Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry, Barbara Steele
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
87 mins. Rated R.
I share a birthday with writer/director David Cronenberg (The Fly, Videodrome), and perhaps that’s one of the reasons I keep wanting to experience his films. That, and he’s also a damn good filmmaker. Though I haven’t really loved everything he’s done, I keep getting pulled back to his work (films like The Fly being in my Top Ten Horror Films of all time), and I always find a unique vision in his films, something fascinating which stays with me long after the closing credits. Today, we’re going to look at one of Cronenberg’s earliest films, at one time the most-profitable Canadian film of all time, Shivers. Let’s break it down.
Starliner Towers is a swanky new-age apartment complex near Montreal that exists on its own island. It’s a self-functioning building with its own resident doctor, Dr. Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton, Lady Sings the Blues, Hit!). When a young woman is horrifically murdered in one of the apartments, Roger begins noticing a parasitic infestation of Starliner, seemingly transferred by those the woman has had sex with. Now, racing the clock, Roger must try to slow the spread of the parasite before all of Starliner is consumed.
Let me start by saying that, yes, I know, this one is old and made on the very cheap budget, but given all of that, it’s a fairly effective little horror movie. It contains early examples of body horror, something that would almost become synonymous with Cronenberg’s work in years to follow, and I was genuinely enthralled with our hero, hoping he’d be able to solve the parasite problem and save his fellow tenants. I only begin this way because I’m going to give you some things that I didn’t like about this film and I want to be clear from the get-go that I did indeed like and enjoy the film. It’s just a bit messier than some of his other films.
I like the idea of a parasitic organism transmitted through sexual content and the way it turns its host into a sex-and-violence craving monster, but I don’t think that idea was as clearly conveyed in the film. We get far too many scenes of these parasitic slugs moving about outside the body that it muddles the initial captivating idea at play here. I understand that the subject matter was a little risque back in 1975 (in fact, the Parliament of Canada debated its artistic value and what kind of societal effect it may have after its release), but I think there was probably a better way to relay the parasite’s life cycle earlier on in the film so it has more impact.
I also really didn’t like the ending. I won’t get into specifics because the film is better not knowing where it goes, but I think the ending felt cheap and a little anti-climactic. It’s not that it was unrealistic (at least in terms of the rules set up for the film), but I just didn’t really feel surprised by it.
I liked the unique characters in the film. Paul Hampton does solid work as a likable hero in Roger, and I think Joe Silver (Rabid, Deathtrap) is relatable and is able to break the tension down so that those shocking moments are all the more effective. Lynn Lowry (The Crazies, Cat People) has an engaging screen presence and, while her character is a bit stock at times, I think she works well enough as a partner to Roger.
Shivers is flawed, yes, but I think the ideas at play here are haunting and disturbing, and this film showcases a lot of that wit that Cronenberg is capable of summoning when he needs to (though most of the time, his horrific vision takes the stage over that wit), and the film is quite enjoyable despite all of its issues. This is an early film from a master of body horror and shocking thrills, one that gives a taste of the incredible filmmaker growing into his abilities.
-Kyle A. Goethe