“Roger, I had a very disturbing dream last night.”
Shivers is a movie about a sex zombie apocalypse.
It’s also a movie about the isolation of modern life, relationships, infidelity, body horror, mad science, and venereal diseases. In other words, It’s a David Cronenberg film.
For a long time Shivers was the one early Cronenberg film I hadn’t seen (the feature releases, that is – I still haven’t seen Stereo or Crimes of the Future). I’d heard about it – probably in Fangoria and definitely in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre – but could never find a copy. I remember reading an article about it during the 1980s – probably around the time that The Fly was being released – that called it the goriest and most disturbing of his films. By that point we’d had Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome, so that was saying something.
As a result it was always on my ‘must watch’ list, but I never was able to come across a copy – VHS or DVD. Back when I had a Netflix DVD queu the film sat in the “Availability Unknown” list for years and I gave up on ever seeing it. Then in 2014, Arrow did a Blu-ray release (region B only at the time, though subsequent pressings were apparently region free) AND a bunch of places got the upgraded HD version for streaming. So I finally going to see one of the great white whales of my horror movie list.
It was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I was happy to see it, but it’s a very low-budget – almost exploitation level – film. There are technical issues and the usual uneven moments of early Cronenberg. I still enjoyed it a lot, but I remember being slightly disappointed and I haven’t watched it since. Then Vestron Video (yes, they’re back) released the first US Blu-ray this week. Well, having immersed myself in Cronenberg stuff for my Canon writeup on Videodrome last week I was primed for another viewing.
As mentioned above, Vestron Video (through their ‘Collector’s Series’) released a brand new Blu-ray of Shivers this week. The transfer appears to be the same as the Arrow release, which is an excellent 2k restoration. The disk is also packed with extras, including two commentary tracks interviews and more. This is a pretty great release for a budget price – you should be able to find it for under $12. I hope it does well, because if Vestron wants to keep putting out cheap releases with premium extras I’d be on board.
For streaming options, Shivers can be seen on Tubi and Popcorn (cut, apparently, and with ads) for free and is available for rent and purchase on Google Play, Apple TV, YouTube and Vudu.
Shivers starts off with a come-on, one of those real estate video advertisements. This one is advertising the latest in luxury, the Starliner apartment complex. The building sits on an island reachable only be a single bridge. It’s a self-contained living area with all the amenities one could want – including a store, a medical clinic, heated swimming pool, and parking garage. This is the primary movie location, of course. A modern, swinging apartment building – with plenty of great suites still available.
There’s something a little sterile about the Starliner, though. It’s a bit too shiny and clean. It’s just like the brochure – a little lifeless. Of course that’s all on the surface. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find all kinds of things going on – horrible things.
Cronenberg introduces us to the location via a young couple who are inquiring about an apartment. They’re buying into the illusion. Meanwhile, he juxtaposes their scenes with a brutal sequence going on in one of those very apartments. An older man is struggling violently with a very young woman. As the couple downstairs peruse listings and listen to the salesman’s patter the young woman upstairs is strangled, stripped, cut open, and has acid poured into the incision. The older man then promptly cuts his own throat.
This is pretty messed up stuff. The actress playing the victim is young enough that it almost felt like it was crossing a line. In that respect the movie immediately feels a little dangerous, a little transgressive. What sorts of things will a director do who’s willing to do that?
Worse things, actually. Much worse things.
The older man turns out to be a scientist named Hobbs (Fred Doederlein). The doctor-in-residence at Starliner – Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) – is brought in during the police investigation and soon learns that Hobbs had a grant that involved using parasites as organ replacement. He begins to suspect that Hobbs may have been conducting his experiments in the field.
Meanwhile, a man named Nick (Allan Kolman) is obviously sick, having developed some strange lumps on his stomach. He won’t go see the doctor, but his wife goes to Dr. St. Luc anyway, and convinces the doctor to come up to their apartment later to see her husband. Unfortunately, things are going from bad to worse with Nick and he ends up vomiting blood into the tub. A slimy trail leading down the drain reveals that more has come out of him than just blood.
St. Luc learns that the murdered woman was, despite her schoolgirl appearance, very promiscuous and has slept with a number of the men in the complex – including Nick. All of the men are now developing weird cysts in their stomach. An associate of Hobbs tells St. Luc that the parasite is transmitted like a venereal disease and that it acts like an aphrodisiac. It makes people amorous so it can spread.
And spread it does. The gross, sluglike things are moving all around the complex. They leap through the air to latch on to people’s faces, they burst from stomachs and crawl out of mouths. Some people seem to be affected immediately, while others suffer from extended incubation periods while their stomachs surge and writhe. In a memorable sequence one of the parasites exits a bathtub drain and slides between a woman’s legs. (This is Barbara Steele, lending a touch of old-horror class to the otherwise seedy elements.)
Things begin to spin out of control and the inhabitants quickly degenerate into wandering mobs of crazed rapists. In one of the most disturbing scenes an infected man enters an elevator with a woman and her young girl. The doors close. Later, the blood soaked little girl passes on the infection.
I told you. Much worse things.
Doctor St. Luc and his nurse, Forsyth (Lynn Lowry), try to navigate their way through an increasingly dangerous building, where an elderly couple is overwhelmed by a crowd, a man walks children on a leash and people try to infect them in ways both subtle and violent. They’re attempt to escape via the parking garage is thwarted by a crash and they’re they’re both hunted throughout the complex before a final apocalyptic orgy at the heated pool.
The last third falls down a little bit, as the action devolves to a standard set of zombie movie chase scenes (one particular scene in a basement storage area will seem familiar to fans of Dawn of the Dead, though that movie came out three years later). Hampton is far too flat an actor to carry the action, and he always seems slightly bemused rather than interested or even scared. Lowry is a much better actor and not using her character as the focus seems like a lost opportunity.
Technically, there are issues. The lighting is pretty flat, as it is in a lot of low-budget 1970’s films. The editing is uninspired, as is the framing (with a few exceptions). The effects range from fairly realistic to laughably bad (it’s really hard to make a penis-shaped slug seem threatening when it moves). Action sequences – of which there are too many as the film progresses – are poorly choreagraphed. Some of the dialogue – particularly from the lead male – is recorded so low as to be almost inaudible, something I had hoped would be fixed in this release. The behavior of the parasites is inconsistent, as if Cronenberg changed his mind several times over the course of the film. (Something of a regular occurrence in his early work.)
The Bottom Line
I really like Shivers – more in this viewing than the last – but it’s a film that’s uneven and frustrating at times. There are a lot of things going on in the film that Cronenberg would explore better in later work (body horror, science gone mad, alienation and isolation). I really think Shivers is better defined by one of its alternate titles – They Came From Within. It’s all about a shiny, perfect society being infected and taken over on the inside. Well-intentioned-but-meddling-science affects a change in morals that sweeps through that enclosed ‘perfect’ society, changing or killing everyone until only the new structure remains. Then they go out to infect the world. Looking at the time period when it was made you can even make a case for boiling it down to a fear that freely available birth control is causing a sexual revolution that will change society beyond recognition – turning your neighbors into sex-crazed maniacs that want you to join them. Keys in the bowl by the door please, mind the slugs.
I think, in the end, the film works despite itself. It’s rough in spots – and sometimes seems to be working primarily as a low-budget exploitation film – but It’s an intriguing filmmaker’s first foray into questions he’d explore in much more accomplished ways in films like Rabid and The Fly.