‘Body Horror’ is a term synonymous with Canadian director David Cronenberg. His early work in the horror field (Rabid, The Brood, The Fly) all share connective tissue through the theme of internal horror – a transformation or catharsis from within (always for the worse) that strikes the viewer in a very personal way. Shivers (1975), aka They Came from Within, is his first feature film - a clever, creepy, and gritty introduction to the sub-genre he helped create.
Distributed by Cinepix Film Properties Inc. (Canada) and Trans American Films (US) in October ’75 and July ’76 respectively, and produced on a budget of $179,000 (CAD), Shivers played at theaters and Drive-Ins all across North America in the summer of ’76, and up to that point was the most profitable Canadian film produced. Critics were generally kind, including Roger Ebert who thought it was well made, with genuine style and talent on display. There was a new player in the horror world, and Shivers is one hell of a calling card.
Welcome to Starliner Towers – the latest in self contained (and self absorbed) living. This luxury apartment complex located on an island off of Montreal has it all – A restaurant, gym, medical facility – everything you need for the ultimate hermetic lifestyle. It’s a great place to live, as long as you have the stomach for the occasional parasitic invasion.
The story plays out as a big juicy soap opera: In one apartment, Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein – Scanners) chases around his nubile teenage mistress, and when he catches her, he cuts open her stomach, fills it with acid, and then cuts his own throat. Meanwhile, on another floor, Nicholas (Alan Migicovsky – Seven) and Janine (Susan Petrie) Tudor are having their own problems. Nicholas is throwing up blood, and is experiencing sharp pains in his stomach. However, he decides to go to work – but first stops off to visit his mistress in the building, who as we’ve already discovered, has suffered her own abdominal issues. Nicholas leaves the apartment, unaware that his schoolgirl fling has been making the rounds in the building, spreading a man made parasite cooked up by Dr. Hobbes. Starliner’s resident physician, Paul Hampton (Roger St. Luc – Lady Sings The Blues) , and Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry – Cat People) discover the parasitic activity through Hobbes’ papers and his business partner, Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver – Rabid). It seems Hobbes was trying to free mankind from his repressed form by creating a parasite that would, essentially, make people horny and turn the planet into one big happy orgy. However, once Hobbes discovered that the parasite caused people to go dicin’ as well as dickin’, he tried to stop it at ground zero (our teenage trollop). Forearmed, our intrepid medical team must fight their way through the sexed up and homicidal tenants of the Starliner if they hope to survive. Will Hampton and Forsythe make it out alive? Will they live to get their groove on, or will they get their grue on? Tune in next time As The Starliner Turns…
Cronenberg pulls an interesting conceit with Shivers – he shows the infection as not something to be feared, but embraced. At the start of the film, the boring and antiseptic environment is laid out for the viewer plain as day, from the monotone advertisement for the Starliner to the placid demeanor of its residents. When the parasite is set free, the Starliner becomes one massive and exciting (not to mention dangerous) swinger’s den, and if you don’t want to leave your keys in the bowl, you might find your organs on the floor. It’s Better Science through Screwing, and the start of Cronenberg’s obsession with the Body Politic.
The film was so successful in its repulsion that it prompted an article/review in Saturday Night magazine titled “You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is, You Paid For It”, alluding to the fact that the film was partially financed by the Canadian Film Development Corporation, funded by taxpayers. The article made it very hard for Cronenberg to secure financing for his next couple of films, and a morality clause in his lease got him booted from his Toronto apartment. Push the wrong buttons in life and sometimes the elevator won’t stop on your floor. Of course Cronenberg was just getting warmed up, as he immediately followed Shivers with the reheated sexual morality play Rabid (1977) and the potent divorce discourse The Brood (1979) .
The cast are game and wisely underplay, allowing the lascivious horror to flow naturally. The effects work by Joe Blasco (Garden of the Dead) is crude but effective, with the parasite resembling nothing so much as a syphilitic yam. However, he gets off one great stomach turning (and tunneling) effect that would be borrowed a few years later for a bigger budgeted foray into outer space terror.
A ‘modern day’ 40 year old film will show it age through its dated décor. However, Cronenberg directs with such verve and confidence that it never feels like a relic, instead offering up a potent reminder: It’s not the size of the building that matters, but what is done with the contents within that counts.
Shivers is available on a Region 2 Blu-Ray & DVD Combo Pack through Arrow Video UK, and is on Amazon Prime Instant Video.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: EVILSPEAK