Shivers – David Cronenberg – Made in 1975, this is Cronenberg’s first ever feature length film and explores the same splicing of sex and body horror that animates the inspiration of much of his early work. Most noticeable in its similarity is his next feature, Rabid (1977). Shivers centres around an isolated high rise block, whose tenants become infected by a parasite that was originally engineered by a scientist. The scientist believed that man had strayed too far from his libidinous animalism, becoming ‘over-rational’, and so subsequently the scientist devises a parasite to operate as an infectious aphrodisiac. Like the ‘underarm, vampiric alien phallus’ that infects victims in Rabid, the parasite in Shivers is similarly ‘subtle’ in its manifestation. The parasite resembles a squelching hybrid between leech and turd, like a severed venereal member it stalks, nay squirms, the corridors – leaving suspicious trails of brown across walls.
With its guerrilla style budget of $180,000, Shivers is a veritable feast of bad acting, red paint and sets devoid of atmosphere. However, despite its shoestring aesthetics, it demonstrated Cronenberg’s uniquely troubling imagination. An imagination that had venereal parasites bulging from trembling torsos four years before Alien was made. There are some key and memorable scenes: the slithering peristalsis of one of the parasites as it inches between the legs of a woman bathing in her bathtub; two children barking like maniacal dogs – reminiscent of the iconic DVD front cover of Passolini’s Salo; a leech-like parasite emerging like a blackened tongue from a victim’s mouth. Despite its conceptual innovation and its historical quality, as the announcement of Cronenberg’s fascinating career, Shivers has many flaws which make it a less engaging watch today. One of the most troubling is its deeply problematic gender/sexual politics. In the rampaging visual excitement of following these unrepentant leech/cock/turd parasites, Cronenberg frequently seems to make some sexist decisions. It is apparently a requirement in this film for all women to be, at some stage, topless, or alternatively without a bra to maximise the nipple-count. Althouth this sort of brazen sexism is the kind which has become ironized and theorized as a horror trope, Cronenberg was never a director to follow such Neanderthal tics – and so it appears conspicuous here. It is a film about libidinous zombiefication, orgiastic violence and the intrusive phallus…but at this stage, Cronenberg’s ideas seem to be bounding ahead of his filming experience and maturity. 5/10