Directed by: David Cronenberg
Premise: The residents of a high rise apartment building come under the influence of a parasite that turns them into mindless nymphomaniacs.
What Works: Shivers is a very important piece of science fiction and horror filmmaking that ought to be more widely seen. In some respects Shivers is a reworking of the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers but its influence can be seen in the 1978 remake as well as other genre classics such as The Hidden, Dawn of the Dead, and Alien. The premise of Shivers sounds like the conceit of a pornographic film but this is not the case. Shivers was one of director David Cronenberg’s early features and this film established many of the themes, ideas, and visual styles that Cronenberg would adopt in later movies like Videodrome, The Fly, and The Brood. This is a thoughtful film about the tension between animalistic impulses and civilized society and it acts out that tension through a clever metaphor. Horror films often channel the anxieties of their time and the plot and premise of this film are very much a product of the period in which Shivers was made. This film was created in the mid-1970s and Shivers is really about the social, sexual, and gender revolutions going on at that time. In that respect, something that makes this film unique is its ambiguous nature. The metaphor that the film uses to represent revolution is much like a sexually transmitted disease and while it frees people of their inhibitions it does so through force and robs people of their individuality. The problematic nature of the disease of Shivers is an effective metaphor for the way mass movements often work and the film follows through on the complicated elements of its premise with an ambiguous ending. Ambiguous endings are often criticized as copouts, and sometimes they are, but in Shivers that ambiguity works and it gives the film its power. The other effective elements of Shivers metaphor are found in the setting and casting. Cronenberg smartly sets this film in a suburban high rise apartment, which is portrayed in the film as a kind of self-contained society with an emphasis on health, sterility, and cleanliness. It is also filled with people of various ages and backgrounds. As the disease spreads among the population, the efforts at control and containment fail. The hero of the film is a doctor, played by Paul Hampton, but he is a completely ineffectual character. This ought to be a detriment to the story but his blandness and violence set the audience up to sympathize with the diseased mob, supporting the ambiguity of the ending. Also, the hoard of infected sexual maniacs are not just played by beautiful young starlets but also by elderly actors and the sexual orientation of the crowd is also as varied as their ages. Because the film mixes actors and images that do not conform to social sexual norms, Shivers moves beyond what might otherwise be another low budget exploitation sex picture and into the realm of subversive cinema.
What Doesn’t: Because Shivers is a film of its time, it may be enjoyed less for its own sake and more as a cinematic artifact. The picture was made on a very low budget by inexperienced filmmakers and it shows in the production. The cinematography is sometimes flat and the acting is spotty, with some of the actors doing a great job, especially Lynn Lowry, but others giving forgettable line readings. Shivers’ importance to the genre and to Cronenberg’s filmography makes it worth a look but viewers should be aware of what they are submitting themselves to.
DVD extras: Unfortunately, Shivers is not currently in print on DVD or Blu-Ray. However, the film can be found pretty easily.
Bottom Line: Shivers is an important and influential science fiction and horror film. As a piece of filmmaking it is rather crude but it is also a thoughtful attempt to merge the literal and the fantastic and the influence of Shivers can still be seen in sci-fi and horror pictures being made today.
Episode: #392 (June 17, 2012)