“A scientist living in an apartment complex kills a girl and uses acid to destroy her internal organs, and then kills himself. While investigating, a doctor discovers that the scientist was doing experiments on the use of genetically engineered parasites as organ transplants. Soon, other people in the complex begin showing signs of carrying the parasites, spreading the things through wanton orgiastic abandon, and the complex begins suffering an attrition problem.” (courtesy IMDB)
Most of David Cronenberg‘s films prey on the frailty of the human body and the deviousness of the human mind, and contain metaphors for society’s twisted perception of social mores and human nature. In The Fly (1986), made while Cronenberg’s father was dying of cancer, Jeff Goldblum’s humanity gives way to his baser nature as a fly’s genetic makeup gradually overtakes his body and, in Dead Ringers (1988), Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologists who are attached psychologically until death do them part. Eastern Promises (2007) features a graphically violent fight scene in a steam bath where the combatants wield razor-sharp linoleum cutters, while A History Of Violence (2005) is a conscious homage to Sam Peckinpah films, in particular Straw Dogs (1971). Videodrome (1983), where television images literally suck viewers in, is a brilliant satire on media dominance in our culture and, in Naked Lunch (1991), the William Burroughs-based character suffers writer’s block so badly that he imagines his typewriter as a gooey imperious insect.
All these films can trace their ancestry back to Shivers (1975), also known in various countries and languages as They Came From Within, The Parasite Murders, and my personal favourite, Orgy Of The Blood Parasites. Starring Joe Silver, Paul Hampton and veteran scream queen Barbara Steele, and produced by a young Ivan Reitman, Shivers is a deeply black comedy set in an upper middle-class apartment building. It begins with a seemingly mad doctor in his consulting room apparently trying to rape a young female patient. In fact he forces her onto a table, disembowels her and pours acid into the resulting cavity. Not quite as disgusting as it sounds, it is nevertheless electrifying, and there is method in the doctor’s madness. We later discover he has developed a breed of parasite – slug-like creatures about ten centimetres long – which are intended to live symbiotically within humans and take over some bodily functions. Unfortunately, the main side-effect of the parasite is an aphrodisiac: Infected persons are sexually maddened or eaten away from within, or both.
What the film gives us, on a small scale, is sexual apocalypse directed with lunatic conviction, and a series of rather revolting variations on the theme of parasitic infection. Soon the apartment building resembles one of the less enlightened levels of Dante’s Inferno, and the film ends as the building’s occupants climb into their cars with manic gaiety and drive out to infect the rest of Canada, then the world. Basically, Shivers is a film about a form of venereal disease with really big germs. The grossness of the film is almost beyond belief for its era, but the initial reaction from critics seemed almost inadequate. The truth is this rather bizarre film opened up areas of reality that had barely been touched upon before in cinema, and provided metaphors with which to explore them. Shivers plays on the ambivalence brought about by the sexual revolution experienced in the early seventies. As in The Fly, base human nature cannot be kept under wraps, and the more you try to quell it, the more virulent it becomes. As isolated as the apartment building is, no one is safe.
I had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Cronenberg while visiting my old compatriot and scallywag Nicole Kidman on the set of To Die For (1995). By his own account, he is a sensitive thin-skinned person who is always amazed when people don’t like his films: “You know, of course, that it may happen, but I always show my movies with the utmost naivetĂ©. Because I love them, I expect you to love them. To me, they’re not shocking. It’s not the Oliver Stone approach to film-making. My absolutely first films, the shorts, I rigorously try to kind of suppress. People liked them because they’re funny and short. It’s really seeing me learning how to make films, since I’m completely self-taught, so these films were really the most primitive and awkward, and I was doing everything myself, from cutting the negative to recording the sound.”
The two short films in question are Transfer (1966) and From The Drain (1967), after which came two hour-long films shot in 35mm called Stereo (1969) and Crimes Of The Future (1970), which can be found among the special features on the DVD release of Fast Company (1979). “By that time I was branching out, but I don’t watch them now. I can’t. I remember seeing Fellini’s directorial debut, a film called Variety Lights (1950), when he was considered a neo-realist. A character comes onstage, one of those kind of sexually ambivalent amazing grotesques, and that’s all Fellini Satyricon (1969). All his films can be glimpsed in that early film, just in different proportions. The same is probably true of mine – certainly in Stereo and Crimes Of The Future, and I’d say in Shivers too. Shivers is my first movie, as opposed to my first film. Because it was commercial in the sense that I was being paid to make it, and everybody was a professional. Whereas my earlier short films were very much underground. There’s humour, genuine humour within the film, not send-up humour, but black humour. Then there’s that body-consciousness, a feeling that reality is physical, and I think that’s certainly one aspect of my films that is always there in different proportions.”
“You’ll notice kids very obsessed with their bodies, coming to terms with them. They get a cut and it’s a major big deal – the Band-Aids, the blood, and people grow up and later suppress this amazement that they are a physical being. I’m not very paranoid about my physical health – I race cars and, if I was worried about my body’s integrity, I wouldn’t be doing that. The trick you have as an artist or writer is to allow yourself to tap into things that most people suppress. When people respond to my movies, at least for the duration of the screening of the film, they have also allowed themselves to relax those inhibitions or sanctions or whatever, and connect with what I’m doing.” With this thought in mind I’d like to quickly thank The Washington Post and Video Magazine for assisting me in my research for this review, and graciously invite you to please join me again next week so I can poke you in the mind’s eye with another pointed stick from the faggot formerly known as Hollywoodland for…Horror News! Toodles!