Classic Movies: Shivers (1975)

Directed by – David Cronenberg
Written by – David Cronenberg
Starring – Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry, Allan Kolman, Susan Petrie, Barbara Steele & Barry Baldaro

Directorial debuts are strange beasts; they’re often indulgent, inconsistent and sloppy, yet there’s something about them that is just fascinating to behold. No matter how poor the debut, it’s almost always worth a look if only to see just how much a director’s style has evolved and changed since their first shot at feature-length movie making. This is no truer than in the case of horror directors because the genre is one of the most experimental and unknown directors are far more likely to partake in such experimentation than those that are at the whim of a bunch of faceless executives in Hollywood.

Shivers – the first feature film from David Cronenberg (Videodrome, The Fly) – is reminiscent of debuts like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead in that it isn’t just a great film but it also gave audiences their first glimpse into the themes, concepts and techniques for which the director is now celebrated. Brimming with rampant sex, an obsession with human flesh and a scathing social commentary, Shivers is everything you might expect from a classic Cronenberg film. It’s cheap and nasty, not to mention rough and utterly unsophisticated, but that’s what makes it so damn great, especially when you compare it to the slick but lacklustre path that the man’s career has taken since the turn of the century. With its sexual politics, its attack on the banality of modern existence and its exploration of the vast possibilities of human evolution, Shivers delves deep into the complex ideas that Cronenberg would later expand on in films such as Videodrome, Crash and The Brood, which is why it is still regarded as such a seminal piece of horror cinema.

Shivers - 1975

Like all of the best debuts Shivers initially encountered huge controversy, so much so that the film’s artistic merit was debated in the Canadian Parliament, yet this didn’t stop it from becoming the highest-grossing Canadian film of all time back in 1975. Originally titled Orgy of the Blood Parasites, the film tells the tale of a middle-class tower block in Canada in which a bizarre new parasite is beginning to spread. The parasite turns its hosts into licentious, sex-crazed psychopaths with no inhibitions or restraint, whose sole aim is to allow the parasite to multiply and breed by having sex with anyone who isn’t yet infected. Before long the parasite has taken over the entire block and just a few residents remain unaffected. As the corridors fill up with orgies and the residents embrace their fluid sexuality, it falls to those who remain to stop the parasite before it can leave the tower block and begin infecting the outside World.

As you can see then, Shivers is delightfully weird. Yet don’t be fooled, for it’s also brilliantly conceived and manages to explore a number of curious ideas that are still relevant today. The film’s central conceit is that modern life has stunted our ability to grow; the hedonistic tendencies that accompany infection are a response to the fact that most people are sexually repressed, and Shivers forces the audience to question whether or not the parasitic infection around which the film is based is such a bad thing. Cronenberg has admitted that he identifies not with the “hero” of the piece – Dr Roger St. Luc (Hampton; Butterfly) – but with those who have been infected, for they are the ones who have been set free from modern life’s sterile banality. The combination of horror and sex – a staple of the genre if ever there was one – grants the film a timeless quality while the focus on the emptiness of middle-class existence demonstrates that Shivers is far more political than it might first seem. Make no mistake; this isn’t a film about sexual deviancy, this is a film about sexual liberation and that’s what makes it so fascinating.

I think the best description one could give of Shivers is “rough and ready”. With such a small budget Cronenberg’s crazy brain couldn’t be completely satisfied, which is why the parasite looks a bit like a dog turd and why the film’s most horrific moments often feel a bit cheesy. This, however, all just adds to the charm of the thing. It’s an amateurish production that survives as a result of its subtext and its creativity. The rubbish performances, the daft script and the B-movie special effects make the film and without them it wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun. If the parasites were realistic, if the performances were decent and if the plot was more coherent, it would have a detrimental effect of the overall feel of the film. It works because of its B-movie sensibilities, not in spite of them, and to try and change that (as is proposed…) would be a total travesty.

Shivers is a classic for a multitude of reasons. It’s the film that introduced Cronenberg to the World, it’s a film to which a whole host of body-horror films owe a debt, and it’s intelligent, entertaining and full of cynicism. The themes it explores are as important now as they were 40 years ago and it does a fantastic job of forcing the audience to question their allegiances, which is rare for a horror film. The comic undertones add an additional layer of brilliance to the film and the final scene is one of the best that the genre has to offer, not least because you can’t be sure whether it’s meant to be positive or negative.

Shivers stands the test of time and is one of Cronenberg’s best and most ambitious films. It lacks the style of Videodrome and the intensity of The Fly but it’s still a wonderful piece of horror cinema that everybody should watch, if only to get an insight into the Freudian web of borderline insanity that was / is Cronenberg’s mind…

★★★★

Review also posted on Letterboxd

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