Some filmmakers (and it would be unkind to name names) come out of the box slow, ramping up to their eventual skill, trying and often failing on their journey to find a consistent voice, or at least standard of quality. And some filmmakers break through the wall of their debut feature like the Kool-Aid Man, with their style and sensibility fully intact, clearly pointing the way to the work ahead of them. Quentin Tarantino did this, as did Sofia Coppola, and Wes Anderson, and Ryan Coogler. And in 1975, David Cronenberg released “Shivers” (newly available on Blu-ray, and streaming this month as part of the Criterion Channel’s “’70s Horror” spotlight), and showed us exactly the kind of artist he was going to be.
The entire film – lock, stock, and barrel – is set in Starliner Towers (a luxury apartment building on an island outside Montreal), which is introduced during the opening credits via an informational sales slide show. From frame one, we’re witnessing a filmmaker of startling narrative efficiency; he’s not only setting up the pleasantly vapid vibe that he’ll immediately disrupt, but slyly orienting viewers to the space where they’ll spend the next 87 minutes, as well as some of the amenities (parking garage, pool, storage, etc.) that he’ll later use for set pieces.
It all begins innocently enough, with a good-looking young couple strolling in to check out an apartment. But Cronenberg unsettles the viewer immediately, incongruently intercutting this pleasant transaction with what looks like an assault, by a grizzly bear of a man, on a young girl. The messaging is clear: the public face, what goes in the lobby, is often quite different than what’s happening behind closed doors. The jarring juxtapositions continue as the young woman, dressed in a schoolgirl outfit, is killed and sliced open by the older man, who then cuts his own throat – gory action intercut with another handsome young couple, current tenants, going about their morning rituals.
What the hell is going on here? Cronenberg waits a while to clobber us with exposition; the perpetrator of that murder/suicide was resident doctor in the building’s on-site medical clinic (they have to be self-sufficient, we’re told, since they’re on an island). Via his partner in the clinic, we find out what he was up to: creating “a parasite that can do something useful… a parasite that can take over the function of a human organ.” But he went a bit off the rails in that pursuit, ending up with “a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that will, hopefully, turn the world into one mindless orgy.”
And thus, this parasite, which makes its victims both murderous and horny, is on the loose in the building. The special effects are undeniably cheap – there are moments where you can literally see the string on the parasite puppet, which kind of looks like a bloody, lumpy eggplant. And yet that cheap goofiness is strangely endearing, and even when the effects fail him, Cronenberg leans on sheer horror craft: a rack focus back to a blood trail on the wall of the laundry room, the reveal of a body on the floor illuminated only by the eerie glow from the refrigerator’s inside light. You don’t need a budget to scare the hell out of people.
There is also a horrifying bathtub murder, which works in the much the same way the Psycho shower scene does, combining the element of sexuality with the sheer defenselessness and vulnerability of a woman (hell, anyone) in that particular moment. (It seems safe to assume that Wes Craven was inspired by this scene for a similarly memorable one in A Nightmare on Elm Street). Other moments betray the filmmaker’s influences, most notably the image of zombie figures stumbling through a nearby field, clearly drawn from Night of the Living Dead. But through much of the film, Cronenberg is already carving out his own niche; there’s a scene of an infected man vomiting up the parasite over the side of his balcony onto an old woman’s see-through umbrella, a gross-out moment so carefully constructed but so well executed that it plays in spite of how clearly you see it coming.
Much of the picture’s effectiveness is also rooted in its time and place. Cronenberg deftly plays on the encounter-group, touchy-feely, chatty-therapy lifestyle of the moment (much as Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake would, three years later), as well as the general unsettling sterility of this mid-‘70s aesthetic. These don’t look like settings for sci-fi/horror; these locations look like your office and your apartment. The briefly-borrowed quality of the locations, along with the anonymity of the actors and the cheap film stock, combine to give Shivers a peculiar, unexpected authenticity.
A thematic reading doesn’t require much effort; much of it plays as a worst-case-scenario for the sexual revolution, a warning of the dangers inherent in such freedom and hedonism. That’s not unusual in ‘70s horror – as has been noted, slasher movies often boil down to “psycho kills the hot, promiscuous girl with a stabby cock knife” – but the prurient danger of sex as the transmitter of a contagious, killer strain was, to put it mildly, a few years ahead of its time.
As Shivers plows into its wild third act, its tempo and feverish intensity increases, with the filmmaker intersecting sex and violence in increasingly gory, merciless, and upsetting ways. The resemblance between the film’s attacks on women by male zombies and the cinematic language for attacks by rapists isn’t accidental, and though there’s no shortage of violence against women in cinema of this period, the premise of this film gives that violence a punch that transcends simple exploitation. Cronenberg is hinting that this sexual violence is right under the surface of all men, merely waiting for an excuse to come out.
The closing images of Shivers are giddily bleak, and perhaps part of why it proved so upsetting to Canadian commentators upon its release (the partial funding of such an explicit film by the taxpayer-funded Canadian Film Development Corporation also provoked a fair amount of controversy). Little did they know they were witnessing the birth of one of the sui generis talents of his time, and from this first feature, he was showing us exactly what his work was going to explore: unnerving body horror, copious fluids, sexual discomfort, and pitch-black comedy. It’s a remarkable career, and Shivers is its road map.