Shivers tells the story of an apartment block, ravaged by hordes of parasitic creatures after a scientist conducts unorthodox experiments. The parasite is a strange combination of sexual aphrodisiac and venereal disease that spreads throughout the block via the frenzied sexual desire of its host humans. Local physician Robert St Luc (Paul Hampton) and Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry) attempt to stop it.
On its release, the film met with huge controversy. Canadian journalist Robert Fulford took issues with the film’s extreme content, particularly as it was partially funded by the taxpayer. He called it “the most repulsive movie I’ve ever seen” and this attack made it very difficult for Cronenberg to gain funding for future projects.
One of the things that makes Shivers such an entertaining movie is that it is a complete mess. Whilst it’s usually a criticism, here the film’s frenzied structure enhances the notion of frenzy that forms the central theme. Its structure is almost episodic and, via this jumble, it allows for a huge number of characters to be present, highlighting the wide-ranging effects of the parasite’s spread.
Central to the success of the movie is that, like Cronenberg’s previous work, it actually has something to say. Shivers takes the animalistic human sexual urge and turns it into something dangerous, throwing light onto the darker side of human desire. Like his later film A Dangerous Method, it subscribes to the Freudian idea of humanity being driven by their base sexual desires. Here, the introduction of the parasite induces a wild sexual desire and, through the satiation of this desire, a hideous infection is passed on. It’s a metaphor for the dangers of humans being driven solely by their sexual urges.
This comes to fruition brilliantly in the movie’s insane finale. It brings together the intense strands of story into a swimming pool scene that descends into a massive slow motion orgy of sexual desire, followed by the insanely bleak ending as the residents of the apartment block calmly drive out to infect the world. This masterful contrast between the intense crescendo of desire and the calm spread of the infection is what gives the film its huge final punch: a punch that ensures the film remains in the mind for hours after the credits roll.
It’s by no means a perfect film though. Some of the acting is very ropey and the lame low-budget special effects make the parasites more laughable than scary. What’s scary is how the human characters act under the influence of the parasites. As with a lot of Cronenberg’s work, this is about humanity becoming unspeakably inhuman. It’s about the human body turning into the very thing that is most dangerous to us.
That’s why I loved Shivers. Everything that’s wrong with it is shunted to the background, so that all of the things it does right can take centre stage. The thing is, for most of the film, I didn’t realise just how good it was. But then that finale began and I was smacked right between the eyes by just how masterful the horror was and how brilliantly Cronenberg had skewered the evils of human desire.
Time hasn’t been kind to Shivers and, indeed, it is often forgotten by many as a horror film that never really made its mark on the genre in the way that other 70s and 80s “shlockers” did. But, for me, Shivers is an unsung masterpiece that really deserves more attention.
Next: Rabid (1977)