Writer/director David Cronenberg's SHIVERS (1975) is simultaneously one of the most unsettling and hilarious movies I've seen. I laughed out loud many times, moreso than during aggressively marketed and branded comedies like THE HANGOVER. The laughs were sometimes deliberate on the part of the filmmakers, many other times not. I also laughed, I believe, as a defense mechanism to the unfolding dread, the highly uncomfortable (and even more scarily observant) scenario. Like when people are frightened or faced with something highly unpleasant. While it's easy to poke fun at what at first glance is a cheesy, amateurishly acted, ultra low-budget, 70s-to-the-hilt gross out, the subtext for many would be plently disturbing.
On an island off Montreal is a luxury high rise with all the ammenities a Yuppie could indulge. In the effective opening credit sequence, we're presented a slide show of the interiors and exteriors of the Starlite Island complex, its condos gleaming with modern accoutrements and its swimming pools Olympic sized. A narrator informs us that residents also have their own retail shops and deli. There's also a medical clinic with a doctor who'll make house calls as late as 9 or 10 P.M. The early scenes show prospective residents, a young couple being interviewed by our narrator, discussing
But meanwhile, just a few rooms over, an elderly man is wrestling with a schoolgirl, eventally stripping her of her blouse and pouring acid on and cutting into her abdomen before slitting his own throat. Familiar Cronenberg territory, or as one critic stated about SHIVERS, "sets the disgusting pattern for most of his subsequent pictures."
It is explained later that the killer was an esteemed university physician who had been experimenting with man-made parasites to aid with organ transplants. His creations, however, once mainfested, cause sexual disinhibition in its hosts, perhaps a result of the doctor's thesis that man has become too much of a thinking being, ignoring and suppressing primal urges. This fits in well with Cronenberg's repeated themes of physical evolution and fleshly metamorpheses. Remember James Woods' final line in VIDEODROME?
The parasites are red, appropriately phallic looking slugs that manage to travel throughout the Starlite, infecting almost everyone, spread through any sort of contact, not just sexual. One infamous scene shows a parasite climbing through the drain of a tub and entering a bather's er, orifice. Other times the little troublemakers are transmitted through kisses. This is relevant as every victim suddenly becomes uncontrollably aroused. This essentially being an exploitation movie, the opportunities abound.
And the director spares us very little with his "attack scenes". Boundary pushing? Good taste? Consider the scene where a man (squeezing what looks like a jelly donut through his fingers) attacks a woman and her very young daughter in an elevator. Or two children on a leash, barking like dogs. Or the finale, a man overtaken in the Starlite pool by armies of naked condo dwellers. SHIVERS is an extravanganza of sex and gore, enough so that the Canadian Board refused to assist Cronenberg with funding for his next few films. In an interview, the director reported that after an article ("You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is, You Paid For It") damning SHIVERS was published in a national magazine, he was kicked out of his Tornoto apartment due to "decency rules"!
But I have to be fair. SHIVERS is not just cheap smarm. The elements of sex and violence are explored, to my eyes, not for titillation but for clinical analysis. Most intriguingly, as to their similarities. Cronenberg is almost downright medical with his films, adopting a scientist's objective approach to physiologic/psychologic decay. While some of the characters do expire, most are merely transformed. Evolving. Some might say regressing. Others might agree with the doctor who created the parasites, observing a return to the primal, what makes humans, animals.
You might also say, irrational, but there can be an argument there. The "victims" in SHIVERS (also known as THEY CAME FROM WITHIN) may not be mere lower brainstem zombies mindlessly eating flesh, but rather more cunning in their efforts to recruit others to join them. As the mob grows, we may be reminded of George Romero films, as each of the newly infected salivates and extends arms toward new "recruits". Cronenberg may be arguing that the doc was right, that, speaking microcosmically, the Starlite resident were mindless, repressed consumer zombies before they were infected, and now they are liberated. Your milage may vary on that point.
I read an interesting take - that SHIVERS is a parable for the invasion of American mores and values on Canadians, something the director denies. There is no denying that this film will get you thinking, if you're not too busy covering your eyes, being outraged, or laughing.....