MURDEROUS PARASITES THAT CAME FROM WITHIN AND GAVE EVERYBODY THE SHIVERS
In 1975 fledgling Canadian film maker David Cronenberg made his inaugural feature. For reasons known only to himself (and I sincerely hope it stays that way) Mr. Cronenberg chose as his subject genetically altered parasites that, upon entering the human body, turn that human into a violent, insatiable sex maniac. Then these adorable, slimy little creatures are passed from body to body, presumably destined to turn human society into a never ending sex orgy. The original title of this pleasant cinematic opus was THE PARASITE MURDERS. When released, the film was known alternately as SHIVERS, THEY CAME FROM WITHIN, and by its French title, FRISSONS.
The story takes place in a high rise apartment complex, the Starliner, which is located on an island just minutes away from the city of Montreal. As the film opens, we are being taken on a photographic tour of the complex as a droning male voice narrates. We see the modern (for 1975) decor and furnishings, the common areas, and the shops, restaurants, and medical facilities on the ground floor. Then a young couple arrive to look at an apartment and are met at the building’s entrance by a rather gaunt, weird loooking gentleman. As they begin their tour, the scene changes to a violent confrontation between a young woman and an older man in one of the units. The man is Dr. Hobbes, one of the creators of the parasite. He had used the woman as a guinea pig by implanting her with the parasite. However, the experiment has gotten out of control, and the doctor has decided to kill the woman and himself and destroy the parasite before it can start spreading. He doesn’t know that the woman has already been sexually active with several residents of the complex who are now infected as well. This opening sequence is very unsettling as the film switches back and forth between the graphic brutality in the woman’s apartment and the placid conversation of the young couple and the manager. Cronenberg wastes no time in leading the viewer into a world of disorder as the tranquil, antiseptic environment of the complex is shown as a thin veneer which barely conceals the ugliness going on behind locked doors.
We also learn that director Cronenberg is not going to hold anything back visually. The disgusting murder/suicide is shown in as much glorious gory detail as he was able to get away with. Blood is in ample supply. And soon we are treated (?) to an appearance by the parasites themselves, slithering their way around the building and grounds. They look like small pieces of raw meat that somehow can move. (Delicious indeed, although not nearly as amusing as the man-made chickens in ERASERHEAD (1977).) One man infected man standing on a balcony vomits a parasite onto an umbrella being carried by an old lady. It lands with an audible “splat” and then crawls off into the brush seeking its next host.
While all of this marvelous movie magic is entertaining the viewer, Dr. Hobbes’ partner, having discovered what Hobbes had been doing, contacts the Starliner’s resident physician, Dr. St. Luke, about the danger. The two men try to catch and destroy the parasites before they become unstoppable. In the meantime, we are treated to scene after scene of different residents of the building being infected by the creepy crawling monsters. Some of these scenes are filled with dark humor, such as a woman being attacked by a parasite jumping out of a washing machine and landing on her face. However, some scenes are quite ugly, especially those that involve children, and are very difficult to watch.
The most ostentatious infection happens to a gorgeous Lesbian named Betts, who receives a parasite while lounging in a bath tub sipping a glass of wine. The enterprising little critter comes up through the drain and swims it’s way between the woman’s legs and enters her body. Betts is portrayed by veteran actress Barbara Steele, who adds name value to a cast of lesser known actors. Steele had been a prolific star of European films during the 1960’s, many of them stylish Gothic horror films (BLACK SUNDAY (1960), NIGHTMARE CASTLE (1966). She brings considerable dramatic and sensual flair to her supporting role. Her other major scene, following her infection, involves a Lesbian kiss during which the parasite is seen to leave her throat and enter the throat of her partner. Steele would later praise Cronenberg as a director while calling him the man who brought gynecology to the horror film.
David Cronenberg firmly establishes his style with this impressive, visceral first effort. I have to hand it to the man. He manages to get his point across extremely well. He is showing us a society in decay and totally out of control, living solely for unlimited sexual pleasure and conquest. How appropriate that he would make this film in the middle of the 1970’s, the era when the sexual revolution launched in the previous decade was celebrating its ultimate victory with the spread of the free love, one-night-stand, drug infused, contraceptive sexualized culture that was finding rapid acceptance in mainstream Western society. Cronenberg was certainly trying to make a statement, but he couldn’t possibly have known how prescient that statement was. Dark and disturbing throughout, SHIVERS ends with a celebration of cynicism and hopelessness.