The first feature by David Cronenberg, 1975’s SHIVERS pretty much set the stage for what was to come from “Dave Deprave.” It is at once a superbly imaginative, genuinely shocking horror fest and a sobering look at the possible consequences of late-60’s experimentation on succeeding generations (a popular topic in 70’s horror movies—see BLUE SUNSHINE). It’s not often one witnesses a filmmaker’s career-long obsessions arrive fully developed in his very first film, but then David Cronenberg definitely ain’t like most filmmakers.
SHIVERS is often recognized as the first “serious” Canadian horror movie (for an example of an earlier, non-serious Canadian horror flick, see 1970’s ludicrous counterculture schlock fest DR. FRANKENSTEIN ON CAMPUS). It was a product of the John Dunning/Andre Link-headed Cinepix, the Canadian equivalent of American International Pictures; Cronenberg has called the experience of making his first feature the “John and Andre film school.”
Prior to SHIVERS, Cronenberg had directed a handful of TV fillers and the evocative, if excessively artsy, short films STEREO (1969) and CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (1970). SHIVERS was created after a frustrating three-year gestation period during which Cronenberg traveled to Hollywood with the script, then called ORGY OF THE BLOOD PARASITES (a title, FYI, that was later adopted for a novel by Kim Newman). Once financing was secured, the film was put into production with a cast that included horror legend Barbara Steele (BLACK SUNDAY) and line producer Ivan Reitman, future director of STRIPES, GHOSTBUSTERS, et al (and who nowadays takes credit for directing much of SHIVERS). The rest, as they say, was history.
FYI, those looking to track down this film are urged to view it under its original title SHIVERS (available on DVD) and NOT as THEY CAME FROM WITHIN, the butchered version originally released in the US by New World Pictures.
Starliner Towers is a self-contained, ultra-modern apartment complex located on an island outside of Montreal (not dissimilar to the eponymous environ of J.G. Ballard’s famous novel HIGH-RISE, which appeared around the same time as this movie and bears quite a few similarities). It seems like an ideal place, but there’s trouble in paradise: the film has barely begun when a middle aged man brutally beats a uniformed schoolgirl unconscious, cuts open her chest and douses the exposed viscera with acid. He then slits his own throat and expires atop his victim.
If you flinch here you’re advised to skip watching the rest of the film. It gradually becomes clear that the killer was Dr. Hobbs, a research scientist looking to create an aphrodisiac parasite. He was using the girl to cultivate the thing, but when his experiment went awry he decided to kill her and himself. What he didn’t know was that the girl was quite promiscuous, and infected many of the apartment’s male tenants.
What follows is an all-out horror fest, as one person after another is infected with the slimy, distinctly phallic parasites, which cause ‘em all to go sex-and-gore mad. It ends with the Starliner’s infected populace packed in cars, leaving the apartment to infect the rest of the countryside.
The film, as is to be expected, is a mite clunky and amateurish overall. Cronenberg has admitted he didn’t know his craft too well when he started work on this film, or even what his fellow technicians were supposed to do. But the filmmaking does have an undeniable flair best evinced in the opening sequence, which effectively juxtaposes the gruesome murder and desecration of Dr. Hobbs’ doomed subject with a bright young couple moving into the building. Clearly, the unflinching perversity of future Cronenberg opuses like VIDEODROME and CRASH was already in full bloom. Ditto Cronenberg’s distinctively twisted sense of humor; in one early scene, a man pukes over a balcony, splattering an old woman’s umbrella with gore, to which she remarks: “Poor bird!”
SHIVERS [a.k.a. FRISSONS; ORGY OF THE BLOOD PARASTIES; THE PARASITE MURDERS; THEY CAME FROM WITHIN] Cinepix/Dal-Reitman Productions
Director: David Cronenberg
Producers: John Dunning, Andre Link, Ivan Reitman
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Cinematography: Robert Saad
Editor: Patrick Dodd
Cast: Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry, Barbara Steele, Susan Petrie, Ronald Mlodzik, Allan Kolman, Barry Baldaro, Camil Ducharme, Hanka Posnanska, Wally Martin, Vlasta Vrana, Silvie Debois, Charles Perley, Al Rochman, Julie Wildman