Shivers AKA They Came From Within (1975)
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Starring: Paul Hampton, Lynn Lowry, Allan Kolman, Susan Petrie, Barbara Steele, Joe Silver, Ronald Mlodzik, Camil Ducharme, Hanka Posnanska, Fred Doederlein, Cathy Graham
1/2 (out of 4)
Talk about shivers... look at that carpeting!
I had a 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 and that even to exist is sexual. And I believe him and we make love beautifully.
- Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry)
David Cronenberg always had a thing for body horror, something very apparent when watching his first film from 1975 called Shivers (AKA They Came From Within AKA The Parasite Murders). Taking its cue from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, it transplants the zombie menace firmly into the swinging 70s, adding disturbing sexual subtext and fear of infection (STDs). (There’s also a little bit of Romero’s The Crazies in there and maybe a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which would arrive 3 years later, Shivers takes the cold high tech setting of modern living and dirties it up with the lower functions of humanity – sex, blood, puke, and parasites. Good luck getting the housekeeper to come back.
The beginning of Shivers features a nicely produced commercial for Starliner Tower Apartments, a modern yuppie condo situated on an island twelve minutes away from downtown Montreal. Fully equipped with modern electrical appliances, cable TV, a golf course, restaurant, and an on-premises medical clinic, Starliner’s studio apartments look very attractive for the working couple, except for a little problem. It seems that a resident scientist has been breeding parasites that have gotten out of hand. And while a new couple is looking over the floor plans, crazy Doctor Hobbes (Fred Doederlein) in apartment 1511 kills his 19 year old student/fling Annabelle (Cathy Graham), pours acid into her open belly, then takes himself out with a scalpel. Ah, so there’s a seedy underside behind the illusion of a perfect condo lifestyle – I knew it! Resident Dr. Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) soon becomes aware that Hobbes had bizarre ideas about the future of humanity, that man was an over-rational animal who had “lost touch with its body and its instincts.” So he created a parasitic slug-type creature that was part aphrodisiac, part venereal disease, which would turn the world into “one beautiful, mindless orgy.” Wow.
We're sure the wonderful Canadian health care system can handle this.
It turns out that our resident mad scientist was too late to stop his twisted creation, which can be transmitted mouth-to-mouth or other ways, as Barbara Steele’s spinster character discovers while taking a bath (that bathtub scene, showing a phallic-looking slug making its way toward Steels’s nether regions is a classic that seems to have inspired scenes in A Nightmare on Elm Street and Slither). Annabelle had quite a few discreet visitors, including the adulterous Nick Tudor, who seems to have made good friends with his abdominal parasite, even though it makes him throw up its offspring every so often. His poor wife Janine (Susan Petrie) is a blubbering mess as she bears witness to her husband’s silent treatment and worsening condition, while Dr. St. Luc and his nurse girlfriend (a sexy Lynn Lowry) soon find that the entire building has been infected. It climaxes in a swimming pool that seems the right setting for the birth of a new philosophy (or new human evolutionary stage – or is that Devolution?) It’s something that you’ll see in much of Cronenberg’s work afterwards.
Shivers is a zero-budget, unpolished work of semi-exploitation, with mediocre acting and some amateur camerawork, but even with Cronenberg still obviously in his learning phase you can tell that there are rich themes being explored here, and that Shivers reveals a director with great potential. There are times when the film seems too clinical, which doesn’t work as well for a movie that wants to explore the removal of everyday inhibitions and the embrace of the lizard brain. There’s also some miscasting in the lead man Paul Hampton, who responds to every event with a kind of slumberous detachment. I would also make the case that, while Shivers is shocking in parts (the infected exhibit behaviors ranging from incest to a scene of two girls on leashes) it isn’t quite shocking enough (although that may be because today, homosexuality and promiscuity just don’t offend). There is nudity but not as much as you would expect considering the subject matter, save for one scene where the sexy Lynn Lowry undresses in front of her doctor/boyfriend (who is more interested in the slugs than her, the dope).
Lynn Lowry makes some rude joke about liking seafood.
Shivers has a few nice bits of nastiness – a slug attaches itself to the face of a poor woman doing laundry (who later attacks a man, telling him “I’m hungry for love”); Tudor bloodies up his whole apartment with blood, slugs, and the dead body of Hobbes’ colleague; slugs pop in and out of mouths (something you’ll see later in Night of the Creeps, Slither, and The Hidden). The oral fixation is everywhere in Shivers – notice that some characters (like Joe Silver’s) are always eating; plus there’s something interesting about the connection being made here between sex and disease (Lowry gives an fascinating monologue – see above). I have read some interpretations of Shivers (with its attempted rapes and violent attacks) to be a Canadian fear of “Americanization” (the sex and violence of the U.S. becoming a corrupting influence). It’s an interesting theory that may hold water. I also liked the setting of the lone apartment building on an island, making it seem like a petri dish for a biological experiment (it was actually shot on Nuns’ Island). Despite being a little sloppy in delivery, Shivers is a worthy first effort from Cronenberg, an influential “sex-zombie” film.
- Bill Gordon
The Shivers DVD, if you don’t mind paying the extra money (since it’s out of print), features liner notes by Robert Foster and has an interview with Cronenberg himself who describes the learning process of directing his first film as well as the horrified reaction from the Canadian press. As critic Robert Fulford wrote at the time: “If using public money to produce films like Shivers is the only way English Canada can have a film industry, then perhaps English Canada should not have a film industry.” (The film was partly funded by the Canadian Film Development Corporation). He also tells a somewhat disturbing story about how he had to slap Susan Petrie around before each scene so she could cry properly (at her request).
Anybody who wants to read further about Cronenberg and Shivers should try canuxploitation.com and KinoKultura.