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shivers-poster

In the world of horror filmmaking, it’s not uncommon for fledgling directors to first cut their teeth on low-budget zombie flicks: after all, ever since George A. Romero kicked the door in with his revolutionary Night of the Living Dead (1968), the walking dead have become an ingrained part of the horror industry, even bleeding over into pop culture over time. Over forty years removed from Romero’s modest black and white chiller, we now live in a day and age when graphic fare like The Walking Dead can become a hit television series: stick that in your pipe and smoke it, NYPD Blue!

Why do zombie films make such good “starter projects,” however? For one thing, zombie films lend themselves well to a low-budget aesthetic: as Romero proved, you don’t really need more than a willing group of actors, a dedicated location and rudimentary special effects to capture an audience’s attention…in fact, grainy, visceral images tend to heighten the impact of zombie films, not detract from them. The same can’t really be said for any other over-arching horror subset, for the most part, unless one is discussing slasher films: trying making a sci-fi-horror film “on the cheap” and see how effective it is. For another thing, zombie films readily lend themselves to a filmmaker’s desire to “shake things up”: individual filmmakers can mess around with the origin of the infection, the behavior of the dead, the general world around the characters, the internal politics, etc…and come up with a hundred different films off of the same basic “the dead get up and eat the living” log-line. It’s a generic “recipe” that can be turned into an awful lot of different dishes.

To this group of filmmakers who got their start with zombie flicks, be sure to add the inimitable, confounding, living legend that is Canadian body horror auteur David Cronenberg. Although Cronenberg’s first films were actually a pair of art features, he first gained notice with his third film (technically his first feature, as the others were right around an hour apiece). Shivers (1975), known in some circles by the far kitchier title They Came From Within, might be early Cronenberg, but anyone familiar with his career will see the through-line with little trouble: chilly, clinical, unemotional, obsessed with yet disgusted by sexual activity, full of skin-crawling body horror elements and ooky practical effects…in other words, classic Cronenberg.

Kicking off with an effective faux-infomercial for Starliner Island, a self-contained community with everything from apartments to stores and recreational areas, we’re given a sneak peek into what will become our besieged farmhouse, as it were: Starliner Towers. We’re introduced to a number of characters, including Nick Tudor (Allan Kolman) and his wife, Janine (Susan Petrie); the apartment’s manager, Mr. Merrick (Ronald Mlodzik); resident physician Dr. Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) and his nurse/paramour, Miss Forsythe (Lynn Lowry); the Svibens (Vlasta Vrana, Silvie Debois) and, perhaps most importantly, Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein) and teenager Annabelle (Cathy Graham). When we first meet Hobbes and Annabelle, the good doctor is strangling the young woman, after which he cuts her open and proceeds to pour acid into her chest cavity before slitting his own throat. As we might gather, all is not sunshine and warm summer breezes here at Starliner Towers…not by a long shot.

As it turns out, Dr. Hobbes, along with his partner, Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver), was working on a way to use parasites as an alternative to organ transplants: the researchers wanted to breed special parasites to take over the organs in a sick person’s body, allowing them to opportunity to heal internally. Somewhere along the way, however, something went drastically wrong (or drastically right, as we’ll come to learn later): the parasites are now jumping from host to host, taking over their victim’s bodies and transforming them into mindless, sexually ravenous zombies. As more and more residents of Starliner Towers fall prey to the disgusting, fleshy slug-things, Roger and Nurse Forsythe, along with Dr. Linsky, must do all they can to remain uninfected, all while frantically searching for some cure to this disorder. In no time, however, the trio find themselves trapped in a house of horrors that’s one part orgy, one part stone-cold nightmare. This is no ordinary “zombie infection,” however: as the ill-fated protagonists will discover, what’s taking place may be as simple and terrifying as the next step in human evolution…an evolutionary move that may see humanity wave goodbye to its cosmic neighbors and embrace a way of life that can best be described as primal, animalistic and completely free of the niceties of polite society.

As with the majority of Cronenberg’s “body horror” films, Shivers can be a massively unpleasant piece of work, especially once one takes into account the added weight of the violent sexuality aspect: if you’re the kind of audience member who shudders at the thought of nasty little slug creatures crawling into every orifice imaginable, you might want to give this a wide berth. For everyone else, however, Shivers serves as an interesting reminder of where Cronenberg started, a particular psychosexual neighborhood that he still lives in, even though his most recent body of work has tended to minimize the sci-fi/horror elements while playing up his more violent tendencies.

Like The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983), Shivers is a chilly, spartan, clinical film, all blown-out whites, hard-shadows and insidious things happening in the background. It’s a meticulously crafted film, which is par for the course with Cronenberg, but it’s also a very detached film, so unemotional as to occasionally seem aloof. Paul Hampton, in particular, has a bearing about him that seems to speak more to extreme boredom and ennui than the “normal” emotions one might expect from someone under attack from mind-controlling parasites. Truth be told, much of the acting in the film is rather rough and detached, with the exception of genre-vet Barbara Steele, who turns in one of her typically hot-blooded performances as Mrs. Tudor’s friend, Betts. Shivers is also one of the few Cronenberg films, his adaptation of Stephen King’s Dead Zone (1983) being another, to feel distinctly dated and “of its time.”

For all of its rough edges and occasional tonal missteps (one scene involving a slug “jumping” at a woman is very silly and reminds of something Paul Bartel might have snickered his way through), however, Shivers is still undoubtedly a Cronenberg film. When the film is firing on all cylinders, such as the horrifying finale that handily presages Brian Yuzna’s equally yucky (if brilliant) Society (1989), it’s an unbeatable, claustrophobic nightmare. The notion of the “new flesh” that Cronenberg explored so brilliantly in Videodrome seems to get its genesis here, as does his career-long melding of disease, sex and bodily functions. Shivers is also a much more streamlined, “simple” film than Cronenberg’s later work, which helps to amplify the genre elements: in many ways, this is one of the auteur’s purest horror films, hands down.

Despite being a lifelong fan of Cronenberg’s horror films, I must admit to really relishing his more recent “non-horror” films like Spider (2002), A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007) and A Dangerous Method (2011). As of late, it seems to me that Cronenberg has sharpened his already lethal skills into a fine, diamond-edged blade: his films may be decidedly less “icky” than they used to be, but the grue has been traded for devastating insights into the human condition that are that much more powerful for being delivered relatively straight-faced. That being said, however, I’ll always have a soft-spot in my heart for his early genre work, especially when I’m feeling down on the human condition, in general. As Cronenberg knows so well, despite all of our innovations, art, emotion and high-minded morality, we’re all just sacks of meat, at the end of the day: clockwork piles of blood, guts, sinew and muscle that may aim for the heavens but spend the majority of our lives wallowing in the muck.

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