Shivers was the first full-length feature from David Cronenberg, who like many young genre directors of the 70s, broke into the business with a self-penned script and as much stylistic moxie as a limited budget and a tight fifteen-day shooting schedule would allow.
Starliner Towers is a self sustaining, ever so sleek apartment complex with all of the amenities the modern, upwardly mobile could ever need. Situated on an island, on site shopping, sports and medical care are all included in the purchase cost. Unfortunately, a medical experiment gone amok is included with the stunning seaside views and Olympic size pool.
One of the complex’s medical professionals has used grant funds to create a parasite that is savagely self replicating. Rather than the replacement for organ transplants it was billed as, this organism turns the infected into erotically crazed agents of the id, helpless to control their baser impulses. Now staff doctor Roger St Luc (Paul Hampton) and his nurse/lover Forsythe (genre favorite Lynn Lowry) must try to stop the spread before it infects the entire building.
The baseline plot is the purest of exploitation, Night Of The Living Dead with a different sort of one-track mind. The visuals are also somewhat workmanlike through most of the runtime, with both visual elements and cost cutting measures familiar to fans of other lower budget productions of the period. There’s plenty of expositional radio broadcasts and phone calls, occasional bouts of nudity that have a certain shoehorned in irrelevance to the plot, and the well crafted special effects are parceled out carefully to a few key scenes.
This is not to say that Shivers is completely without aesthetic merit, particularly considering the fact that the director was basically learning how to direct as he went along. There are hints of the filmmaker Cronenberg was to become, both in the clinical coolness of the film’s gaze and the bodily distortion of the parasite’s victims. Joe Blasco’s effects work gives the parasites a simultaneously phallic and leech-like aspect. While the wirework is visible in the moments when the creatures are on the move (particularly in this newly restored print), the distention of the actors bodies as the parasites lurk and multiply under the skin is a smaller scale version of the sort of disquieting body horror that would later become a Cronenberg signature.
Also See: Script to Pieces: David Cronenberg’s Frankenstein
What pushes Shivers into much more memorable territory is the conceptual ambition of its premise. There is a wonderfully clever subtext of bourgeois respectability hiding deeply disordered behavior and perversion just beneath its manicured surface. There’s an almost Gothic correlation between eroticism and death, built up slowly as we see the effect of infection on different groups of residents. This thematic throughline culminates in a fantastic statement monolog for Lynn Lowry in the film’s final act.
Where the film becomes absolutely brilliant is the legerdemain used in maximizing the disorienting intersection of sex and violence the parasitic infection creates. Shivers is far less explicit in its sexuality or its gore than many of its contemporaries, but is a masterclass in the art of the suggestive.
An elevator door closes just as a mother and child are infected, and opens to the child’s glassy-eyed stare as she voraciously eats some mangled food. A man walks two children on leashes. One of the earliest victims earnestly encourages the parasites inside him to move in a specific rhythm as earnestly as an eager to please lover. Throats bulge unnaturally as kisses pass the parasite along. The cuts are quick, the scenes brief, but the insinuation so incredibly effective at creating an air of perversity that a storm of controversy surrounded the movie’s release.
The film had been partially funded via a Canadian government grant, and the public was shocked their tax dollars were used for such a reputedly “pornographic” movie. The controversy didn’t derail Shivers at the box office, but did temporarily dampen David Cronenberg’s ability to secure funding for his future films.
The Vestron Video Blu Ray is a squeaky clean high definition presentation. As is often the case with older low budget features, production errors are more visibly apparent than they were previously, due to improved color contrast and brightness, but it doesn’t detract from the overall experience of the film. The audio mix of the movie is much improved over previous prints, with the original mono audio as clean and clear as it is likely ever going to get.
Where this release really shines is in an impressive package of brand new special features for this collector’s edition. Both Cronenberg himself and producer Don Carmody get full length feature commentaries. Over four decades after the film’s release, both men provide a surprising amount of on set anecdotes regarding Cronenberg’s on-the-job learning process, and a key scene that left him with an unfortunate lifelong souvenir.
There are also four featurettes. There’s another in depth interview with David Cronenberg, a charming retrospective interview with Lynn Lowry, and a look back on production company Cinepix and the tax breaks that gave rise to a cottage industry of Canadian genre film. There’s also a delightfully no nonsense discussion of the screen used techniques and props created by effects supervisor Joe Blasco. A full slate of archival materials completes the set, including director interviews, radio and TV ads, original stills, and trailers.
Shivers is a directional masterpiece of exploitation cinema, still surprisingly capable of a uniquely chilly brand of lurid disquiet after almost five decades. The film does have some minor flaws and limitations caused by its lack of resources, but provides a unique and recognizable glimpse into the early process of one of genre film’s most distinctive directors. With Shivers, David Cronenberg created a shot on the fly first try that exceeds lesser talents best efforts. Vestron Video has surrounded the film with an excellent suite of supplemental materials that makes this particular Blu a smart choice not just for Cronenberg fans, but for any lover of film history, Canuxploitation, or the classics of low budget genre cinema.
Wicked Rating – 8.5/10