Shivers (1975)

Rating: C+

Dir: David Cronenberg
Star: Paul Hampton, Barbara Steele, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry
a.k.a. They Came From Within

Cronenberg’s first commercial feature centers on an apartment complex on an island, into which a parasite is launched by the insane Dr. Emil Hobbes. He had been experimenting with the use of such creatures as replacements for human organs, but came to believe that our species had become over-rational and needed to be brought back in touch with its instincts. Hence the parasite, which provokes its host into sexual abandon. He implants one in his teenage mistress, who spreads it among the residents of the complex, and it’s up the apartments’ resident physician Dr. Roger St. Luc (Hampton) and his nurse/girlfriend (Lowry), to stop the infestation before it can get off the island and spread to the rest of Montreal.

It’s safe to say that Cronenberg hit the ground running, with the theme of ‘body horror’ permeating this, as it would most of hit output over the next 25 years. “Long live the new flesh,” to borrow a quote from Videodrome, and Cronenberg has said that identifies more here with the victims after they have been infected than before. It does certainly come across as a bleak piece of cinema, with few appealing characters or hope. Even St. Luc doesn’t have a great deal of personality or humanity, and one senses that it’s only fortune that stops him from becoming a victim. The most memorable scene has 60’s horror-icon Steele taking a bath – she must be the only person in the last fifty year to do so without oil or bubble-bath, a conveniet necessity which allows the audience to see the phallic parasite push through the plughole and head up between her legs.

Much of the rest of the film similarly depicts the cycle of infection and reaction; there are some creepy moments as a result, not least a mother and young daughter being assaulted in an elevator, yet I can’t help thinking the original shooting title was better: Orgy of the Blood Parasites. It’s a concept that needs less restraint than Cronenberg delivers here, though it was still controversial enough at the time to get questions asked in the Canadian parliament, a result of the movie’s partial funding by taxpayers there. Personally, I’d have no problems with my money going towards something like this: certainly beats most public arts projects.