Hooptober 2022 #18: Shivers (1975)

After watching The Brood, I knew I had to watch David Cronenberg’s Shivers. It’s the only one of his horror films I hadn’t seen. Part of the fun with Hooptober is in watching films you haven’t seen. So why not knock off a Cronenberg on my to watch list?

Shivers occupies a unique space in his filmography. While not his first feature length film, it’s his first film released for a commercial audience. Per Cronenberg, his shift from experimental films, like Stereo and the original Crimes of the Future, to commercial features was driven by wanting to make a living. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be pragmatic about making art.

So what did a 32 year old Cronenberg think audiences wanted to see? Cronenberg was actually correct in thinking people wanted to see the orgiastic end of mankind. Shivers, at the time of its release, was the most profitable Canadian film of all time. It was also considered one of the most offensive Canadian films of all time in its release. The film falls into a genre of science fiction prevalent in the late 60s and 70s. Stories filled that era about habitats that met mankind’s needs simultaneously as skyscrapers, malls, and apartment buildings. Then those places eventually imploded. In fact when I wrote this piece, I wondered if Cronenberg took inspiration from J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise only to learn they came out the same year.

Shivers takes place in the Starliner Apartments. A sales montage at the beginning tells us all we need to know. The building holds apartments, shops, and offices. There’s ample underground parking . It sits isolated on Starline Island, about an hour from Montreal. What the montage doesn’t tell us is that inside the building, a Dr. Hobbes created a new parasite meant to mimic human organs. He tests this on a young woman. However, the parasite drives the host into a sexual frenzy and the parasite can be transmitted sexually. Hobbes kills both the girl and the parasite. Then Hobbes kills himself. The problem though is this woman slept with multiple men who now coincidentally don’t feel too well.

Cronenberg in his first commercial film isn’t the director we know now. There’s hints of it in the setting and the slug like parasites that attack people. When scientist Rollo Linsky describes Dr. Hobbes theories, like any Cronenberg scientist, it’s with pure excitement in the possibility and not in horror at what’s been unleashed. Still this is a man working for exploitation films (and future Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman). The actors here seem like locals with the obvious exception of horror legend Barbara Steele. Steele is great as single lady Betts. Still you know the budget is low when she’s only in the movie for 5 minutes at most. Sex and violence are on display in ways Cronenberg would leave behind very quickly. Sex in future Cronenberg movies has a transformative quality. That’s still present here but the sex is more lurid and there’s a genuine fear of it. The roving packs of sex fiends come across as bringing to life the fears of the free love movement. The film ends with the now infected tenants leaving for the mainland hinting at a sexual apocalypse.

Something that struck me watching was that I wanted to know Cronenberg’s thoughts on George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. That landmark film obviously influenced many films. Still between Shivers and his follow up Rabid, Cronenberg clearly saw something in that film’s story. Given his fascination with diseases and transformation, it makes sense. Also given that Night Living of the Living Dead was very commercially successful, a young filmmaker with an interest in genre might see it as a means to mainstream some of his more radical ideas. A quick Google search doesn’t pull up any mentions of the film by Cronenberg. Still there is something fitting about George Romero three years after Shivers setting his film Dawn of the Dead in a mall.

Watching Shivers takes a bit of adjustment. This is far from the director’s best work. Yet hints of that greatness are in there. This is a director trying things out and realizing what he wants out of filmmaking. If he can also freak out a few squares in the process, why not?

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