Sympathy for the Parasite: Shivers (1975)

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“Roger, I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I’m having trouble you see, because he’s old… and dying… and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully.”

This crude early effort from David Cronenberg is a personal favourite of mine. Shivers is Cronenberg at his schlockiest, the sex and violence more akin to mindless grindhouse exploitation than the cerebral dissections of his later work. Yet, as the above quote testifies, it is still unmistakably Cronenbergian. The parasitic creatures and venereal plot drive are wonderfully icky and there is a respect for and fascination with anatomy and medical science that sets it apart from other deadly virus B-pictures of the 70s. It feels of a piece with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and The Crazies but where Romero appears to relate to his characters, Cronenberg, of-course, seems more sympathetic towards the parasites.

There is a provocative edge too. The opening act of an old scientist apparently savaging a young schoolgirl – murdering her, stripping her bare then slicing open her torso before pouring acid inside – is a startling cold-open. Almost Sam Fuller-esque in it’s extremity, it puts you on solid uneasy ground that the rest of the film seeps outward from. The explicit sexuality in the film also feels raw and subversive. Sex and horror have always gone hand in hand but the way Cronenberg uses it, here and in future films, is played more for terror than titillation. I mean, it’s about a parasite that transforms it’s victims into sex-mad nutters. There’s incest, lesbianism and even suggests pedophilia. When the film descends into a swimming-pool bound orgy in it’s final moments, the images are truly psychotic and horrifying rather than sexy and fun.

For as much as Shivers does lack the polish of Cronenberg at his best, it’s moments like these, when the film’s effect is in tune with the director’s intent, that make it worth your time. As a Cronenberg nut, I’ve seen this movie a handful of times over a few years and just when I think I won’t return to it anytime soon, I find the imagery creeping back into my brain. There’s something addictive about seeing great filmmakers find their feet in their formative years. Shivers is really everything you would want from a first outing from Canada’s king of body horror. It would also make for good advance-reading for Ben Wheatley’s upcoming High-Rise.

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