Home Grown Horror: The Violent, Sexual Delights of Cronenberg’s Shivers

Canada Day is July 1, so in celebration of one of the nation’s most prolific genre filmmakers, I finally checked out 1975’s Shivers (sometimes referred to as They Came From Within), an early “body horror” film by David Cronenberg.

Back in the late 70s, Cronenberg was a bit of an enfant terrible in Canadian cinema. The Toronto native was directing what were perceived as sleazy, low budget horror films that were extra controversial because they were funded by Canadian tax payers (for additional context, check out of my piece on Canadian Tax Shelter films in Grim Issue 2 or hit up Canuxploitation, a gem of a resource on Canadian genre films). Naturally there’s more to horror films than meets the eye and Cronenberg’s early works are important entries in the burgeoning “body horror” subgenre, where a crucial component of a film’s horrific appeal is the mutation/evolution/infection of the body.

While Rabid is arguably Cronenberg’s more contentious early horror film – that one stars famed American porn actress Marilyn Chambers – Shivers is Cronenberg’s first feature and it remains an underseen gem. In celebration of Canada’s contribution to the horror genre, let’s do a deep dive into the 1975 flick. Spoilers to follow.


Synopsis: “The residents of a suburban Montreal high-rise apartment building are being infected by a strain of parasites that turn them into mindless, sex-crazed fiends out to infect others through the slightest sexual contact.”

Reception: Shivers is a prime example of horror films being exploited for political and cultural gain. As I mentioned above, the film was largely funded by taxpayer dollars so its “salacious” content, including a variety of sexual attacks, murders and what would have been considered deviant sexual content, was condemned and publicly debated.

The outcry began with a scathing piece written by journalist Robert Fulford for well-respected Saturday Night magazine, entitled “You should know how bad this film is. After all, you paid for it.” The resulting furor eventually became so significant that debates about public funding models for films were held in the Canadian House of Parliament.

Cronenberg (eventually?) found the public outcry amusing. It’s also ironic considering that Shivers was the first film supported by the tax initiative that actually turned a profit. In hindsight this isn’t surprising considering how profitable we know the horror genre can be, particularly notorious films that are steeped in controversy.

Still many of Cronenberg’s early films faced harsh criticism and were considered in poor taste until he was embraced by international critics for confronting masterpieces featuring Hollywood stars in Videodrome (1983), Dead Ringers (1988) and Naked Lunch (1991), as well as mainstream blockbuster The Fly (1986). Only then were his early films re-appraised; they have since been re-appropriated into Canadian cinema canon.

Shivers
Children are fair game in Cronenberg’s 1975 debut feature

The Film: Watching Shivers from a contemporary perspective is fascinating because the film remains evocative, disturbing and relevant. Even more interesting is how Cronenberg’s obvious budgetary restrictions led to his decision to situate the film in a single high rise apartment building and limit how much we see of the parasite, but the fiscal constraints actually work in the film’s favour.

The opening of the film is a montage with voice-over of a series of brochure-like still images outlining the amenities of the Starliner Towers. There is an immediate sense of the banal commercial conformity afforded by this gentrified, white, middle class, English speaking community – its all-in-one convenience and isolated island location at first acts as a gatekeeping mechanism to keep undesirables out, but later becomes a prison when the infectious outbreak begins to spread.

Initially it appears that our protagonists are the prospective tenants being toured around by smarmy building manager Merrick (Ronald Mlodzik) in the opening scene, but before these characters are even named, Cronenberg cuts to a horrific scene: overweight Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein) attacking, murdering and dissecting an attractive young woman, Annabelle Brown (Cathy Graham). This event immediately undercuts the messaging that the complex offers a safe, clean lifestyle, delivered only minutes beforehand, and simultaneously anticipates the violence yet to come. In only a few minutes, Cronenberg has laid bare his plans to shock, unsettle and critique our perceptions.

Fred Doederlein, Cathy Graham
Cronenberg masterfully juxtaposes the safety and security of gentrified gated living with the murder of Annabelle (Cathy Graham) by Dr. Hobbes (Fred Doederlein)

The nature of the murder – wordlessly contained within the Starliner’s crisp white walls, juxtaposed in editing by scenes of the tour as well as an unfurling domestic drama in the Tudor household – also confirms Cronenberg’s satirical bent. The innocuous, mundane existence promised by those gated communities and their fine, upstanding tenants? That’s little more than a blatant lie.

Shivers greatest strength is its conflation of the relationship between class and repressed/perverse sexual desires, including assault, rape and murder. There’s enough exposition between our defacto protagonist, Doctor Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) and Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver), an university colleague of Hobbes, to establish the nature and origin of the pathogen, but this is little more than window dressing for Cronenberg to justify the wholesale deconstruction of the nationalistic dream of wealth, privilege and security.

The tenants of the Starliner are, for the most part, ciphers: the audience rarely, if ever, learns their name, profession or background before they are assaulted in their homes, in the hallways, in the elevator, in the carpark or in the pool. Many of them look similar, have little to no dialogue, and barely put up a fight before they are subdued, infected and sent off to continue the cycle. Even the more substantial characters – Roger, Nurse Forsyth (Lynn Lowry), hysterical girlfriend to Doctor Roger; philandering parasite carrier Nicholas Tudor (Allan Kolman); his daft, put-upon wife Janine (Susan Petrie) and her possibly lesbian best friend, Betts (Barbara Steele) – lack depth.

And yet I would argue that the absence of three dimensional characters hardly matters. Cronenberg’s lean screenplay is masterful at quickly and efficiently generating empathy for its characters. Even the poor nameless victims who seemingly exist solely to meet inevitable deaths are memorable. I sympathized with the large obtuse woman infected when she mistakenly opens the wrong dryer lid in the laundry room as much as I enjoyed the jaunty porter she subsequently attacks while he attempts to deliver food, and I cringed when the young mother and her charge succumb to the porter’s attack in the elevator afterwards.

Cronenberg shows us just enough of these people before they are infected so that our interested is piqued, then he ensures they return in an infected state in crowd shots later for consistency and to reignite our sympathy at their newfound condition. It’s a frugal necessity for a low-budget horror film, as well as a savvy storytelling decision.

Allan Kolman
Nicholas (Allan Kolman) in one of Shivers’ goriest, most memorable scenes

What’s so admirable is that Cronenberg knows when to use his financial constraints to benefit the film and when to throw a little more money at a sequence to make it pop. Two standout cases in point:

  1. On the cheap side: the scene when Betts takes a bath. Using only brief glimpses of the parasite emerging from the drain, careful framing and editing and actress Barbara Steele’s reaction, the implied rape of Betts by a parasite in the bath is disturbing, uncomfortable and exceedingly sexual. Bonus points for potentially informing the Krueger glove scene while Nancy is in the bath in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.
  2. On the expensive side: the scene when Rollo Linsky stumbles upon bedridden Nicholas Tudor, the carrier of Anabelle’s parasites, and is nearly infected before being bludgeoned to death. It’s a stunning, gory sequence that clearly required a more elaborate set-up and substantially more effects, but it is all the more powerful for the time and money.

So what of the much debated and discussed debased content of the film? In contemporary terms, the outrage and subsequent controversy would be considered laughable. This is particularly true given Cronenberg’s deliberate avoidance of sensational material. In fact, many attacks occur offscreen, are implied or are shot so that only parts of bodies are visible, while the gore is slight and used mostly for tension and mood-setting.

The moral outrage unquestionably has more to do with sex than violence. As mentioned, this is exceedingly ironic given the film’s interest in exploring the repressed sexual appetites of buttoned-up middle-class Anglophiles in Montreal that go crazy when they are infected by the parasites. Kudos, then, to Cronenberg for including a lesbian kiss between Janine and Betts, a(n insinuated) gay couple, a brief glimpse of two women being walked on leashes and more than a few sequences that evoke both orgies and wet ‘n wild pool parties in 1975.

Barbara Steele
Betts (Barbara Steele)’ bath sequence unquestionably contributed to criticisms of Shivers’ debased sexual content

While the depiction of violence against women and the use of female nudity (including one frankly ridiculous case of sexposition when Nurse Forsyth casually strips naked while Roger chats on the phone) hasn’t aged particularly well in the intervening forty years, it’s hardly shocking that Cronenberg leaned towards titillation. Simply consider how T&A goosed box office grosses in an age when Roger Corman’s exploitation films were raking in the dough.

All in all, Shivers is exceptionally entertaining, gritty and nihilistic. The haunting final shots and voice-over are chilling, as is the fate of all of the characters of the Starliner, including not only our protagonists, but countless women and several children. Cronenberg’s first feature is a wonder of low budget filmmaking that holds up exceedingly well (minus a few antiquated social/cultural hiccups). Overall there’s a great deal here to recommend.

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