Shivers. 1975. Directed & Written by David Cronenberg.
Starring Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry, Allan Kolman, Susan Petrie, Barbara Steele, Ronald Mlodzik, Barry Baldaro, Camil Ducharme, Hanna Poznanska, Wally Martin, Vlasta Vrana, Silvie Debois, Charles Perley, & Al Rochman. Cinépix/DAL Productions/Canadian Film Development Corporation.
Rated R. 87 minutes.
Even if I love Alien to death and think it’s a masterpiece of cinema, the fact remains that Dan O’Bannon definitely saw David Cronenberg’s Shivers a.k.a They Came From Within. And not just that, he loved it. This was the original piece of dreadful science-fiction-horror that preyed upon an isolated environment, high up above everything else, a nearly self-contained atmosphere where a predator on the inside starts to take out the residents, one by one. Just like Weyland-Yutani were terraforming and the government or whoever were planning to use the Xenomorphs for sinister purpose, the creatures of Shivers were created for a purpose but then that purpose went terribly awry. Is it a coincidence then that the residential apartment complex where this film is set happens to be named Starliner? I’m not accusing O’Bannon of anything. He’s already been accused, anyways. I enjoy the little similarities because it shows the legacy and intrigue of Cronenberg. He is an important artist who dares to ask questions about human nature, the social effects of technology and medicine and more, as well as so many other things. Only his third feature, Shivers asks of us what the price of advancement is in terms of our social lives, as a whole in society. The more we isolate ourselves, jamming our life into smaller spaces so that we can cram more people in around us, the further at risk we put ourselves of becoming something entirely other. In that case, there is no progress, no evolution. We only evolve into something mindless, swallowed whole by a concern for economic and social status, consumed by our consumption. Through his trademark body horror Cronenberg explores the terrifying downfall of a society within society inside the Starliner apartment building, and much like J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, as well as the recent Ben Wheatley adaptation, this film depicts how a self-contained environment can eat itself alive
The big horror here is Cronenberg’s use of phallic, slug-like creatures to represent an invasion of otherness. Again, it is man-made. But it is other, a parasite. What we know know as typical Cronenberg comes here through those slugs squirming their way into the human body. Of course it happens many ways. However, the most eerie and prominent in this screenplay is sexual intercourse. These parasites drive the hosts sex crazy. One of the first women we see infected attacks a man and yells, terrifyingly enough: “I‘m hungry. Hungry for love!” Later, the most disturbing moment for me is when a family of three that were earlier stuck in an elevator are now infected, and they tackle a man; the little girl kisses him on the lips with her bloody mouth. This one scene really gets to me, as it is creepy anyways, but then with the girl kissing the man, the blood on her, the family all gone raving mad. It’s a sight to behold. Otherwise, Cronenberg does give us a few graphically pukeworthy practical effects, as the slugs slip out of mouths, flop out onto clear umbrellas leaving yucky streaks, one even slips its way up from a bathtub drain and between the legs of an unsuspecting woman (precursor to Craven’s famous bathtub scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street). So many effective, bloody little moments.
Amongst everything else, the symbolism of Cronenberg’s Shivers is what makes it a worthy and enduring piece of Canadian cinema. While there’s the invasion of otherness and becoming something else, there are more elements at play. The whole sexual angle of people just trying to ravish everyone, gone mental from lust, this comes to represent how the close proximity to the others in these buildings, jamming everybody together no matter if it’s high class suites or what is a recipe for social disaster. Essentially, it is the idea of assimilation, the conformity to a group norm and a way of life that’s accepted as singular. Because they’re not attacking each other like madmen and madwomen, they collectively seek out more people to pass the parasite onto. So it’s like this roaming group of social power, these parasitic citizens of the Starliner apartment complex gradually spreading their diseased love around until finally everybody has conformed, they all fit perfectly in their little boxed apartments(/compartments).
Also, if you want to go deeper, the idea of all these people living in a deluxe apartment complex sort of quarantined off from the rest of society can serve as a statement about how the upper class is sort of an incestuous group of people that perpetuate a system of disease amongst themselves by remaining sectioned away in their own little world. Not everybody here is big time rich or anything. But it’s a suburban residential building, so we’re certainly not talking about a rough neighbourhood. So the way these people descend into a madness of orgy and violence is a comment on how these people mingle only with their own kind, and anyone from outside – such as the man who worked with Dr. Hobbes, the original one guilt of scientific hubris by inventing the sex slugs – ends up killed. The new people, they’re simply indoctrinated and likewise infected with the parasitic, aphrodisiac slugs. So these types of cut-off suburban environments within societies only begets more isolation, in turn more madness.
That climactic scene where the Starliner’s own doctor, Roger St. Luc, who’d been fighting against the parasitic invasion this whole time finds himself being crowded and mauled in the pool with all the residents is a doozy. It is the epitome of the anxieties of the suburban social life, closed and boxed in, stuck into the cookie cutter frame with all the other mindless, sex-crazed, consumerist zombies. Honestly, there are few scenes in a film which get to me as deeply and have resonated as long-lasting as this one did. From the first time I saw this film about 12 years ago or so, it stuck. And watching it again now, especially where the kiss lands on St. Luc, similar to how the frame slows down on it like with the little girl earlier, the impact is just as weighty.
There are obviously flaws, as this is a low budget picture and also it was one of David Cronenberg’s first trio of feature films ever. With Shivers, he began to explore the physiological body horror that went on to become his trademark, and here his interest in the social life of humans started to really take off. In a disturbing, poignant fashion. Initially dismissed as completely useless, particularly after the CFDC and others were not happy about its content, Shivers has gone on to be better understood, also more appreciated by certain people. By no means perfect it has a unique charm. Moreover, it is effective body horror with plenty to please even some seasoned veterans of the genre.
Cronenberg is certainly king in the realm of body horror. Always. Forever.