Over the years, Cronenberg’s debut film Shivers has gained the reputation for being the ‘thinking man’s horror film’. It’s a film that provided both bloody popcorn for the masses, as well as food for thought. Shivers has undergone a myriad interpretations since it’s release, with some deemed as a attack on the middle class, a cautionary tale for the baby boomer generation, and a warning about the spread of STDs.
However, it is the controversy that Shivers is perhaps most remembered for. Famously one critic declared: “If using public money to produce films like (Shivers) is the only way that English Canada can have a film industry, then perhaps English Canada should not have a film industry.”
Cronenberg was hardly new to filmmaking when he made the 1975 Shivers. As a student, he directed two short films, Transfer (1966) and From the Drain (1967). He then directed two short, experimental, science fiction features, that received little distribution beyond art houses in Canada: Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970). For the next few years he shot several short television documentaries for the CBC, as well as episodes of Canadian TV shows Programme X and Peep Show. It was during this period that David Cronenberg came up with the concept for Shivers.
Unfortunately, finding somewhere to pitch Shivers proved difficult, particularly given its concept. In the end, he found a distributor in the form of Cinépix, who at the time produced primarily soft-core porn films. Despite this, Cinépix liked David Cronenberg’s treatment for what would become Shivers (the original title of the script was Orgy of the Blood Parasites). They submitted it to the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) in order to receive government funding, but after three-years of bureaucracy, they finally achieved the funding they required.
The movie starts with a slideshow advertising Starliner Towers (located on Nun’s Island, just outside Montreal), a state-of-the-art apartment complex with all the conveniences 1975 has to offer. We see a happy Swedish couple, the Svibens, make their way into the lobby to sign a lease, with the smarmy manager Merrick (Ron Mlodzik, also the ad’s narrator).
As they do so, their idyllic scenes are inter-cut with shots of a young woman being chased around a living room, by a balding, desperate man. After catching and strangling her, the man lays out her topless cadaver, tapes her mouth, carefully slits open the stomach with a scalpel, and then proceeds to dump a bottle of steaming acid into the cavity. Out of remorse, he commits suicide by slitting his own throat.
Two levels below, Nicholas Tudor (Alan Migicovsky), an insurance adjuster, is casually cleaning his teeth before breakfast. Suddenly, he begins to hemorrhage, which results in his wife, Janine (Susan Petrie), fussing over him. Nicholas heads off to work, but not before paying a visit to another suite, where he calls out for Annabelle – which turns out to be the massacred girl.
Tudor flees the scene. The police do arrive, and we learn through Starliner’s resident doctor, Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), that the murderer was his own former medical professor, Dr. Emile Hobbes. Roger learns that Hobbes was developing a special breed of parasite for the purpose of replacing diseased organs. What follows is a dead outbreak, which results in the residents becoming ‘liberated’ from their lives. But at what cost?
Cronenberg has he even admitted to identifying with the disease. “It’s my conceit that perhaps some diseases perceived as diseases which destroy a well functioning machine, actually turn it into a new but still-functioning machine with a different purpose,” he explains. “Look at (the disease) from its point of view. Very vital, very excited, really having a good time. It’s really a triumph if you’re a virus.”
Perhaps this explains what makes the film’s last half so unsettling, as victim become a parasite advocate of sorts, willing to fight and die for it. Even when played up for black comedy, the scenes where the residents are violated, become possessed, and then become psychotic, are deeply disturbing. It shows the willingness for human beings to become controlled by something superior, something that will do the decision making for us.
In the late 60s and early 70s, both Canada and the United States were experiencing a trend towards upscale, self-sufficient apartment complexes similar to Starliner Towers in Shivers. The residents of Starliner Towers are not very nice people, even before they become infested with parasites. With the Towers being filled with secrets, deceit, adultery, and hypocrisy. Much of what might have upset its many critics, is that Shivers can be interpreted as treating the infestation of the residents by the parasites as an act of liberation.
The end result was one of the biggest controversies in the history of Canadian film. In an article with the sensational title “You Should Know How Bad This Film Is. After All, You Paid For It” in the September 1975 issue of the popular Canadian general interest magazine Saturday Night, Canadian journalist Robert Fulford, writing as “Marshall Delaney”, attacked Shivers as being “…the most repulsive movie I’ve ever seen.”
Martin Knelman, the film critic for Saturday Night, also characterised the film as a cheap exploitation movie. Despite the controversy (or perhaps even because of it), Shiver performed very well at the box office in Canada. Having only been made for $185,000, within a year it had made $5 million, which made it the most profitable Canadian feature film up to that time.
Regardless of what was at the root cause of the controversy over Shivers, it remains today a very disturbing film. Despite stirring up controversy, there is very little that is actually shown in Shivers. We have few glimpses of the slug-like parasites, which can be transmitted sexually or through mouth to mouth, and can even travel though air ducts. But it is most left to the imaginations of the viewer.
Even given the film’s subject matter there is very little sex to be seen, so when we do see it then it is far more shocking. Rather than relying on gore that could produce at best a brief shock, with Shivers, David Cronenberg relied more upon the power of suggestion to create a genuine sense of horror. In the end, Shivers is much more effective than many graphic horror films, because it suggests that real horror comes from within us all.