When it comes to the movies, sex and horror go together like peanut butter and jelly. In the case of most horror movies, having sex is like painting a target on your forehead for some axe-wielding maniac to come and kill you, but in the Canadian film Shivers the very act itself can lead to a much more horrifying result. Director David Cronenberg became known as the king of “Body Horror” with such films as Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly, but he had his big break with this low-budget horror gem.
Located ten miles from Montreal is the new super ultra-modern Starliner apartment complex where guests have all the amenities they could possibly want along with a beautiful view of the St. Lawrence River; a golf course designed by pro golfers, a tennis court and even a doctor’s office, but what they didn’t count on was a mad scientist infecting his nineteen-year-old mistress with a freakish parasite.
It seems that Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein) was supposed to be working on a parasite that could take over for a failing organ but in fact, he had been moving towards creating a parasite that would liberate mankind from overthinking and release his more base, more sexual nature, turning the whole world into one giant orgy if you will. The movie begins with Hobbes murdering his mistress with a liberal dose of acid to destroy the parasites she carries and then killing himself. We can later assume that maybe he had a change of heart or didn’t trust the delivery system but as it is, he failed miserably because his mistress was rather promiscuous and she had already spread the parasite to another lover. Her affair was with Nicholas Tudor (Allan Kolman) much to the consternation of his wife Janine Tudor (Susan Petrie) who has been worried about her husband’s poor health and strange bumps on his belly but has no idea that he is the host to a bevy of ugly parasites that he barfs out on occasion.
On hand to combat this nasty infestation is resident doctor Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) who is easily the calmest person in the world. He literally reacts emotionlessly to everything. When his girlfriend Nurse Forsythe (Lynne Lowry) is attacked and survives an attempted rape in her apartment he calmly decides to go up and investigate, leaving her alone in his office. He doesn’t even think to phone the bloody police. When the tumblers start to fall into place and he slowly starts to realize that he’s dealing with a deadly parasitic infection that is turning the residents into crazed sexual monsters he serenely continues to plod along as if there has been an outbreak of measles.
Things quickly go from bad to worse as Nicholas Tudor’s barfed-up parasites have slithered all over the place spreading chaos and violence. A large Hispanic woman yanks a passing caterer into her room to have her way with him, the building manager lures new residents into an orgy ambush, and a mother and daughter are attacked in an elevator that leads to them getting infected and joining on the sexual assaults. And just when you think things couldn’t get any weirder we get something like this…
Roger spent much of his time roving up and down the hallways of the apartment complex either trying to find the parasite or locate his girlfriend who keeps wandering off on her own. When she is attacked in the underground parking garage and Roger “successfully” rescues her from a rapist they decide to just hide and wait for the police to arrive. While calmly waiting for the authorities she starts to tell him of a dream she had, “Roger I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man, only I’m having trouble you see because he’s old and dying and he smells bad and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, everything is sexual, you know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic, that disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other, that even dying is an act of eroticism, that talking is sexual, that breathing is sexual and that to even to physically exist is sexual, and I believe him and we make love beautifully.”
It’s that kind of out-of-left-field bizarreness that makes this film so compulsively watchable, you have to keep watching just to find out what bat shit crazy thing is going to happen next. And what kind of movie about sexual frenzy would this be without a lesbian scene? Not a proper one I’d say, so we get Janie Tudor going to her friend Betts (Barbara Steele) to cry on her shoulder about her insane husband and is then quickly seduced and infected.
This is early Cronenberg and he freely admits that he was learning how to be a filmmaker while shooting this project, so this is not a very polished project, but as the budget was low even by Canadian film standards, and much of the cast were not professional actors which makes the final result even more impressive and shows just how talented Cronenberg was as a writer/director even at the beginning of his career. He certainly influenced many other filmmakers that followed as anyone can see that elements of this movie and its parasites seem very similar to the ones in Alien, and I’m betting James Gunn was a fan.
Shivers itself certainly owes a bit to films like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead but Cronenberg takes this idea of your friends and neighbours changing to a far more disturbing place. The film`s terrifyingly bleak ending just creeps the hell out of me and will linger with you long after you’ve watched it.
David Cronenberg brings us a truly horrifying tale on a shoestring budget that leaves the viewer with images that will haunt them ever after.