David Cronenberg is a hugely respected and admired filmmaker, with a catalogue of festival awards and critical and box office success. He attracts A-list talent for his movies, which are always thought-provoking and met with wide intellectual appreciation.
But this was not always the case.
Once upon a time, he was a Canadian hopeful with a couple of 60-minute experimental films to his name shopping around a script entitled, Orgy of the Blood Parasites. After a multi-year battle for funding, he finally got it made. And the result was Shivers, his debut feature film, a grubby b-movie loaded with sex and gore…and some sneaky high-brow ideas.
On the surface, Shivers is a typical lurid low-budget genre flick, albeit one with a lot of originality. The movie begins with a slideshow and narration introducing Starliner Apartments, an exclusive and self-contained high rise complete with its own shopping and medical centre. It is the most modern utopia.
Immediately, we then see a young woman brutally murdered by an older man who proceeds to tape up her mouth and cut open her abdomen before slitting his own throat. It is a jarring, shocking start and sets the unnerving tone that the film maintains relentlessly.
The story is of a medical experiment gone wrong. A parasite designed to lower inhibitions and introduce a new hedonistic world runs riot in the building, infecting people and turning them into violently sex-crazed zombies. The parasite – a phallic slug-like creature – is passed through any orifice from host to host or it can crawl around and seek its own prey.
Against the spreading infection is the building’s resident doctor Roger St Luc (Paul Hampton) and Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry) as they try to first understand the threat, then escape it.
Shivers is resolutely exploitation cinema. There is loads of nudity, lesbianism, incest, rape, stabbings, shootings and more. The filming is workmanlike at best, the acting mostly wooden. However, there is a vein of intelligence and originality that raises this above the level of mere schlock.
Cronenberg’s Starliner Apartments is a microcosm of middle class ease, but also of restraint. As the tenants become infected and begin having sex with each other, lines dissolve. It culminates in a mass of flesh in the building’s indoor swimming pool and the sterile, cubicle-like environment is suddenly very different.
But what is especially unusual is that Cronenberg plays the film with a distance. We are not told how to feel about this. Are the people enslaved to desire and dangerous, or are they freed from societal restrictions and happy? There is plenty of evidence both ways. This is the real trump card here, as it forces the audience to assess its own morality, its own worldview.
Shivers may be ragged and populated with cardboard characters, but it is a clear calling card introduction to the man who would become one of the masters of cinema. A B-movie with an A+ intelligence.
There are two extras, being an interview with David Cronenberg and a TV episode on the making of the film. The interview is somewhat spurious as the information therein also turns up in the TV episode, but it is interesting to hear how the film was something of a scandal in its native land. Partially funded with Government grant money, Shivers was lambasted by a prominent local critic and ended up being debated in Parliament. Until, Cronenberg notes slyly, the film turned a profit, then nobody seemed to mind how the tax dollars were spent.
The TV special includes interviews with many of the key players including producer Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Ghostbusters) and co-star and horror royalty Barbara Steele, brought on board to lend the film a bit of horror pedigree. It covers a lot of ground from the script’s inception, to the possibility of Johnathon Demme (Silence of the Lambs) directing, through to production and release.