Roger St Luc, the house doctor at Starliner Towers, a new high-rise apartment complex on Montreal’s Starliner Island, becomes fascinated after he is called to the apartment of research scientist Emil Hobbes who has gutted a teenage girl, poured acid into her stomach and then cut his own throat. St Luc discovers that Hobbes was working on a parasitic organism designed to eat and replace diseased organs in the human body. In order to test his own theories about human sexuality, Hobbes has created a mutant version of the parasite and released it in the apartment. And now people all over the complex are being infected by the parasite, which turns them into flesh-devouring sexual fetishists.
Shivers is generally regarded as David Cronenberg’s first film. This is not the case as Cronenberg had previously made two experimental films – the psi-powers film Stereo (1969) and the diseased future film Crimes of the Future (1970) – but almost nobody saw these and they remain difficult to find on video today. Shivers however was Cronenberg’s first commercial success and the one that brought him to attention. Clearly Cronenberg has sacrificed the more arty ambitions of his two earlier films in favour of commercial exploitation/horror elements. In fact Shivers seems closely modelled along the lines of the zombified social apocalypse of Night of the Living Dead (1968).
It is a gleeful dive into taboo-breaking upon Cronenberg’s part, throwing in everything from cannibalism and gore to infanticide, incest and lesbianism. The first few minutes alone have a highly attention grabbing scene – intercut with a calm and cool sequence where young couple take a tour of the apartment complex – where a doctor grabs a teenage girl, gags and then strips her, cuts open her stomach, pours in acid and then slits his own throat. There are all sorts of effective shock images running throughout – a doctor tearing a parasite out of a victim’s throat with a pair of pliers, a parasite creeping up between Barbara Steele’s legs as she takes a bath, a child found feasting on her mother, a father that starts making out with his daughter. Although ultimately the plot is not structured so much as a story as it is a parade of scenes where people become infected and go rabid.
Of course what does set Shivers apart from being merely another B exploitation film is the wild metaphors and images that Cronenberg attaches to the story. This is Night of the Living Dead construed as a satire on the 1970s swinger lifestyle. Lynn Lowry has a remarkable little speech at one point about hyper-eroticism: “I had a very disturbing dream last night. In the dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I’m having trouble because he’s old and dying and smells bad and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that even old flesh is erotic, that disease is the love of two creatures for one another, that even dying is an act of eroticism, that everything is sexual, that even to exist is sexual. And I believe him and we make love beautifully.” In this world of hyper-eroticism and hedonism, the parasite seems to sit as a rather funny image of lurking VD. Indeed the line about “disease being the love of two creatures for one another” could almost serve as byline for Cronenberg’s work. He loves the process of fusion and transformation into the other and has a clear affinity for mad scientists and is extraordinarily sympathetic to their causes. These themes are not so much apparent here as they are in later Cronenberg films – this is an out-and-out science amok/social apocalypse film with no muddied morals about the issue. However Cronenberg does throw in at least a remarkably plausible explanation for the parasites as being surgical symbionts designed to devour and replace diseased organs.
In terms of narrative structure Shivers appears to be a traditional horror film, but it also breaks many restraints of the genre. Unlike the monster/killer of many other horror films, the parasites in Shivers are purely motivated by their will to live and procreate. They are not constrained by society, politics or emotions, and hence attack indiscriminately. Another dramatic generic difference in Shivers is that few people die. Instead they are transformed into sexual predators who appear to be flourishing in their new life of violent and hedonistic desire. Shivers breaks many taboos since nobody is spared, regardless of gender, race, status, or age; and there are no repercussions to restore social order.
After seeing Shivers Martin Scorsese commented “[The ending] is genuinely shocking, subversive, surrealistic and probably something we all deserve.” (1) Scorsese seems to be suggesting that Shivers can be read as an attack on the middle class. The Starliner Towers certainly can be read to symbolise close-minded communities, or nations, where only the elite and wealthy are welcome to share in the comforts of consumerism and isolationism. By indulgently denying the existence of the outside world, such a community is doomed to generate its own set of problems and eventually self-destruct. Very similar ideas are found in J. G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, which coincidentally was also published in 1975. Ballard (whose novel Crash would be turned into a film by Cronenberg in 1996) describes another self-contained apartment building community where the residents from the lower, middle and upper floors have regressed into tribal groups to fight each other for control of the building.
Although the parasites and the violence they cause is repellent, they do create a state of reckless abandonment for their hosts, who once infected are singularly focused on indulging in all kinds of sexual activity. Once the traumas of their initial attack is over, the residents of Starliner Towers are liberated from their jobs and repressed lifestyles, freeing them for their quest to infect others. Perhaps the most disturbing element of Shivers is how seductive such a scenario is. Once infected, the residents appear a lot happier and unrestrained than they were at the start of the film.
Is it possible then that the final shot of the residents driving out of Starliner Towers is not meant to be interpreted as frightening or upsetting at all, but is instead a thrilling promise of what is in store for the rest of us now that science has finally kick-started evolution?
David Cronenberg Interview [22 mins]
Short Cronenberg introduction [2 mins 45 secs]
Subtitles: French hardsubs for an authentic Montreal-style viewing experience