Every once in awhile I like to watch a David Cronenberg film. I have seen several at this point, from his earliest stuff like "Rabid" to his seminal reworking of "The Fly" starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. One thing you will always get from a Cronenberg film is a serious look at how technology and human beings interact. Like science fiction author J.G. Ballard, Cronenberg's films embrace a synthesis of man and machine that is exceedingly grim, an outlook usually complimented with generous helpings of gore. The overarching theme in his cinematic examinations seems to be that humans simply do not know enough about the technology they develop, or if they do, their arrogance in the ultimate abilities of mankind always leads them charging into experiments despite the risks. That we are just not far seeing enough to predict the outcome of using new drugs or messing around with human genetics may be a good message to take from a Cronenberg film. "Shivers" is Cronenberg's first major motion picture, and it is quite an auspicious beginning for the Canadian director. This film isn't great, not compared to some of Cronenberg's later magnum opuses, but it showed just enough promise to merit attention from Hollywood.
It's the wonderful 1970s in "Shivers," a time when fancy high-rise residences went up offering prospective tenants all the amenities. The Starliner, an apartment building situated on an isolated island somewhere in Canada, is one of these luxurious projects. The building offers everything for modern living--including a parasite that turns people into raving sex maniacs. Yep, you heard right. "Shivers" is about a bunch of poor souls undergoing painful invasions from nasty looking creatures that feed off their host in particularly vicious ways. The problem starts when a quack seeking funding for a radical new medical procedure experiments with the idea of replacing failed organs with an engineered parasite that will take over a particular organ's function. He introduces his repulsive creation into the body of a young girl living in the Starliner with the intention of monitoring how well his idea works, but things quickly go awry. It turns out that this young lady is quite popular with many of the male residents in the building, leading to the rapid spread of the parasite. At first nothing much happens to those people infected with the bug. There might be a fit or two of coughing, a general lethargy might set in, but after a few hours the psychoses set in. When it does, it is already much too late to stop the nightmare from spreading through the Starliner. Women, men, children--no one is immune from the horrific effects of this parasite.
The hero of "Shivers" is the physician at the Starliner, a man with little idea of the horrors he will soon combat as the parasite infects his patients. Aided by his loyal nurse (played by Lynn Lowry), the doctor soon finds himself hunted down by the insane residents as the late stages of the infection set in. The best plan of action is to get out of the building, which isn't as easy as it sounds since the Starliner purposely set out to provide an isolated atmosphere for its tenants. Throw in packs of ravenous loonies prowling the vast corridors of the building looking for fresh meat, and you can see the complications inherent in a run for freedom. The doctor must shoot and bludgeon to death several of his former patients just to stay alive for a few more minutes. As his panic grows, as his movements through the madhouse become increasingly erratic, he witnesses one nightmare after another. His nurse falls prey to the parasite, he sees children panting and crawling about like dogs, and he encounters a father and daughter in a mind-shattering situation. The conclusion to the film is what you would expect from a Cronenberg film--bleak, with little hope for a positive outcome.
You can tell "Shivers" is low budget fare, but Cronenberg uses what he has to great effect. The central idea of the film, that modern people seeking isolation from the larger population will fall flat on their faces, works because it doesn't require big budget set pieces. Heck, the director didn't even need big stars. Joe Silver, who did a turn in the director's next film appears here as a doctor on the outside who learns about the infection and pays a bloody price for his knowledge. Barbara Steele plays a small part as a single woman named Betts. The rest of the cast is unfamiliar but effective. Sure, some of the effects are slightly cheesy, the editing isn't all that great, but this movie stays with you. You can almost hear some Hollywood big shot saying to Cronenberg after watching the film, "Yeah, this part could have been better. Yeah, you should have done this instead of that. But kid, you got promise and we're going to keep an eye on you." Let's be thankful someone gave Cronenberg a chance to follow up on "Shivers."
I thought the DVD edition of the film was good. There's a twenty-one minute interview with Cronenberg where the director talks about his film experiences. I thought he came off as funny and self-effacing, explaining how he knew almost nothing about what a director did on a bigger budget film, how he had to help an actress prepare for crying scenes by slapping her face, and his experiences with Barbara Steele. His recollections concerning his panic over getting shots right should reassure beginning filmmakers that the only way to improve as a director is to dive right in. This interview serves as a sort of mini-commentary for the film and I appreciated its inclusion on the disc. Give "Shivers" a shot if you like horror movies.