BBFC Classification: 18
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Paul Hampton, Lynn Lowry, Joe Silver, Barbara Steele, Susan Petrie
Looking back at the early works of an auteur is like going back through the back catalogue of a band with a considerable history; you have your favourite works, the works that are considered ‘the classics’ and usually some stuff that just doesn’t cut it, but when it comes to looking back at director David Cronenberg’s catalogue of movies it’s quite pleasing that there is a fairly consistent level of quality, especially when you compare his output to that of his contemporaries like Wes Craven or Tobe Hooper.
Shivers (or They Came From Within, Orgy of the Blood Parasites, The Parasite Murders or any of several titles that the film has been known by) wasn’t Cronenberg’s first feature length film but it was his first significant one, originally coming out in 1975 and marking the Canadian out as a director with an edge. In a post-Night of the Living Dead landscape the idea of the zombie – literal or allegorical – had begun to seep its way into social thinking, an idea taken to a logical extreme in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead with the flesh-eating ghouls almost playing second fiddle to the representation of consumer culture, but David Cronenberg approached his ‘zombie’ movie from a slightly different angle. In Shivers, the residents of Starliner Towers, a luxury apartment block sat on the remote Starliner Island, are the victims of an engineered parasite designed to promote sexual liberation but instead the biological bug turns it’s host into an aggressive sexual predator whose only desire is to mate and continue spreading the virus.
Which sounds like a slightly reworked plot of nearly every zombie/infected movie ever made but in the hands of David Cronenberg it becomes something more. A man with a fixation on body horror – indeed, the term ‘body ‘horror’ was probably invented just to describe his films – Cronenberg’s ideas would reach a peak in 1986 with his remake of The Fly which, as well as being the best film title to throw at people who automatically discredit remakes, still holds all of its power to this day, but when you go back to Shivers most of his trademarks are there to see, such as the combination of the body breaking down and giving in to diseased desires with sexual promiscuity.
But whilst Shivers is something of a forward-thinking film in terms of presenting its ideas, it is still the product of a director who hasn’t mastered his talents yet, such as one or two leanings towards genre convention when there really is no need – remember, these aren’t shuffling Romero zombies – and some editing glitches. The cast are mostly pretty good, with Barbara Steele (Black Sunday) and Lynn Lowry (Score) probably being the most recognisable faces (or any other body parts), although Paul Hampton as the supposed ‘hero’ is a little flat and uncharismatic, as were most of Cronenberg’s leading men during his early films.
Despite Cronenberg’s melting pot of ideas and creativity, Shivers is still a filthy, grimy low-budget film that lacks the polish of his later works, which may put some people off, but the seeds of the director he would become are all sown here. And while the pristine HD transfer – overseen by Cronenberg himself – does look great it doesn’t do some of the practical effects any favours, although back in 1975 that wasn’t an issue. Nevertheless, 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.
Special Features: Parasite Memories: The Making of Shivers – a 26-minute documentary by High Rising Productions featuring interviews with stars Barbara Steele, Allan Kolman and Lynn Lowry, special effects genius Joe Blasco and film critic Kier-La Janisse, On Screen! episode which documents the release history of the film, From Stereo to Video video essay charting David Cronenberg’s career from his experimental beginnings through to Videodrome, original theatrical trailer, reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nat Marsh, collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Paul Corupe and illustrated with original archive stills and posters.
UK Release Date: 13th October 2014