Shivers (1975)
AKA They Came From Within, The Parasite Murders, Orgy of the Blood Parasites

Starring Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry, Allan Kolman, Susan Petrie, Barbara Steele, Ronald Mlodzik, Barry Baldaro

Directed by David Cronenberg

Expectations: I’ve been lukewarm on most of the Cronenberg I’ve seen, but I’m actually really pumped for this.

On the general scale:

On the B-movie scale:

Ah man, this one could have been great, but then Cronenberg had to ruin everything he had built up to go the “sex-crazed zombies” route. It’s by design, and I can understand why it is the way it is, but it was just too much for me to handle and I didn’t find the genre thrills compelling enough to override this feeling. The first half of the film is remarkably unsettling, though, creepy and over-the-top just enough, but as soon as it turns that corner, it leaves virtually all story behind in a wake of horny zombies jumping the bones of any non-infected person that happens by. But if that’s your thing, then this movie delivers so fully that you’ll be satisfied for days after.

The film opens with a wonderful slide-based commercial, detailing the features that Starliner Island boasts. The ad naturally leads us into the first scene of the film where a couple is being welcomed as new residents of the building. You might be tempted to think that these would be our main characters, but instead the more important couple comes in the scene that’s crosscut against this ho-hum apartment orientation. In that scene, a girl in a school uniform is attacked by an old man. He subdues her, slices open her stomach with a surgical scalpel, and then after digging around for a while, pours a shitload of acid into her body cavity. Oh, and then he slices his own throat with the scalpel. If there was any doubt that this was: A. a horror film, or B. a trashy horror film, then both were immediately dispelled. Cronenberg’s first commercial feature is full of life, death and more body horror than the Canadian government (who partly funded the film) could handle. It’s nothing compared to today’s depraved films, but for the time it’s definitely treading the line of bad taste.

So as I led with what I was disappointed with, let me switch gears to what I liked. The premise is brilliant. It shifts a bit after a key piece of information is uncovered, and this kind of killed the most interesting part of the premise for me, but regardless it’s still a damn good idea to base a film on. I won’t spoil it here, as you should really just see the movie, but let’s just say that it involves penis-like parasites implanted in a human host on purpose. This doesn’t go as planned — No shit! — and this eventually leads to the sex-crazed part of the film that I didn’t care all that much for. That’s not to say that there’s not a lot of great stuff peppered throughout that section, but it does feel like Cronenberg just kind of gave up trying to tell a story.

In a way, he did, just as the parasites infected the apartment dwellers and forced them to give up every societal restriction. You could argue that the film’s structure is specifically designed to mirror this change, and I’m almost positive that’s the case here, but even if it’s by design I still found it a bit boring to sit through. I don’t know what it says about me when these wild thrills designed specifically to titillate and engage a hungry audience only make me yawn, but I think it’s just a case of it being the wrong type of B-Movie juice for me. I’d much prefer a third act filled with non-stop scenes of parasites infecting humans and then murdering them from the inside or some such, but I’m sure there’s just as many people who would rather have the chaotic, building-wide sex orgy instead. To each his own, I suppose.

It does end on a ridiculously strong note, and one that I think cements the fact that the film’s structure is all by design. It’s here that despite all the trashy elements of Shivers, Cronenberg asserts himself as a confident, new director bursting onto the scene like a parasite climbing up the drain and burrowing itself into the vagina of a bathing woman. Hmm… perhaps not the best analogy to make, but I’m going with it! Cronenberg also shoots the film with great style, making me cringe, squirm and stomp my foot for a good portion of the film’s first half. Despite my issues, I can’t dismiss the fact that Shivers is quite impressive for a first feature. I haven’t yet seen anything he did between this and Scanners, but in Shivers I can definitely see the beginnings of the careful, and beautiful, composition seen in Scanners.

The FX are limited to many squirming parasites and not much else. The parasites are creepy and effective, but whatever fake blood they used on the humans looked pretty awful. It’s bright red, it looks like cheap paint, and it’s got to be one of the biggest flaws of the film. It’s shit like this that makes people not want to watch old movies. I know that obviously fake blood was the norm back then, but why? Surely people had seen real blood before, and they could distinguish the difference between it and horrible fake blood. I wonder if it had to do with the censors.

If you’re down for a trashy, creepy, squirmy, parasite-filled piece of work from one of cinema’s most celebrated genre filmmakers, then definitely give Shivers a go. It’s overall not a very good movie, and it features some really questionable acting at times, but it’s a lot of fun if you’re in the right frame of mind. I usually come away with some reservations, but I always enjoy Cronenberg’s work when I do see it. I look forward to checking out some more of his early, trashy work.