Shivers is our next entry in the Friday Night Frights series. Does the feature film debut of David Cronenberg come with all the director’s obsessions and quirks fully formed? You betcha.
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: David Cronenberg
Roger St. Luc: Roger Hampton
Nurse Forsythe: Lynn Lowry
Nicholas Tudor: Alan Migicovsky
Janine Tudor: Susan Petrie
Betts: Barbara Steele
DISCLAIMER: This entry must start off with a warning, since this is a horror film that traffics in issues of sexuality and violence. We will try not to delve too deep into these matters, but sensitive readers should be advised.
LONG LIVE THE NEW FLESH (wait, that’s a different movie)
Shivers is an interesting companion piece to last week’s Friday Night Fright, Demons 2. Both use hyper-modern, high-rise apartments as their settings and detail the infection and subsequent descent into violence of the apartment dwellers. But where Demons 2 is pure exploitation, Shivers is something much deeper. Shivers is David Cronenberg’s first feature film (it’s also some of the first production work from Ivan Reitman, who made a little film called Ghostbusters), and it is quite the ambitious debut. Shivers bears the alternate title Orgy of the Blood Parasites, which is the odd alternative title that is actually accurate. Shivers also evinces the obsessions which characterize much of Cronenberg’s work: body horror, disease, sexuality, consent, the dangers of unchecked science, the line between man and animal.
Body horror is one of the most off-putting of the horror subgenres. It addresses what is the most intimate and personal, the very stuff of our physical being. This makes it much more relatable than most horror tropes. Few people can say they’ve been stalked by a monstrous, spree-killing chainsaw wielder. No one has faced down a zombie apocalypse outside the safety of their computer or gaming console. But everyone knows the niggling sensation of wanting to scratch a scab before it has healed. Of seeing your own skin bubble up into blisters after a mere brush with a plant. Or worrying whether your mole is two millimeters larger than last month. This is the stuff of real horror, and seeing it magnified on the big screen can be one of the most visceral (pun intended) cinematic experiences. David Cronenberg is the godfather of this genre for a reason, and it’s easy to see why with Shivers.
“DISEASE IS THE LOVE OF TWO ALIEN KINDS OF CREATURES FOR EACH OTHER”
Shivers opens with a slide show expressing the virtues of the (excellently named) Starliner Towers apartment complex, immediately laying out the film’s cynical view of the aspirational yuppie lifestyle. The following scene juxtaposes a couple being sold an apartment with a James Lipton-looking guy assaulting a schoolgirl without any context. It is immediately jarring and disturbing, especially given the total lack of dialogue in the latter cuts. It’s as confident and disturbing an opening as you’ll ever see from a first time director. You can already see the seeds of his talent growing from that first sequence. It becomes apparent that James Lipton (it’s not James Lipton) was developing some sort of parasite, ostensibly meant to replace damaged organs in the human body. Of course, what ends up being described as both “an aphrodisiac and a venereal disease” ends up infecting most of the entire complex, despite the best efforts of Dr. Roger St. Luc and his erstwhile Nurse Forsythe. By film’s end, most of the characters have been reduced to violent, sex-seeking zombies. The last sequence, which finds St. Luc wandering through an apartment complex rife with horrible perversions, is surely one that will stick uncomfortably with a viewer for some time.
Much like Demons 2, the characters in Shivers are mostly an afterthought. Cronenberg’s films can often seem icily remote, clinical, as a counterpoint to their fleshy obsessions. His protagonists are usually cerebral scientists and doctors, or people who have in some way lost touch with their basic humanity. This is the biggest problem with Shivers, as the lack of a sympathetic protagonist robs some of the tension, in turn causing pacing problems. However, the film is strikingly shot, with plenty of interesting visuals and enough memorable set-pieces to make the film worth watching. It’s about atmosphere and theme rather than an insightful look into any of character’s motivations, and Cronenberg can do atmosphere. If he decided to gleefully wallow in the gore, Shivers would tip the line into exploitation, rather than exploration. It is that clinical, removed eye that gives Shivers its power.
BOTTOM LINE: SHIVERS AIN’T COLD, IT WAS HOT FROM THE START
David Cronenberg is considered a master of horror for good reason. Videodrome, The Fly, Scanners – these are all much more polished pieces, but they all are variations on themes laid down in Shivers. It is not a comfortable film, by design. There are elements, sometimes as brief as a shot, that will invariably cross the line for one viewer or another. And that is Cronenberg’s intent. For all the horror and ugliness in this film, aside from the science fictional aspects, it’s nothing that humans haven’t done to other humans in real life. Cronenberg wants to lay bare the shrieking animal in each human that is barely covered up by the thin sheen of civilization. It’s not pleasant, but it may be an important lesson. Shivers features eight bodies (at least), four episodes of blood puking, Barbecue Fork Fu, Plier Fu, Crowbar Fu, inappropriate crepe eating, one T-boned car, throat slashing, strangulation, multiple parasites to the face, and one of the best monologues ever from Lynn Lowry, who plays crazy here and is most notable for playing another great crazy in, you guessed it, The Crazies. Check it out.