SHIVERS contains a great deal of foreshadowing for the rest of the Cronenberg filmography. The direction isn’t there yet, though, as a first feature, you wouldn’t expect it to be. But it’s never been the look of Cronenberg’s films that gave them their distinctive feel. It’s always been the writing. More to the point, it’s always been the themes and metaphors. They’re all present here. The distrust of science, the twinned revulsion and attraction towards the human body (specifically towards the sexual organs), the dangers of repression, the allure of mutation… All of the myriad, almost obsessive, themes and metaphors that dotted the landscape of Cronenberg’s sci-fi/horror output, some of which leaked into his more mainstream films like CRASH and SPIDER, are here in full force. That makes SHIVERS an integral film for the Cronenberg faithful.
The film begins with a media presentation, a commercial of sorts, for the Starliner Towers, a large apartment complex, complete with shops and medical facilities, on the outskirts of Montreal. A self-contained, upper-class suburban city, if you will. As the commercial ends, we are shown a young man and woman being given a tour of the Towers. Intercut with this, an older man strangles a young girl to death. As the guide gleefully sells the young couple on the quality of life afforded by the Towers, the older man slices open the body of the young woman and pours a bottle of acid into her abdomen. The sales pitch concludes and the couple walks away impressed. The older man slits his own throat.
The film takes its time telling us why we witnessed this murder-suicide. The older man was a scientist, a rather brilliant but philosophically inept researcher, who had been trying to find an alternative to standard organ transplantation. He had devised a plan to use special parasites, biological organisms that could be bred for the purpose of mimicking the behavior of ordinary, functioning organs. Or at least that’s what his colleagues and financial backers thought he was working on. What he was really doing with his time was creating what could best be described as parasitic MDMA, an organism which could rewire the impulse control system of its host. The murder of the young woman wasn’t an act of brutality. It was an attempt to contain the parasite that he knowingly infected her with. Unfortunately, the young woman had been making her way around the Towers, having sex with numerous men, and the infection has already begun to spread.
As the film goes on, many of the inhabitants fall prey to the parasitic infection. As a result, they begin to rape (and sometimes murder) the people they come across. The parasite is usually seen being transmitted through physical contact though there are numerous instances of the parasites being vomited out and at least one instance of it bursting from someone’s chest. Free of the host, they go about their business of crawling along the floors and, in one memorable scene, through a drain pipe into a bathtub. The parasites, in typical Cronenberg fashion, appear both fecal and phallic in design, just long, slithering brown masses. Not really frightening stuff but SHIVERS makes up for the look of the parasites in its use of bladder effects, one of the first movies to use that kind of practical effect. Seeing the parasites move around in the stomachs of the infected never fails to unnerve.
Despite its somewhat heady material, SHIVERS isn’t as serious a film as RABID, Cronenberg’s follow-up feature. The two films are thematically similar, both concerned with sexual revulsion, scientific mishaps and the overthrow of 1970s excess by the remnants of the 1960s free love movement. In every way, they are sister films and are best watched back-to-back. They inform and complete each other, and although RABID is undeniably the better film, SHIVERS is easily the more enjoyable of the two to watch. “Enjoyable to watch” is not something one normally says about a Cronenberg film but SHIVERS, an under budgeted first feature shot in about two weeks, has all the energy of a good B-movie with the benefit of actually being about something.
The finale of SHIVERS looks remarkably like your average zombie film. I’m not aware of how much of an influence (if any) George Romero had on Cronenberg when he made this film but I would be surprised if he did not have NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in mind when he scripted and directed the finale. Having recently watched LAND OF THE DEAD, Romero’s much maligned but ultimately great zombie epic, I was reminded of SHIVERS. Both films are about revolutions of sorts. In SHIVERS, it’s a sexual revolution. In LAND OF THE DEAD, it’s a revolution of the “have none”s against the “have plenty”s. Both films feature hermetically sealed, suburban utopias. In SHIVERS, it’s the Starliner Towers. In LAND OF THE DEAD, it’s the commercial complex called Fiddler’s Green. In both films, we’re introduced to these utopias through painfully sappy commercials highlighting the static, almost naïve existence that these upper middle class fortresses have to offer. Both films end with the repressed aggressors laying claim to the buildings.
This may all be coincidence. I have no idea. I do know that SHIVERS was an acknowledged influence on Dan O’Bannon when he was writing ALIEN and it shows. But more interesting is how all the seeds planted in SHIVERS grew as Cronenberg continued making films. You may need to be one of the Cronenberg faithful to really appreciate SHIVERS. It may be the reason I enjoy the film so much. But even if you’ve never seen THE FLY or NAKED LUNCH, never heard of DEAD RINGERS or SCANNERS, you will still be able to enjoy the B-movie freakshow Cronenberg puts on here. It’s an ambitious, flawed, deeply troubling and ultimately exhilarating piece of film.