SHIVERS (1975) Reviews and overview

 

Shivers is being released on Blu-ray as part of the Vestron Video collection in September. This is a MOVIES and MANIA fave and one of the first films that site owner/editor Adrian J Smith saw as an ‘X’ certificate release with David Cronenberg’s Rabid in a tatty cinema in Rawtenstall, Lancashire. The low-budget body-horror classic is a must-have for horror fans.

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‘Being terrified is just the beginning…’

Shivers is a 1975 Canadian science fiction horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg (Naked Lunch; Dead RingersThe Fly; The Dead Zone; VideodromeRabid). The movie stars Barbara Steele, Paul Hampton, Joe Silver and Lynn Lowry.

The movie was filmed as Orgy of the Blood Parasites and has also been released as The Parasite MurdersThey Came from Within, and, for its French Canadian distribution, Frissons.

The cheap yet highly effective monster and makeup effects were created by Joe Blasco.

Plot:

A young couple is welcomed as residents to exclusive Starliner Towers on Nuns’ Island.

Meanwhile, Doctor Hobbes is seen murdering his prostitute mistress by strangling her, then cutting open her stomach and pouring acid into her body to kill the parasites, before committing suicide by slashing his own throat. Partway into the story, the audience learns the reason for Hobbes’s actions…

Shivers David Cronenberg Arrow Video Blu-ray

Buy Blu-ray + DVD or Steelbook from Amazon.co.uk

New High Definition Digital Transfer supervised and approved by writer-director David Cronenberg

High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation

Original mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)

Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

Parasite Memories: The Making of Shivers – A brand new documentary featuring interviews with stars Barbara Steele, Allan Kolman and Lynn Lowry, special effects genius Joe Blasco and film critic Kier-La Janisse

On-Screen! – An episode of the Canadian television programme which documents the release history of Shivers, featuring interviews with Cronenberg, co-producer Don Carmody, as well as other cast and crew

From Stereo to Video – A specially-commissioned video essay by Caelum Vatnsdal, author of They Came from Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema, charting Cronenberg’s career from his experimental beginnings through to Videodrome, his first major studio picture

Original Theatrical Trailer

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned (awful!) artwork by Nat Marsh

Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing on the film by Paul Corupe, creator of the Canuxploitation website, reprinted excerpts of Cronenberg on Cronenberg and more, illustrated with original archive stills and posters

“Cronenberg began to market a feature script called Orgy of the Blood Parasites in order to break into big time movie-making. He eventually hooked up with John Dunning and Andre Link at Cinepix in Montreal, and after holding off for three years, the Canadian Film Development Corporation decided to take a chance on the neophyte director. With Ivan Reitman (fresh off Cannibal Girls) as the producer and a $100,000 budget, the film, now retitled The Parasite Murders (and eventually Shivers), was finally brought to fruition.

Then the sh*t hit the fan. Robert Fulford, writing under the alias of Marshall Delaney, absolutely savaged the film in his Saturday Night magazine review: “(The film) is a disgrace to everyone connected with it including the taxpayers,” he ranted.” Canuxploitation.com

Buy They Came from Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema book from:

Amazon.ca | Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

Review:

Shivers is the film that put David Cronenberg on the map. Not his first feature, as many claim (unless you think that the 65-minute Stereo and 70-minute Crimes of the Future don’t count as feature-length), but certainly his first commercial movie, and the one that set the template for the director’s unique take on body horror that ran through the first half of his career.

It’s also one of the seminal horror films of the 1970s – possibly, I would say, the best of the early Seventies horror revolution after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Yet Cronenberg in general and Shivers in particular always stood aside from the other films and filmmakers of the new horror generation. Despite their liberal politics and social message subtexts, directors such as George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter were essentially conservative in their approach to horror and sexuality. Promiscuity in films such as Halloween and Last House on the Left is essentially punished; infection in Romero’s Dead series is an apocalyptic judgement.

Cronenberg was taking a different approach in this film, which is the inverse of Night of the Living Dead. The characters in Shivers seem to essentially be zombies when the film starts, living empty, plastic lives; the infection is a liberation. This isn’t about a virus that wants to destroy, but to breed. Romero’s zombies and crazies want to kill us, but Cronenberg’s infected want to fuck us. No wonder the film upset so many people – it’s not the violence but the sexuality that challenges here. In Cronenberg’s film, the normal world is the button-down 1950s and the parasites are bringing in the sexually liberated Sixties and Seventies. It’s notable that for all the sense of threat the film has on the surface, the person who does most of the killing in the film is our supposed hero.

Shivers opens with a slick, hard-sell promotional commercial for Starliner Towers, a luxury tower block that effectively exists as a small, insular town, complete with its own medical facilities, golf courses and swimming pool. It’s a masterstroke from Cronenberg, allowing him the scope to tell a classic small-town takeover story (the sort we’ve seen in films from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Crazies) but to contain it all within a single location, making it much more claustrophobic and cut off. It also shows immediately the sterile world that the characters occupy. Like any gated community, it’s a place that likes to pretend that the rest of the world is another planet. And like any insular community, it has its dark secrets. In this case, it’s Doctor Emil Hobbes, who we see violently attacking a young girl.

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Immediately, the film sets out to unsettle. The young woman, Annabelle, is wearing a school uniform. That her skirt rides up to reveal her skimpy underwear might seem a crass and exploitative move normally, as would the subsequent moment where the unconscious girl has her shirt ripped open. But here, it feels like a deliberate provocation. Cronenberg angles the camera to reveal her bare breasts – yet she is simultaneously being slit open and acid is being poured into her stomach. Sex and violence are blended in an uncomfortable way here, and it’s far from simply exploitation. It’s the first of a number of taboo elements in the film where Cronenberg sets out to deliberately make us feel uncomfortable, and often, the imagery is more unsettling today than it was at the time.

It turns out that Hobbes has been breeding a new parasite, designed to liberate the hosts sexually, and Annabelle was the test subject. Unfortunately, she was also a popular young woman around the building, and several men have come down with unexplained, free-moving abdominal lumps.

If the film has a weakness, it’s the perhaps inevitable telegraphing of infection. Alan Migicovsky as Nicholas Tudor, one of the first infected by the girl, seems to develop his symptoms slowly, over days perhaps, yet by the end of the film, people are ‘turned’ the moment that the parasite enters the body (and while usually transmitted mouth to mouth, the bugs are able to survive outside the body and launch themselves at unsuspecting victims). The narrative, of course, demands rapid infection, but it does raise eyebrows from time to time.

The parasites rapidly spread throughout the building, and soon, it seems only Doctor Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) is uninfected. St. Luc is a classic 1970s horror hero – hapless, useless and continually making the wrong choices. More significantly for the film, he’s the one who seems most in need of liberation. Early in the movie, he watches dispassionately as attractive Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry, very much the queen of early Seventies viral horror, having starred in this, I Drink Your Blood and The Crazies in a few short years) strips in front of him – he might as well be watching her do the dishes for all the interest he shows, and her attempts at romance and seduction are brushed off. When he is finally surrounded and given the kiss that will transfer a parasite, it feels more like a moment of celebration than a final scene of horror. The good guys, it seems, have won after all.

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It might be a step too far to refer to Shivers as an erotic film – it’s certainly structured like a horror movie, and I suspect for many viewers, the whole idea remains a terrifying one. Yet this is a film that subverts the usual horror movie tropes. You can watch it as a straight-ahead alien takeover/end of civilisation movie if you so wish, but it’s actually quite the opposite. The infected are not aiming to destroy humanity, they just want to instigate one massive love-in. It’s the uninfected who are the violent ones, Tudor excepted perhaps (and his one killing is more an act of desperation to save his parasite ‘babies’). Hobbes kills Annabelle because his experiment worked too well; St. Luc kills several people throughout the movie (and this is the only time he shows any sense of passion, interestingly). Hobbes and St. Luc are like the censors, the moralists and the puritans, trying to stop the spread of the ‘permissive society’. They are not heroic figures within the context of the film.

Shivers still holds up very well today. It’s cheap-looking, certainly, and the low budget grittiness sometimes clashes with the pristine nature of the restoration (you can now see the wires pulling the parasites along!), however, that classic 1970s low rent, seat-of-the-pants style also gives the film a certain edge that ensures it is more authentic than a slicker movie might have been. This almost guerilla filmmaker look is complemented by the acting and dialogue, much of which has the naturalistic style you’d more naturally associate with Cassavetes than horror cinema.

Cronenberg’s early films are often criticised for having weak leading men, and certainly, Hampton is not the world’s most dynamic actor – but this suits the character here, given how emotionally dead he is supposed to be. And he’s backed by great turns from Joe Silver and Ronald Mlodzik, both Cronenberg regulars in these early films.

There are strong female characters. Lowry is excellent here, delivering the film’s famous “even dying is an act of eroticism” monologue with great style and allowing her to shift from ‘normal’ to ‘infected’ to take place almost imperceptively. Barbara Steele might have seemed a risk to include, given her horror rep, but this is a decade after her Italian Gothics, meaning she doesn’t have that immediate sense of association, and she’s impressive here, while Susan Petrie – who Cronenberg famously had to slap to get to an emotional place – brings more strength to her put-upon housewife role than you would expect. And the small parts all add to the film, creating sinister, creepy characters with their few moments of screen time. It’s only at the end of the film, where some of them start to go all Night of the Living Dead, that you feel Cronenberg should’ve perhaps had a tighter grip on performances (or at least cut a couple of shots and removed the distracting zombie crowd murmur from the soundtrack).

This brief moment aside, Cronenberg directs with real style – he keeps the action flowing but knows when to slow it down, he produces some great set pieces (a car wreck scene prefigures his later film Crash) and injects just the right amount of humour into the story.

Joe Blasco’s ground-breaking special effects still hold up today, and the parasites – looking like a cross between a penis (especially in the infamous bathtub scene) and a turd – transcend the crudeness of construction to remain thoroughly revolting. Cronenberg’s use of library music is also excellent – the film’s main theme is better than most commissioned film music. There are a few continuity issues of course – as much artistic licence as blunders – and the film certainly doesn’t have the slickness of his later work, but for a first commercial movie, this must rank amongst the very best.

Shivers shows the beginnings of a filmmaker with bold and original ideas, a sense of style and a willingness to push at the boundaries of what commercial cinema will allow. Looking at it now, it’s at once a million miles away from and directly connected to modern-day Cronenberg. And it remains one of the genre greats.

David Flint, guest reviewer via The Reprobate

Other reviews:

” …as a film it’s an integral part of David Cronenberg’s filmography and although it is crudely put together it makes for a more interesting and entertaining film than Romero’s The Crazies – which toys with some similarly uncomfortable themes – or Rabid, Cronenberg’s follow-up film. A flawed but impressive debut that still manages to make you feel slightly grubby nearly 40 years later.” Ancient Slumber

“These creatures don’t care about Body Snatching. It’s the mind they snatch, out of the superficial shell of social constraints that imprisons Starliner’s tenants. Once all that pesky “sexual assault” business is out of the way, is the New Parasitic World Order really so bad? All ages, classes, races, and creeds seem united behind screwing each other’s brains out as never before in human history.” And You Thought It Was… Safe (?)

“The movie is rather cheaply made, but Cronenberg does an effective job with what he has. The little slugs that somehow can jump, sometimes burn, and latch on to their victims resemble the monsters in later films like Slither (which borrows a few scenes from here) and Night of the Creeps… it would have been interesting how the filmed would have looked with a bigger budget, but its low-cost also amplifies the horror.” Basement Rejects

“Predominantly shot from low wide angles, the camera barely moves and the editing and framing are simple and unobtrusive. This creates an almost documentary look to the film, further heightening its sense of realism. As the blood and parasite flesh begins to violate the ordered frame of Cronenberg’s camera, the audience cannot help but feel they are witnessing actual events.” Cinema Autopsy

“Some people have taken the film too seriously, comparing it to Night of the Living Dead and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but Cronenberg, a former experimental/underground filmmaker is having his own weird joke at the genre’s expense. They Came from Within sends up the traditions of old sf/horror films and as such is good clean fun.” John Brosnan, Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction, St. Martin’s Press, 1978

“Drawing on his own fascinations, fixations and fears on the dangerous link between desire and disease, society as a colossal bureaucracy, and his country’s historical medical atrocities, Cronenberg created a ground-breaking sci-fi that remains both chilling and compelling, a fascinating, frightening new take on the old mad scientist character, and the film that set the blueprint for the director’s dark delving into body horror in his latter work…” Kultguy’s Keep

“There is the tendency among critics to read Shivers in terms of the complex metaphors about sex and the fusion of flesh and science that developed markedly throughout David Cronenberg’s later films. It is perhaps a mistake to over-analyse Shivers in this sense as it is intended as no more than a good solid horror movie. Certainly, Shivers is a gleeful dive into taboo-breaking upon Cronenberg’s part…” Moria

“Interestingly because Shivers came early on in Cronenberg’s career and because this didn’t have a big budget it has acting which isn’t that great. It also doesn’t have fleshed out characters with many just there to be victims. As such when the movie is over you find yourself forgetting who was in it and who the characters were but know you want to watch it again.” The Movie Scene

“It’s apparent that someone connected with They Came From Within has an impertinent sense of humor even though the film is so tackily written and directed, so darkly photographed and the sound so dimly recorded, that it’s difficult to stay with it.” Vincent Canby, The New York Times, July 7, 1976

“Horror movies by their very nature should be horrible, and Shivers certainly is. A combination of confrontational images, cinematic artistry, black humour and low-budget invention is a winning one. Shivers is an intelligent horror film that made me sit up and think “Wow”, this guy is really going for the jugular!” John Costello, The Pocket Essential: David Cronenberg, 2000

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“Despite the low budget and some amateurish acting, Cronenberg (who also wrote the screenplay) succeeds in creating a stinging rebuke to the swinging 70s. The film is helped immensely by Joe Blasco’s wondrously repulsive make-up effects. One can’t help but notice (as Cronenberg himself has pointed out), there are more than a few similarities between this and Alien.” The Terror Trap

“Cronenberg’s brand of body horror isn’t to everyone’s taste, but to call him a reactionary anti-sensualist who metes out grotesque punishment for sins of the flesh — as detractors have — is to miss the point. His beat is the underbelly of the mind-body schism, and illness as a metaphor is his stock in trade. It’s no great leap to make the argument that a libido-liberating sex parasite is just what the residents of Starliner Towers need to shake them out of their prefab anomie.” TV Guide

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” …questions were asked as to whether or not the Canadian government should be helping to fund such ‘trash’. Completely missing the films core points about repression and the lack of intimacy within modern communities, these critics would also miss the films streak of jet black humour. Cronenberg is often viewed as an overtly serious filmmaker but many of his films are laced with a wicked sense of humour that underlines the darker principles at work.” UK Horror Scene

“Cronenberg’s first proper feature film is a now-notorious classic in his repertoire, covering many of the themes of later horror movies: Body-horror […] some social commentary, bizarre special-effects and dark obsessions […] Gritty, raw, disturbing and strange, but simple, and with only a thin plot backing up the sex-body-horror.” The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

David Cronenberg Interviews with Serge Grunberg book

David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grünberg – Buy Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk

Cast and characters:

Paul Hampton … Roger St. Luc
Joe Silver … Rollo Linsky
Lynn Lowry … Nurse Forsythe
Allan Kolman … Nicholas Tudor (as Alan Migicovsky)
Susan Petrie … Janine Tudor
Barbara Steele … Betts
Ronald Mlodzik … Merrick
Barry Baldaro … Detective Heller (as Barry Boldero)
Camil Ducharme … Mr Guilbault (as Camille Ducharme)
Hanna Poznanska … Mrs Guilbault (as Hanka Posnanska)
Wally Martin … Doorman
Vlasta Vrana … Kresimer Sviben
Silvie Debois … Benda Sviben
Charles Perley … Delivery Boy
Al Rochman … Parkins
Julie Wildman … Miss Lewis
Arthur Grosser … Mr Wolfe
Edith Johnson … Olive
Dorothy Davis … Vi
Joy Coghill … Mona Wheatley
Joan Blackman … Elevator Mother
Kirsten Bishop … Elevator Daughter (as Kirsten Bishopric)
Fred Doederlein … Emil Hobbes
Sonny Forbes … Garbage Room Man
Nora Johnson … Laundry Woman
Cathy Graham … Annabelle
Robert Brennen … Boy
Felicia Shulman … Girl
Roy Wittan … Bearded Man (as Roy Whittan)
Denis Payne … First Elevator Man
Kevin Fenlow … Second Elevator Man
David Cronenberg … Infected Crowd Member / Stabbed Shoulder (uncredited)

Technical details:

87 minutes
Aspect ratio: 1.66: 1
Audio: Mono

Trailer:

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