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Is this the movie you really want to see while Ebola's running wild?
Well, talk about a brilliant theatrical feature debut -- I kid you not, David Cronenberg's Shivers is the most intelligent and meaningful sci-fi - horror show of its year. Everything about the Canadian director's early career has a precise, organized, scientific quality. For his Stereo student filmmaker Cronenberg had 35mm film stock and a large building to work with, but few lights and no ability to record synchronized sound. He couldn't do a commercial picture, so he instead made an audiovisual collage art film. It got some festival exposure but wasn't reviewed by Variety until years later, when Cronenberg had become a name.
Shivers was the next step upward -- a commercial horror film for a company that had previously specialized in soft-core pornography. Cronenberg's concept had sex, nudity and other exploitable/marketable elements, so as long as he delivered those, he had a shot. The company could also qualify for Canada's then- very generous tax incentives. They also found a young producer, Ivan Reitman who had already made a horror film. But I'll bet that David Cronenberg himself was the deal-closer: he had wild, exciting ideas but wasn't a crazy freak. He probably came off as the smartest person in the room.
Never was a horror movie better in touch with contemporary trends. On its own island in the St. Lawrence River, the Starliner Apartment Complex is a self-sufficient little community. But it's under attack. Resident crackpot scientist Emil Hobbes (Fred Doderlein) has gone stark raving nuts. Working with colleague Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver) to develop a 'benign parasite' to possibly replace defective human organs, Hobbes has instead created a self-replicating and mobile parasite, transmitted mainly by sexual contact, that causes its human host to give in to basic urges, primarily sex. In exchange for harboring the parasite, the host is rewarded with secretions that have an aphrodisiac effect. Already a child molester, Hobbes has tried out his parasite on his underage lover, only to find that she's been having sex with other males in the apartment complex. Since the new parasite carriers aren't aware that their personalities have been affected, on-site Starliner doctor Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) doesn't catch on to the epidemic until it's too late. In just one evening, the parasites spread like a plague, as once-discreet sex connections become an all all-out orgy of crazed sex fiends.
The theme of Shivers can be summed up in a motto taped to Dr. Hobbes' refrigerator: "Sex was invented by a very clever venereal disease." Cronenberg's monsters don't want to hurt people, merely turn them into involuntary parasite-enablers. If a special wasp can inject something into another insect's brain, to make it protect the wasp's eggs, Dr. Hobbes' parasites are entirely believable. What the brilliant Cronenberg has here is a soft-core sex-violence horror movie based on a concept that is not only legit, it's important. The parasite he proposes uses our own inner urges to enslave us. This makes the alternate title They Came from Within particularly apt: the creatures conquer us by liberating one very basic part of our natures.
Since most of us try to keep our sex habits fairly quiet, we'll hide knowledge of the parasite, even from those we love. Insurance salesman Nicholas Tudor (Alan Migicovsky) can see and feel the parasites crawling in and around his organs, forming lumps on his abdomen. He talks to them as if conspiring with the 'things' that make him feel so good. But he's already an involuntary puppet. Since the Starliner residents have their own little Peyton Place hookups going, it takes only a couple of initial hosts to spread the parasites like wildfire. The parasites can secrete an acid to burn their way into people, like a hookworm, but they're most commonly transmitted orally. Takeover is almost immediate.
The sex angle is obvious -- crazed maniacs are tearing off their clothes and raping anyone they see. It's like Night of the Living Dead with a different kind of zombie. Iif the parasites that grow within get tired of waiting, they'll just bore their way out of the host and go crawling on their own, playing the old "Life Will Find a Way" game. Unlike Invasion of the Body Snatchers, this isn't an allegory about complacency or an ideological statement. It makes sound biological sense. They dubbed Cronenberg a practitioner of venereal horror, gynecological horror. He's a 'Prophet of the New Flesh' in that his logic demands that we see ourselves as we really are -- fascinating physical creatures with drives and qualities more in common with insects than an idealized God. Everything in Shivers is icky because most of what goes on in our insides is 'icky' -- likely to remind us more of vomit and feces than God's creation. Many of us try to ignore anything unpleasant happening inside our bodies, until age and the doctors catch up with us.
Cronenberg's 'body horror' isn't some perverse fantasy. It's all true. Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry) recites an 'erotic flesh' speech that expresses a philosophy of parasite liberation: everything is sex, the basic drive to pursue pleasure that nature has built into us to insure that life will continue, one way or another. It's the same as the "insect politics" discovered by Seth Brundle in the remake of The Fly. We consume, we procreate. Higher social organization is a precarious consensus invention.
On a hormonal level the Shivers parasite wants us to live and keep finding new sex partners so it can go forth and multiply. Of course, the spread of the parasites is a disease -- and Shivers reminds us that any living being, even us, can be reduced to a 'disease'. It's not just suburban sprawl. We'll overpopulate ourselves until our 'colonies' collapse, but not a single newspaper will admit the obvious necessity of population control. Shivers reminds us of Steven Soderbergh's excellent movie Contagion, and even Ebola. Those threats are scary because they are difficult to control and highly efficient at killing people. The Shivers parasites spread faster than Seed-Pods. The little buggers are like William Castle's The Tingler, only "R"-rated, and wholly disgusting. 1
But wait! That's not all. In Shivers Cronenberg absolutely nails an aspect of the swinging '70s. I don't know if it was a sexual revolution but there were plenty of changes. Many of us relatively privileged '60s teens (if we didn't have to go to war) lived away from our parents, and if we had jobs and were independent, most of the old puritanical rules were fading fast. Apartment landlords were no longer the Morals Police; we learned that in college. If women wanted to be sexually active, with some caution and a cooperative doctor they were in business -- no AIDS. If your family wasn't the kind where adults policed each other, acquaintances might become sex partners. Couples cohabited before marriage or in place of marriage. Women able to support themselves no longer had to nail down a protector and provider.
In Los Angeles there sprung up Singles' Apartment complexes. I visited several and once moved a girlfriend into one. People over forty had houses, leaving these new places -- all private, all anonymous -- to be inhabited by young adults with incomes. The pool was always crowded in this place in the valley. People had cable TV, drugs, hot tubs, pizza delivery. My girlfriend was always being hit on in ways that didn't happen elsewhere -- she didn't use the pool because going there was akin to raising a flag saying she was available. A neighbor once called her saying he could see her in his window and wanted to know if they could get together. A couple once accosted us in the hallway -- strangers -- and asked us if we wanted to come over and party, wink wink. Yet everything was mellow, cool. She never was 'stalked'; it seemed that anybody that intent could find what he wanted somewhere else, soon enough. I wouldn't have called myself a prize, but I had a head of hair that girls (and some boys, to my surprise) liked a lot. It's the only time in my life that I was hit on. Very strange.
What happens in The Starliner is sort of an exaggeration of this new Swingin' Singles scene. Is Shivers saying that the shocked old folks are right, that the breakdown of social taboos will lead to an out-of-control sex-ocracy like that portrayed in the movie? Dr. Hobbes did what he did because he wanted to turn the entire world into one massive orgy of delight. Instead of relaxing a few inhibitions all the barriers come down and all the doors open. The sex drive is so unrestrained that old ladies are pulling people from the hallway, demanding love, and meek couples are attacking strangers with rape on their minds. Cronenberg goes further out on a limb by involving a child or two, and suggesting incest. Some filmmakers try to shock us because the genre demands it, to amuse themselves, or because they don't know what else to do. Shivers quacks like soft-core horror but has the innards of great beauty, driven by logic, by mathematics. Cronenberg takes his concept all the way. At a time when other horror filmmakers were playing in the genre sandbox, he was making adult art from the get-go.
Shivers is filmed cheap and dirty, and the supposedly modern and desirable Starliner now strikes us as an ugly warren of blank corridors and doorways with heavy bolt-locks. Cronenberg has yet to really master working with actors or using the camera well, but he apparently inspired good help from his crew associates. As we see in the extras, makeup effects man Joe Blasco is responsible for making the parasites believable. His crawling-under-the-skin gags both sell the concept and make Shivers a gotta-see gross-out for its year. Among the actors, the experienced Joe Silver is excellent, leading man Paul Hampton more than adequate, and experienced Lynn Lowry perfect as a sexually active nurse. Special guest star Barbara Steele is strikingly beautiful and properly uninhibited as Betts, a resident artist and free soul. In the film's most extreme scene, she's violated by a parasite while drinking wine in the tub; she then successfully seduces the likeable, suffering wife Janine Tudor (Susan Petrie). A lot of the incidental actors are pretty amateurish, and Cronenberg is not yet the man to pull a good performance out of just anyone (the secret mainly being to choose the right actors to begin with). Yet the movie is so soundly written and the story so good that it plays somewhat better than Cronenberg's own later Scanners.
Arrow Video's Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD of Shivers is a fine disc based on a new film restoration done in French Canada. The unwatchable old DVD from 2000 has bad color and a poor bit rate that makes its picture break up in almost every shot. This widescreen transfer pulls every bit of color out of the show (don't look for world-class lighting) and enhances every scene. Barbara Steele looks fine in her close-ups, as do Ms. Lowry and Ms. Petrie. The audio is exceptionally good -- only in one scene with Steele does there seem to be too much background noise crowding the voices.
There is some word at this writing that this encoding may be missing a few seconds of footage. If the issue resolves I'll report it at the DVD Savant main page and alter this paragraph. (10.17.14) 3
The Arrow disc's long-form docu Parasite Memories gives us some nice interviews. Barbara Steele remarks that she had a knack for being in first features by great directors -- Volker Schlondorff, Jonathan Demme, David Cronenberg. Allan Kolman (Migikovsky) remembers very clearly the shooting conditions and Cronenberg's willingness to accept suggestions. Still a busy actress today, Lynn Lowry speaks proudly of her experience in adult films. Special effects makeup artist Joe Blasco recalls being summoned from Los Angeles for the opportunity of working on Barbara Steele, and insisted on being her makeup man!
A Canadian TV program On Screen! covers the checkered release of the film, and author Caelum Vatnsdal contributes a video essay about Cronenberg's early career. An original trailer is present as well. The insert booklet has a couple of essays and reprints, some of which address a protest by a Canadian critic against the use of public tax shelter funds to subsidize such a horrid movie. As with other Arrow discs, a reversible sleeve allows one to change the cover from Shivers to They Came from Within, should one so desire. Another purchase option offers the same special edition in a Steelcase.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Shivers Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD rates:
1. A newer, more politicized take on Shivers is Joe Dante's The Screwfly Solution, written by Sam Hamm from James Tiptree Jr's short story. A disease spreads that makes men turn homicidal against women -- their own wives, daughters, mothers. To our surprise, the 'meaningless' killings are all part of a specific biological plan.
An interesting benign alternate to Shivers is the iffy Techniscope Universal comedy What's So Bad About Feeling Good? A Toucan from South America brings a 'happiness bug' to New York, transforming a hostile and frustrated populace into bouyant, smiling Good Samaritans. The problem is that the concept is full of holes and collapses of its own 'whimsy'. Morose Bohemians Mary Tyler Moore and George Peppard are "cured" of their anti-social attitudes; the Toucan Germ makes them want to cut their hair and join Nixon's Silent Majority (at least in the way they dress and behave). The concept also pretends that an attitude adjustment is all that's needed to make New York a harmonious heaven. It ignores the fact that people might also be unhappy because they're trapped in terrible lives, that they're surrounded by inequity, social repression, etc.
3. 11.09.14: Helpful correspondent Jeffrey Nelson came through with the answer about trims to Arrow's disc of Shivers. He pointed me to where they have been detailed on a couple of forums, but the best place to see what's been removed -- violence, trims of 'disgusting' shots, entire disgusting shots -- is broken down at the Movie Censorship.com. Amount of material missing: 25 seconds. Thank you Jeffrey.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.