Cronenberg disturbs Jarv: Shivers
I’m precisely one film into this series and I’m already wondering if this is a good idea. I know exactly what Cronenberg is about, and I usually carefully ration them so that I don’t overdose on body-horror, but I’d forgotten how, well, icky some of the early Cronenberg films are. Shivers, or They Came From Within to give it its US title, is an exemplary early look at several of the themes that would come to dominate Cronenberg’s back catalogue.
Shivers takes place in an ultra-modern apartment block in Montreal. A rogue movie scientist (when will they ever learn) has implanted a parasite that’s “part aphrodisiac, part venereal disease” into a nubile teenager in an attempt to reduce mankind to a “beautiful brainless orgy”. Events are spiralling out of control and it is up to Dr. St. Luc and Nurse Forsythe to try to keep a lid on things.
There is, to be honest, an awful lot of pseudo-academic nonsense written about this film. Shivers has been hijacked by various philosophies (notably feminism), and by far the majority of the articles I’ve read about it are complete and utter rubbish. Shivers is basically a zombie film in the Romero mould- in that it is ostensibly about zombies, but really a comment on social issues of the time. In this case, Cronenberg was making a comment about the laissez-faire sexual scene in Montreal. It is not about “reasserting the earth mother” or “reconnecting with our primal instincts” or any of the rubbish I’ve read about it recently. I also, for the record, doubt that it had any influence at all on Ridley Scott’s seminal Alien, but I am willing to stand corrected on that one. I did find the “controversy” surrounding Shivers highly amusing, and thoroughly enjoyed reading some of the venomous comment from Canada’s artistic elite that the film prompted. Shivers was the most successful Canadian film ever on release, and this seems to have impelled every imbecile with artistic pretentions and a typewriter to pen such asinine twaddle as: “You Should Know How Bad this Movie Is: You Paid for It”. Which is, I suppose, what happens when you use tax-payer money to make a low budget, rough round the edges zombie sex-monster film.
Having said that, though, I do have to wonder about Cronenberg’s mental state at the time (or any other time) as he is on record saying that he identified more with the mindless zombie orgy participants than he did with the sterility of “normal life”, as represented by the brutal satire of the opening sales pitch, and the utterly banal opening advertisement for the building. Well, as the old people in Yorkshire say: “There’s nowt as queer as folk”.
The acting in Shivers is OK. Paul Hampton is fine as St. Luc, but Lynn Lowry is luminous as Forsythe. Cronenberg cast her on the basis of her haunting eyes and strange screen presence, almost ethereal, and this was a superb decision. Almost all of her time on screen, especially for the strange, repellent monologue late in the film has the camera focused closely on her eyes and there is an ethereal quality that suggests possession. All the actors, though, manage to give the phrase “make love” the most unsavoury and frankly nasty connotation that I’ve ever heard. It’s delivered slowly and lasciviously with a dreadfully sleazy drawl and when said by Nicholas (Allan Kolman) made my skin crawl. Even the otherwise gorgeous Lowry manages to make this simple phrase sound more base and crude than other more robust epithets.
Shivers was Cronenberg’s first feature film, and he freely admits that at the time he didn’t have the first idea what a crew actually did. This stands out clearly in the direction. It’s a rough film, with strange slo-mo mixing with weird jump cuts and poorly staged tableau. Nevertheless, there are still some genuinely brilliant visual metaphors (the chase down the enclosed corridor, for example) that show that he may not have been completely au fait with the technique, but still had a fine eye for a disgusting image- the much copied bathtub scene, or that the parasites are vaguely phallic for example. The score, on the other hand, is brilliant. It’s an unsettling mix of (I can’t think of another word for this) industrial sounds and weird music that serves to ratchet up the tension when required, and complements the action well without overwhelming it.
Then there’s the script itself. Shivers is clearly influenced by other horror films, notably the Romero zombie films and Bodysnatchers, but what I really want to talk about are the monologues. There’s many a Cronenberg film where the characters expressly state what they are going through, (think of Goldblum in The Fly) and these usually signpost the major themes of the film. Forsythe’s dream monologue at the end is vintage Cronenberg, a disturbing combination of unsavoury and revolting imagery, psycho-sexual themes and is genuinely upsetting:
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.
The relish that Lowry gives to the word “flesh” will recur in later Cronenberg (notably Videodrome) but this is a clear signpost of films to come. The fact that she ends the speech by having a parasite try to crawl out of her mouth prompting St. Luc to physically censor her by tying a scarf round her mouth (she proceeds to bleed through it) is a disturbing and unsubtle metaphor in a film full of disturbing and unsubtle metaphors.
One final point before I sign off, as there’s enough material here for me to rattle on for years, gradually climbing up my own arse due to pretention. Shivers is a seedy and upsetting film. The parasites transform the people into slaves to their own carnality, and once zombified they show little or no distinction in their sexual assaults. They show no regard for age (a very disturbing sequence with what is clearly a young girl), familial ties, gender, sexual orientation and the rest- the parasites exist solely to fuck, and will fuck indiscriminately. This is, no doubt, what prompted the furious reaction, and I have to say that the orgy scenes are not easy watching, and makes me wonder what precisely prompted Cronenberg’s low opinion of mankind.
Overall, Shivers is an extremely promising debut, albeit a film that I won’t be rushing back to at any point in the near future. It’s a film that makes you want to shower in bleach afterwards, but there’s no denying that it is a powerful and disgusting statement of intent. I don’t believe any of the revisionism attached to it, and I give little credence to any of the mostly laughable theories that I’ve read. I do, however, grudgingly recommend that everyone watches it.
Until next time,