughout the high-rise. Roger is aided by an older, wiser expert on the parasites, Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver), who fits the mold of most intellectuals and scientists in B-movie pictures; that is, he explains the concept through tedious exposition and lends some rational credence to the film’s fantastical events.

Cronenberg also revels in the sexual content that is a staple of these sorts of 1970s B-movies. The concept allows for ample nudity and scenes that are little more than softcore T&A—a lesbian sex scene late in the film is nothing but gratuitous. As well, you get the sorts of horror movie thills you’d expect in such a picture. One scene plays with a familiar scenario: scream queen Barbara Steele enjoys a bath and a glass of wine, only for one of the parasitic slugs to swim up her bathtub drain and attack her. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve seen this scene before—Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street has an almost identical scene with Freddy Krueger's claws appearing in the water between the girl’s legs—but Cronenberg’s film predates Craven’s and likely inspired it. Regardless of whether Craven directly pays homage to it in his horror classic, Cronenberg's scene is one of the earliest instances of this familiar horror trope.

However, even within the 1970s horror movie tropes, Cronenberg gets to have fun with his usual obsessions with body horror, scientific manipulations, and the barely-concealed chaos of polite society. As in many Cronenberg films, the film’s plot is set in motion by a little-seen doctor figure, in this case Dr. Hobbes, who creates the parasite and causes the contagion by implanting it in Annabelle. In this way, Shivers acts of a piece with Stereo and Crimes of the Future, as the film’s events are essentially the experimental outcome of Dr. Hobbes just as the events of Stereo and Crimes of the Future are the result of Dr. Luther Stringfellow and Dr. Antoine Rouge, respectively. 

Furthermore, Cronenberg is deliberate in naming the doctor “Hobbes,” after the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who famously wrote that life is “nasty, brutish, and short” and theorized about the artificial nature of stable society. Cronenberg uses the name to comment on what he sees as a chaotic natural state of humanity and how society can crumble if the social restrictions on human appetites (here, sexual appetites) are lifted.

Of course, beyond the exploration of social chaos, the weaponized use of sexuality is a familiar touchstone throughout all of Cronenberg’s work. While Cronenberg is not puritanical in any sense of the word, he does have a dim view of sexuality at least as it’s presented in his films. In Shivers, sexuality is a weapon and a fundamental weakness. Once characters become infected, they use their own sexual attractiveness to prey on others; in one scene, a naked woman lures a man to his death, her physical attractiveness overriding any rational hesitation and defense mechanisms on his part. Through moments like this one, Cronenberg is highlighting the obvious truth that sex makes us do stupid things. He’s also drawing on a long legacy in horror storytelling (and Freudian psychology), connecting sex with death and destruction.

Of course, it would be too simplistic for Cronenberg to simply decry sexuality in general; he doesn’t and Shivers doesn’t. Instead, in Shivers, he is complicating our understanding of sex by showing both the destructive and erotic aspects of his characters’ parasitic behaviour. He’s not like the standard horror director who wants to pruriently condemn sexual behaviour while revelling in its display. He’s more like a clinician who is dispassionately fascinated in how a sexual behaviour can be simultaneously pleasurable and destructive. And he’s also interested in how the viewer inevitably is drawn to such deviant behaviour onscreen. In Cronenberg on Cronenberg, he explains:

Each of my films has a little demon in the corner that you don’t see, but it’s there. The demon in Shivers is that people vicariously enjoy the scenes where guys kick down doors and do whatever they want to the people inside. They love the scenes where people are running, screaming, naked through the halls. But they might just hate themselves for liking them. This is no new process; it’s obvious that there is a vicarious thrill involved in seeing the forbidden.

In Shivers, Cronenberg plays with the deviant nature of his imagery and explores this through the various ways that the parasite’s sexual craze manifests itself in its victims. With certain individuals, it’s as simple as making them sex-crazed profligates, like drugged-out members of an orgy during the Summer of Love as you see during the aforementioned lesbian sex scene. In other scenes, you see more aggressive forms of sexual behaviour, such as when an infected security guard tries to rape Nurse Forsythe as she ventures into the basement. The most sustained exploration of the parasite’s sexual effects on the body comes in Cronenberg’s depiction of Nick, who begins the film as an aloof philanderer and quickly becomes its chief monster as the parasite’s effect spreads. 

In an early scene, Nick violently vomits and writhes in pain due to the parasites travelling throughout his skin. However, soon enough, his pain turns to pleasure; when he vomits the slug in front of his wife, he licks the blood off his lips afterwards, savouring the flavour. Later, he encourages the parasites to travel throughout his body, orgasmically relishing every movement of his flesh. All of this is best captured in a scene in front of a mirror, as Nick prods himself and watches his body change in a scene that serves as a prototype for similar scenes of self-mutilation in Videodrome and The Fly. If Nick’s behaviours haven’t made it abundantly clear, Nurse Forsythe’s words to Roger sum up Cronenberg’s disturbing thesis: “That even dying is an act of eroticism.”

This ecstasy in destruction anticipates the car-crash fetishism of Crash and some of Cronenberg’s later work. In fact, the entire setting of the film also recalls J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise novel, which came out the same year as Shivers. The way both Cronenberg’s film and Ballard’s novel transform a modern new residential development into a microcosm of the entire world and a subtle jab at materialism also presage George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. This all goes to show how influential Shivers is, even if its filmmaking is not as accomplished as Romero’s work.

In terms of formal construction, Shivers is not as striking as moments in Stereo or Crimes of the Future. The persistent centre framing indicates that the film was created with television in mind, using widescreen but always having characters and important actions exist in a full frame area. However, even within the formal limits, Cronenberg does some interesting things with the camera. In one scene, he recalls the hallway shot of Crimes of the Future where window slating creates the visual impression of prison bars down the corridor by replicating the shot in a basement hallway and subbing in wooden slates for the shadows. He then has arms strike out from between the slates to attack a character unawares, again producing an iconic horror image that would become more famous in its later repetition (in Day of the Dead). 

In another scene, Cronenberg adopts a first-person point of view to show Nurse Forsythe descend into the basement to search for Roger; the restricted point of view significantly amplifies the tension of the scene, especially with the implied threat of rape. And in the final moments of the film, Cronenberg stunningly uses slow motion to depict Roger’s final defeat, as the sex-crazed zombies attack him in the swimming pool and drown him together, as if they’re baptizing him into new life as a monster.

More striking than Cronenberg’s camerawork are the film’s prosthetics and gore effects by Joe Blasco, who creates a disgusting phallic monster in the parasite. The low-fi effect of the parasites burrowing beneath the skin of Nick as he writhes in pleasure is eery and only amplified in other moments, like when the parasite leaves Nick’s mouth only to latch onto Linsky’s face. Linsky struggling to rip off the parasite with tweezers is horrifying. By focusing on the ways that Shivers plays into Cronenberg’s thematic obsessions, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Shivers is successful as a horror movie on a purely conventional basis. It is frequently unnerving, occasionally scary, and consistently entertaining. It builds to the kind of pitch-black ending familiar to horror films, with the infected residents of the high-rise putting on a display of normalcy as they drive away from the building in orderly fashion.

Here, Cronenberg once again takes on his familiar vantage point of the dispassionate observer, watching from a God’s eye view as the cars exit the car park one by one and head out into the world to destroy it. That a facsimile of order has been created at the end of Shivers only puts further proof to Cronenberg’s assertion that order is artificial. The chaos contained with the orderly caravan out of Starliner Towers is enough to permanently destroy society’s peace.

Shivers allows Cronenberg to explore fascinating questions about the human body and our destructive impulses while also delivering a solid entertainment. It’s not a compromise; instead, it’s an ideal marriage of genre and content. For only horror would allow Cronenberg the avenue to explore the sort of deviant ideas and psychosexual questions he wanted to while still delivering the shocking imagery and abundant sex and gore that would satisfy bloodthirsty audiences. To counter Cronenberg’s own assessment I mentioned off the top, Shivers marks the first time he succeeds as both a moviemaker and a filmmaker.

7 out of 10

Shivers (1975, Canada)

Written and directed by David Cronenberg; starring Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry, Alan Migicovsky, Susan Petrie, Barbara Steele, Ron Mlodzik.