Shivers (or to give it its original US title They Came from Within) was David Cronenberg’s first real feature film. Many of the obsessions that run through his work can be seen in this movie so it has perhaps some mild historical interest for that reason. Unfortunately it’s an unbelievably bad movie so if you’re not a Cronenberg completist avoid this one.
I happen to be a major fan of Cronenberg’s work. I consider both Crash and Dead Ringers to be masterpieces. Shivers is simply an embarrassment. In an interview on the DVD Cronenberg admits that his early films were heavily influenced by American underground movies. And Shivers has all the hallmarks of a underground movie - excruciatingly bad acting, inept editing, a flat visual style, a penchant for cheap shocks and a generally infantile tone.
The setting is an ultra-modern (by 1975 standards) apartment building on an island in the St Lawrence River in Montreal. The Starliner is more than just an apartment block though - it’s an entire town in miniature with its own shops, its own medical centre, etc. Were presumably supposed to see this as some kind of comment on the evils of modernist architecture and capitalism.
The doctors at the medical centre have been conducting experiments with parasites. On of the more deranged of these medicos has a theory that parasites can be created that will be over to take over the functions of damaged bodily organs thus making organ transplants unnecessary. Of course these parasites have escaped into the building, and they apparently have the effect of making people sex-crazed.
Cronenberg explains in his interview that he’s a firm believe in not implying anything - all the horror should be shown. Shivers is a classic example of the drawbacks of that approach. When your monsters look too silly to be scary your only option is to try to gross the audience out. The results are almost invariably, as in this case, tedious.
There are some good ideas here, but the film has no dramatic tension, no suspense, no surprises, no unexpected twists. Just a series of gross but silly images.
For a movie that concerns itself with parasites that supposedly drive their victims to sexual frenzy it’s also curiously un-erotic. Later in his career Cronenberg became very good indeed at depicting disturbing aberrant eroticism but sadly there’s no trace of that quality here. Even Lynn Lowry (who had demonstrated in Radley Metzger’s Score the previous year that she could be very disturbingly sexy indeed) fails to generate much excitement, even when she takes her clothes off in a desperate attempt to keep the audience interested.
Cronenberg even gets a dull performance out of Barbara Steele.
Cronenberg and Kim Newman, in discussing the movie, use the words transgressive and subversive a lot. They’re great words, but all too often in practice they end up being things that 19-year-old film students think will shock their parents. And Cronenberg was 32 when he made the movie, which is a bit embarrassing.
I haven’t changed my opinion on Cronenberg. I still think he’s one of the best and most interesting of modern horror directors. Everyone is entitled to one bad movie and its always good to get it over with early in your career. One does have to feel a bit sorry for the Canadian taxpayers who financed this clunker.
The Prism Region 2 DVD suffers from atrocious sound quality, but given that this was a low-budget movie that may be a problem with the source material rather than the DVD. And the dialogue is so awful that most of the time not being able to understand it is actually an advantage.