David Cronenberg’s put the “ewww” in “auteur… ewww, gross!” since his college days in the late 1960s, only breaking into the wider world of Canadian commercial films after he wrangled money out of the National Film Board of Canada to help make this. As partially taxpayer-funded horror movies go, I think Canada got more than it bargained for, and you’ll certainly get more than your money’s worth. Shivers is Cronenberg’s ET, the Rosetta Stone to his entire subsequent career, resounding with the themes and issues Cronenberg continues to return to, by which I mean, “Shoehorn into every goddamn thing he does, whether it belongs there or not.” (See also, Naked Lunch).
Thankfully, Cronenberg’s early films have a rough and tumble quality that’s gritty in the old cowboy sense of “ready to move at a moment’s notice.” As opposed to the poncy, hipster sense of “my video games come in twelve shades of brown.”
Example: Shivers opens beautifully, utilizing a device few mainstream Hollywood directors would dare use: a slideshow, presenting us with the marvelous amenities available to prospective residents of Starliner Tower Apartments. As photos of Starliner’s underground garage, Olympic-sized pool and on-site dental and medical clinics flash by, obsequious narrator Ronald Merrick (Ronald Mlodzik), Starliner’s owner, invites us to “Explore our island paradise, secure in the knowledge that it belongs to you and your fellow passengers alone.” I can almost hear Cronenberg between takes: “Mlodzik, that was great. But not quite ominous enough. Can we turn the ominous up to Eleven? Okay. Back to one.”
Since this is a David Cronenberg film, we can rest assured all these locations will soon play host to grotesque, otherworldly horror… possibly involving human beings and their precious bodily fluids.
But first: murder most foul, and a wonderful introduction to the reality of Starliner, delivered on the heels of its most rarefied sales pitch. Downstairs, Merrick attempts to talk young Kresimer and Benda Sviben (Vlasta Vrana and Silvie Debois) into an apartment. Upstairs, Sigmund Freud lookalike Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein) kills a schoolgirl named Annabelle Brown (Cathy Graham), taping her mouth shut only after he’s strangled her (must be backwards day at Starliner).
In another apartment, Nick Tudor (Allan Kolman) gets ready for work, giving more care to the mysterious pains in his stomach than he gives to his wife, Janine (Susan Petrie). The Tudor’s breakfast table routine plays against a hasty faux-autopsy Herr Doktor’s conducting a few apartments away… on an identical breakfast table. Sigmund concludes the procedure by slitting his own throat with the very same scalpel he used to carve up the girl. And I’m all, like, “Screw Steve Miner, Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper. Now we’re cooking with Cronenberg, motherfuckers! As Samuel L. Badass said in Jurassic Park, hold on to your butts.”
Instead of going to work, Nick reveals why he’s down on Janine by proceeding right up to Annabelle’s apartment, 1511, for a morning delight. Less than delighted by what he finds splayed across the kitchen table, Nick flees, leaving Starliner’s on-site doctor, Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) to call the cops. Seems Hobbes, one of St. Luc’s former med-school teachers, asked St. Luc up to Annabelle’s for lunch yesterday. Didn’t mention the main course would be girl au gratin, but you know Professors… always absent-minded.
Snooping around Hobbes’ lab, St. Luc style, reveals Hobbes was working on an alternative to organ transplantation. “Why not breed a parasite that can do something useful?” Hobbes’ partner in Science, Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver) (who’s apparently never heard the word “symbiote” before), rhetorically asks Our Hero. “A parasite that takes over the function of a human organ?” Yeah, really, why not? What could possibly go wrong?
Rollo let’s slip two crucial facts: Hobbes was damn good at wrangling grants out of idiots… and Hobbes had quite the thing for young Annabelle Brown… going all the way back to when she was twelve(!) and he was a teacher at her girl’s school. Nobody, apparently, thought to put the skids on this. What the fuck were you doing all those years, Rollo? Science? We’ll see where that fucking gets everybody…
Yes, let’s. Back at Starliner’s clinic, Dr. St. Luc meets a Janine ever-more worried by her husband’s abdominal complaints… and an aged man who’s also got himself a case of the stomach lumps. “I understand you got these lumps from a young lady.” Yes, indeed, he did. A young lady in apartment 1511.
Seems Annabelle Brown got around town a bit behind Dr. Hobbes back. (Cherchez la femme, strikes again.) Seems Nick’s already aligned himself with Team Stomach Parasite. Seems that, quoth the Rollo, “Hobbes believed that, ‘Man is an animal who thinks too much. An over-rational animal that’s lost touch with its body and its instincts’“… In other words, too much brain and not enough guts. So what he came up with to help our guts along was a parasite that’s “A combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that will hopefully turn the world into one beautiful, mindless orgy.” Annabelle was his test subject. Now Hobbes’ parasites have escaped her body (and Nick’s) entering the Starliner’s drainpipe, mail slots and tenant’s bodies, driving them to roam the halls with shuffling, zombie-steps, sexually assaulting (and thus infecting) anyone they can catch.
Expository monologues like Rollo’s split my skull with joyful axes. You literally don’t make them like this anymore. There’s great fun to be had at Shivers’ expense, for it’s admittedly a young, inexperienced director’s film, shot in fifteen days with pretty much everyone we see on-screen smack dab in the dark heart of the fucking ’70s. You should win some kind of award for going through all those economic gymnastics. The entire crew worked and slept inside the location they use for “our” Starliner, and it apparently drove them mad, mad they tell you, mad! Muah-ha-ha!
“Screw it,” you say. “It’s a Canadian Invasion of the Body Snatchers rip-off. With sex zombies.” Yes, I counter. Written and directed by a young David Cronenberg and therefore fucking awesome. No other director has so thoroughly dedicated himself to giving you the creeps… or gone about it quite the same way. Name another director who can film a hot nurse stripping out of her uniform in such a way as to freak me right the fuck out. No one—not Carpenter, not Miner, not Craven—has Cronenberg’s ability to smear the messy results of outraged biology across modern civilization’s smug, placidly domestic face… and do it all on the cheap. You should win awards for that that, too.
Here, the highest of high-end luxury apartments (precursors of the gated communities of today and dressed in grotesquely tacky, mid-‘70s style—watch out for that zebra print) rots from the inside out, collapsing into a chaotic hedonism that’s one part Night of the Living Dead and one part Caligula. Soon, Dr. St. Luc has no choice but to fly in the face of disease vector mechanics gone out of control.
Everything about Starliner is so pristine and white I can’t help but feel sympathy with readings of Shivers as a critique of whiteness itself. From the mind of a white director no less, sold to us as the usual horror movie about whiteness under assault by big, brown, penis-shaped monsters. Creatures that negate locked doors and square corners to sexually conquer Starliner’s residents by feeding their “primitive” urges.
Soon, everyone slides back down the evolutionary ladder into what can easily be mistaken for something another famous Hobbes once called “the Natural Condition of Mankind” i.e. one that’s “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Except they really don’t. Most of their focus goes into getting it on. They even seem to prefer that to chasing down the uninfected. Typical zombies can’t be dissuaded from brains for anything, least of all boobs. Typical zombie movies isolate societal microcosms and pit them against the living dead. Shivers does the reverse. Starliner’s begins as a societal microcosm, fully formed… and as things go on, you get the sense David Cronenberg’s not at all on this society’s side. His Hobbes creates probably the most anti-Hobbesian pack of monsters in the history of cinema: parasites meant to cripple and destroy the very Leviathan Dr. Hobbes’ namesake (Royalist asshole that he was) held up as the pinnacle of social evolution back in 1651.
From what we know of Annabelle Brown, her’s seems a pretty damn “poor, nasty, brutish and short” life… and not nearly as “solitary” as she probably would’ve liked. Dr. Hobbes used her and tossed her aside with the casual ease of a bad actor trying (and failing) to play consternation. The Starliner’s doorman spends his shifts reading porno pulps. No one even talks to each other until things go wrong. At one point, a character asks the moaning mob busting down his door, “Who are those people?” Janine does have one friend… but she’s played by Barbara Steele… and looks like she’s aiming to get into Janine’s pants from frame one.
So, not by parasites alone is this Starliner run aground. No one made Nick or that old man go up to Annabelle’s room. They sealed their own fates even as they let Dr. Hobbes’ genie out of the bottle. On one level, this is a Frankenstein story: human hubris brings about Apocalypse, aided and abetted by certain character’s foolish choices. Like the civilization it mirrors, Starliner’s needs only an odd, random element (the Mad Scientist) toiling away within its midst to bring the walls down and let the demons out.
This is sociological horror. Isolated, lonely, alienated, conformist, consumerist, sexually-repressed individuals are basically raped to death by slugs, rise again… and fall right in line with the New (Parasitic) World Order. About halfway in, as I began to get comfortable with the idea of sex zombies, and thus take them less seriously (“Sounds like set-piece baddies from 1974′s porno parody Flesh Gordon.”) I found myself grappling with the down-right-weird urge to actually root for the Infected.
After all, Dr. St. Luc’s a dolt… the typical Cronenberg protagonist… who arguably does more to help the parasites than anyone other than Hobbes. By failing to connect Janine’s fears for her husband to his (unappetizing) lunch-time conversation with Rollo… even though that conversation took place all of one scene ago… St. Luc fails to catch the outbreak in time. He also fails to hold onto his medical ethics once Free Love (for the Infected, anyway, since they’ll take it from you by force) breaks out in the halls, so there goes his heroic street cred. Batman would punch him right in the face, and who are you to argue with the Dark Knight? Did you help stop the Near-Apocalypse of ’09? Didn’t think so.
Paul Hampton plays Our Hero with what I suspect is a purposeful blandness, alienating him from the audience even before we see his unheroic behavior. At least Joe Silver gets into his character of Rollo. Too bad he only appears for a few minutes. If there’s a real hero on Planet Cronenberg it’s a nebulous concept like the “flesh” one character (I won’t say who) monologues about near the end of things.
More to the point, as the Starliner decays into exhibitionist chaos, I found myself wondering, “Is this what it was like to be a prude back in the 1960s and ’70s? Is this how fundamentalists feel now? Assaulted by an out-and-proud, sexualized culture?” It’s not as if Hobbes’ parasites want to bring back the Old Ones or replace everyone with pod-grown duplicates. They’ll force a slug down your throat… or up certain… other orifices, yes… but all the Infected seem to do is get it on and (eventually) chase St. Luc around. The idea of an apartment full of yuppie swingers does creep me out… but not as much as the idea of, say, rapist slugs eating their way out of my chest.
I was wrong. These creatures don’t care about Body Snatching. It’s the mind they snatch, out of the superficial shell of social constraints that imprison Starliner’s tenants. Once that whole pesky “sexual assault” business is out of the way, is the New Parasitic World Order really so bad? All ages, classes, races and creeds seem united behind screwing each other’s brains out as never before in all human history. Extrapolate that out to a planetary scale. Nations, infrastructures and social systems would collapse literally overnight, bringing about mass die-offs beyond even this misanthropic movie critic’s wildest dreams… allowing the planet to finally heal from the 25,000 years of sexual assault it’s endured at the hands of human civilization.
You know what? That’s a plan I can fully support. I’ve even got a bumper sticker slogan all ready for it: “Save the Planet: Go Screw Yourself.”
No mistake: Shivers is a long way from perfect. Acting ranges from the uneven to the wildly bad and Godzilla-sized plot holes abound. Like Rollo’s silence in the face of Hobbes’ statutory rape (okay, maybe Rollo’s just an asshole… but c’mon, she was twelve for Christ’s sake). Or the way the police just vanish after Hobbes’ murder-suicide brunch, leaving St. Luc to do all the requisite Scooby Dooing. I imagine the Canadian CDC would’ve made short work of these creatures, but who knows? I’m sure a right-winger would blame socialized medicine.
They all clicked off after the Obligatory Tit (and Lacy Panties) Shot. The rest of us… those who enjoy being unnerved and challenged by horror films… well, we already know Cronenberg’s work. I’m only saying you can go as far back as you like and you’ll only find more gold. Splattered in viscous liquid, smelling old and rank, but well worth the effort to clean up and take a good look at.
You could spend the time fucking, of course… but who am I to talk, right? To each their own… so long as everyone sees Shivers.
Originally published @ And You Thought It Was Safe on 10/08/10.