Here we are, and I can barely believe it. I’ve always been a bit of a procrastinator, and finishing projects in a timely manner has usually been somewhat of a chore. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’m giving myself a few kudos for bringing you The Cronenberg Chronicle once a month–for the last eighteen months. During that time, we had one new DC work released (“Cosmopolis”, which mildly disrupted our backwards chronology), and it was one of David’s finest works. Difficult, yes–but superb. And just a few weeks ago, Cronenberg wrapped production on his latest, “Maps to the Stars”. You can be certain that I will be adding that to the Chronicle as #19, when it is officially released some time within 2014. But for right now, we are back at the “humble” beginnings. “Shivers”, from 1975, was David Cronenberg’s first official feature film. Oh, there were a bunch of short films before that, and some may consider his two underground films (1969’s “Stereo” and 1970’s “Crimes of the Future”) actual feature presentations. But at barely over an hour-long for each, and with no dialogue track for either (both are narrated)–I do not. So, “Shivers” is the one for most of us Cronenberg lovers, but good luck even finding that title listed in certain film books and publications. And that’s because David’s original title was rejected by U.S. distributors, and it was released in the states as “They Came From Within”. It was also known as “Orgy of the Blood Parasites” during production, and it’s been alternately titled “The Parasite Murders” and “Frissons”. But “Shivers” has become the most excepted title (by far), the last couple of decades, or so (the most recent DVD and VHS releases contained that title). Unfortunately, the “Shivers” DVD has been out-of-print for a number of years, although I do own a mostly top-notch VHS copy from the 1990s. However, for my most recent look at Cronenberg’s debut, I turned to an online service. And the quality was pretty darn good–sometimes this technology thing works out after all! I’m so pleased to re-discover, how easily “Shivers” retains its creepy, queasy, low-budget power. Also, its frank and disturbing sexuality is fully intact, along with its astute social commentary. It’s somewhat hampered by a weak lead performance (common in a number of Cronenberg’s early releases), but that’s more than made up for by its boldness and full-out body horror. Don’t watch this one straight after dinner!
Something is happening at the bucolic, exclusive island community of Starliner Towers. When we are first introduced to the self-sufficient, high-rise, apartment complex, it’s via a commercial montage (with soothing narration), that highlights the community’s many luxurious attributes. In fact, it’s made quite clear that you really never have to leave the Starliner Towers for any of your needs. There are studio and multiple bedroom units to accommodate singles or families. There is a medical facility, shopping complex, dry-cleaning service and an Olympic-sized pool all on sight. There are walking paths and water views. There is also an ominous isolation from mainland society. And what in the world is resident Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlin) doing behind closed doors? Why is he attacking, killing, and cutting open the abdomen, of a sultry-looking young women, and then pouring some kind of corrosive substance into her body cavity, before taking his own life? We come to learn that Dr. Hobbes has been conducting experiments with parasites. The organisms soon begin to act as some type of aphrodisiac, as they enter the body in a variety of disquieting and uncomfortable ways (bath-time, anyone?!). And when they leave one host, they move on to another. Before long a number of tenants of Starliner Towers are infected with these “sex parasites”. They inhibit their hosts with an overwhelming and violent sexual desire. And with the help of Rollo Linsky (the commanding Joe Silver of “Rabid”), Dr. Roger St. Luc (wax figure Paul Hampton) and Nurse Forsythe (the beguiling and seductive, Lynn Lowry) an attempt is made to stop the epidemic from spreading. But it soon becomes achingly clear that the infection is in danger of moving beyond the Starliner Tower grounds. Spread by sexual activity, the “sickness” quickly becomes out-of-control.
Brisk, sharp and queasily entertaining, “Shivers” has aged very well over the course of 38 years. My “official” ‘S’-team is a long way off from realization, but we do have first time services from Joe Silver, who would return for “Rabid”, and scream queen veteran, Barbara Steele (as the vampish Betts). Hey, you’ve even got Robert Saad in charge of cinematography, years before the talents of Peter Suschitzky are brought on-board. So, we’ll label them honorary members at most. But whereas the real ‘S’ team is over a decade from being cemented, the body horror is already firmly in place in David’s very first feature. And nothing is more mesmerizing and exemplary than the sight of something poking and prodding at the abdominal wall of Nicholas Tudor as portrayed by Alan Migicovsky. It is probably the most iconic image from “Shivers”, and its power has not diminished with time. It’s also a thrill to have the bizarre-looking Ronald Mlodzik appearing as Merrick, the manager of Starliner Towers. The team-loyal Mr. Cronenberg carried over the obscure performer after using him for the lead in both “Stereo” and “Crimes of the Future”, and would feature him again in 1977’s “Rabid”. “Shivers” is obviously inspired by George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, but ironically manages to foresee Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”, which wouldn’t arrive until 1979. And “Shivers” not only shares similarity with 1973’s “The Crazies”, but it brings over one of its female stars in Lynn Lowry. I don’t think that Romero and Cronenberg are necessarily ripping each other off, as much as there must be a great deal of respect shared by the two titans of terror. Cronenberg has publicly acknowledged the homage factor in “Shivers” concerning Romero’s early resume. Also, despite the disturbing subject matter, I’ve always found “Shivers” unbelievably sexy (as I guess a movie about mindless, sex addicts should be). Barbara Steele and Susan Petrie (as Nicholas Tudor’s distraught wife, Janine) share a knockout lesbian seduction and kiss. And bedroom-eyed Lynn Lowry exudes an exotic sexuality and presence. Her full-frontal scenes don’t hurt either. It’s a shame though that “Shivers” doesn’t feature a stronger performance from musician Paul Hampton as Dr. Roger St. Luc. The issue was common in early Cronenberg, and wasn’t rectified until James Woods knocked it out of the park, with his marvelous turn in 1983’s “Videodrome”. It began a pattern that was carried on with Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum and Jeremy Irons, after that. These superlative portrayals separate the merely good Cronenberg from the truly great. Also, it’s essential to note that “Shivers” was extremely profitable, amid accusations from a Canadian journalist at the time, that the feature was “violent, depraved and repulsive”. The controversy arose from the fact that “Shivers” was partially funded by Canadian taxpayers. Being that Cronenberg has proven himself to be one of the world’s most respected and audacious directors–who’s enjoying the last laugh?
It’s my great hope that you’ve enjoyed this 20,000+ word, 18-part series on the work of David Cronenberg. Maybe throughout it, you’ve learned something about Dave Deprave that you never knew before. I’m sure that I’ve managed to massively enrich and enhance my Cronenberg knowledge and appreciation (obsession?) with my mandated re-watch of every single film (it’s now a minimum of 3 full experiences of every single DC feature, with certain ones getting views of a dozen or more). I guess this qualifies me as some type of David Cronenberg expert, but I think aficionado sounds better and less presumptuous. It also helps me avoid any egg on my face, if I am presented with a DC question that I can’t expediently answer. In other words, I’m far from perfect–but I’m pretty damn good. I’ve read and studied a great deal about my favorite auteur over the years, as well as watched hours of documentaries and features about the man and his movies. Btw, for the curious, the book “Cronenberg on Cronenberg” with Chris Rodley, is absolutely indispensable. So, farewell for now Cronenbergians! I promise to visit once again in the not-too-distant future for “Maps to the Stars”. Until then, remember to exterminate all rational thought. And long live the new flesh!