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Canuxploitation!

Shivers

(AKA They Came From Within) 1975, Starring Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry, Alan Migicovsky, Susan Petrie and Barbara Steele. Produced by Ivan Reitman. Written & Directed by David Cronenberg (Cinepix).






Guest Review by Patrick Lowe

David Cronenberg is once again in fashion. After the financial failures of Existenz and Spider, our country's most celebrated auteur has gotten back into the saddle thanks to A History of Violence, which as of this writing, is still holding a spot on the top ten box office list. The title alone, A History of Violence, seems to sum up Cronenberg's movie career, an irony further compounded by the fact that History was released a couple weeks shy of the 30th anniversary of D.C.'s first venture in venereal horror, Shivers. Since its debut (October 10, 1975 to be exact), Cronenberg's debut shocker concerning a slimy parasite invading an apartment high-rise has gained several reputations. For many, it's a seminal '70s horror flick, a film that provided both bloody popcorn for the masses as well as food for thought, while others regard it as little more than D.C.'s initiation in commercial movie-making a harbinger of better things to come, but an amateurish grade-Z effort all the same. Shivers has undergone myriad readings over the past three decades, interpreted as a Bunuelian attack on the middle class, a cautionary tale for the Me generation and a prophetic foreshadowing for the forthcoming AIDS epidemic. Above all else, it is best remembered for the outrage it inspired among Canada's cultural elite, leading even one critic to pronounce, "If using public money to produce films like (Shivers) is the only way that English Canada can have a film industry, then perhaps English Canada should not have a film industry."

Anyone who's followed D.C.'s career knows the story well. With two experimental shorts behind him, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg began to market a feature script called Orgy of the Blood Parasites in order to break into big time movie-making. He eventually hooked up with John Dunning and Andre Link at Cinpix in Montreal, and after holding off for three years, the Canadian Film Development Corporation decided to take a chance on the neophyte director. With Ivan Reitman (fresh off Cannibal Girls) as producer and a $100,000 budget, the film, now retitled The Parasite Murders (and eventually Shivers), was finally brought to fruition. Then the shit hit the fan. Robert Fulford, writing under the alias of Marshall Delaney, absolutely savaged the film in his Saturday Night magazine review. "(The film) is a disgrace to everyone connected with itincluding the taxpayers," he ranted. "It's as if the Canada Council, wildly casting for a way to get Canadian writers working, were to invest in sadistic pornography." The funding of the feature sparked a major debate in Parliament alongside the sex comedy Sweet Movie, and more than a few columnists took turns at denouncing the film. But Cronenberg & Co. had the last laugh. Shivers made $5 million worldwide, ironically one of the few features to actually return its investment to CFDC. (Fulford claims Shivers never earned the feds a cent, though his clueless arrogance makes everything he says suspect.) Over the years, the film has gone on to become a cult item, and it is rumoured that Dan O'Bannon borrowed more than a few ideas from the movie to embellish his own screenplay for Alien.

In fairness to its critics, Shivers is an extreme piece out (in D.C.'s own words) to "show the unshowable," by eagerly violating more than one onscreen taboo. But for the offended parties involved, it wasn't enough that the film was bloody and pornographic at taxpayer expense. Slamming Shivers alongside Face-Off and The Neptune Factor, bulbous Fulford wrote, " they were not Canadian they were not artistic and for the most part they were failures." Not Canadian? The sheer irony of those wordsunlike later tax-shelter efforts, Shivers makes no attempt to conceal its Montreal locales or country of origin, actually tapping into some of our nation's deepest traditional fears. On a more personal note, the film's "Canadianess" is one of the reasons why Shivers has unnerved me ever since I saw it late night on CKY TV back in 1981. It wasn't just the Grand Guignol house of horrors Reitman and Cronenberg had unleashed with its giant leeches and ravenous sex fiends. What also got to me was an innocuous bit of product placementwhen Susan Petrie is shown reading a copy of Chatelaine magazine. And dammit, my mother had the same backissue down in the basement! Thus it hit home that the terrors onscreen were not taking place in Lugosi's Transylvania or Hammer's fog-infested London or some sleepy New England hamlet. No, it was taking place right here, in our home and native landbelow the belt and above the 49th,

The movie starts with a slideshow advertising Starliner Towers (located on Nun's Island, just outside Montreal), a state-of-the-art apartment complex with all the conveniences 1975 has to offer. We see a happy Swedish couple, the Svibens, make their way into the lobby to sign a lease with the smarmy manager Merrick (Ron Mlodzik, also the ad's narrator). As they do so, their idyllic scenes are intercut with shots of a young woman being chased around a living room by a balding, desperate man. After catching and strangling her, the man lays out her topless cadaver, tapes her mouth, carefully slits open the stomach with a scalpel, and then proceeds to dump a bottle of steaming acid into the cavity. Out of remorse, he commits suicide by slitting his own throat. Two levels below, Nicholas Tudor (Alan Migicovsky), an insurance adjuster, is casually cleaning his teeth before breakfast, when suddenly he begins to hemorrhage, much to the dismay of his doting wife Janine (Susan Petrie). Nicholas heads off to work, but not before paying a visit to another suite, where he calls out for Annabellewhich turns out to be the massacred girl, still festering on the table. He flees the scene, continuing to retch.

After the police arrive to take away the body, we learn through Starliner's resident doctor Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) that the girl's murderer was his own former medical professor, Dr. Emile Hobbes. After meeting with the late-Hobbes' business partner Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver), Roger learns that Linsky and Hobbes were developing a special breed of parasite for the purpose of replacing diseased organs. Annabelle, it turns out, was Hobbes' teen mistress, though the purpose of her murder is still a mystery. Meanwhile, Nicholas has returned home from work, sick and bleeding at the mouth, when inexplicably he starts to vomitupchucking a bloody pulp over the balcony, hitting an umbrella shared by two senior ladies below ("Oh the poor birdy" the taller one says, disposing the lump onto the ground.) The "poor birdy" turns out to be a phallic-shaped, foot-long parasite, which writhes its way through the grass into the apartment's ventilation system. How nasty this thing is is revealed in the basement laundry room, when a dumpy old woman innocently opens the lid to one of the washers. The bug springs out, clamps onto the side of her face, and burns into her skin as she falls unconscious. (This scene is almost copied verbatim for John Hurt's meeting with the face-hugger in Alien.)

Back at Starliner's residential medical clinic, Dr. St. Luc and his nurse Miss Forsythe (Lynn Lowry) begin to notice a growing number of male tenants sporting bizarre abdominal growths. Janine, egged on by her lesbian friend Bettes (Barbara Steele), begs the doctor to make a house call on behalf of her moribund husband. As St. Luc investigates, Linsky calls and reveals that Annabelle was in fact Hobbes' guinea pig, housing a special parasite he devised, equal parts "venereal disease and aphrodisiac" to help man get more in touch with his primal self (" Too much brains and not enough guts," as Linsky puts it). Knowing now that Annabelle was also popular with other male residents, Linsky warns St. Luc that the creature is intended to get out of hand quickly "to turn the world into one beautiful orgy" and even agrees to check up on Nicholas himself. But when pressed by Forsythe as to whether anything is wrong, St. Luc calmly replies that it's "nothing we can't handle." By now, Nicholas, stuck in bed, is talking to the parasites bulging from his hairy torso, enjoying himself far too much. Elsewhere, the leech is making its way to other tenants. When Bettes decides to take a relaxing bath, the oversized worm makes its way up the drain, crawling up between her legs, and.... well, you get the idea. "The sound you hear of legs crossing are your own," mused critic Geoff Pevere in reference to that very moment.

Night approaches, and all hell breaks loose. "Hungry with love," the infected elderly washerwoman from before lunges out of her suite to attack a delivery boy. Possessed with the bug himself, he in turn rapes a mother and daughter, who later pounce on the building's security guard, spreading the parasite with a deadly French kiss. To St. Luc's dismay, more tenants are turning into roving sex fiends, out to further spread the cause. Even tearful Janine ends up getting the bug after being seduced by Bettes. Unable to escape after his car gets crashed by a crazie, St. Luc tries to hide and wait it out with Forsythe. That tactic is compromised when Forsythe delivers a creepy speech on how everything is meant to be erotic, revealing that she too has the bug up her throat. Now the entire complex has become a beehive of insanity, the inhabitants openly copulating in the halls, satiating their basest desires. Hopes for an antidote get quashed when Linsky accidentally gets a faceful of parasites while analyzing Nicholas, who in turn kills Linsky, upset that he's playing with his boys. In one last attempt at escape, St. Luc makes his way out via the indoor swimming pool and into the open air. Alas, the entire area is now surrounded by a human chain of possessed tenants. They force the doctor into the pool where Forsythe emerges to initiate St. Luc. The final scene shows the doctor, the last hope against the epidemic, now calmly leading a carpool of cheerful, infected tenants off of Nun's Island and into the metropolis of Montreal.

And this, Cronenberg says, is a happy ending he even admits to identifying with the disease. "It's my conceit that perhaps some diseases perceived as diseases which destroy a well functioning machine, actually turn it into a new but still-functioning machine with a different purpose," he explains. "Look at (the disease) from its point of view. Very vital, very excited, really having a good time. It's really a triumph if you're a virus." Perhaps this explains what makes the film's last half so unsettling it's not just that the parasite transmogrifies average citizens into depraved maniacs, but that the victim becomes a parasite advocate of sorts, willing to fight and die for it with ideological fervour. Even when played up for black comedy, the scenes where normal people get violated, become possessed, and then psychotic, are deeply disturbing. Yet the general consensus with many fans and academics is that repulsive as the bug and its after-effects are, the disease actually liberates the smug middle-class from the lonely, soul-destroying structure of Starliner Towers, adding some carnal colour to the sterility. Or, as Cronenberg put it, "Living on Nun's Island (during the shoot), we all wanted to rip that place apart and run naked, screaming through the halls." Director's earnestness aside, I really don't think D.C. succeeds in making the case for VD as liberation anymore than I believe the chilling finale to be a happy onethere is a much more salient theme at work.

As previously mentioned, it's rumoured that Alien stole a few ideas from the film, and there's more than a few passing similarities between the Nostromo's beasties and the Starliner parasite, a point Cronenberg is all too happy to bring up in interviews. His detractors, in return, would point out that D.C. himself borrowed liberally from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Night of the Living Dead. Certainly, scenes of St. Luc and Forsythe fleeing the horny hordes owes its influence to those titles (even the ending is strangely similar to Bob Clark's Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, where a band of zombies board a boat to leave an island and attack the mainland city). I'd also argue that a big chunk of the film owes its inspiration to The Exorcistthe shots of a bed-ridden, possessed Nicholas have obvious parallels with Linda Blair in the rough, and the American poster for Shivers bares the tagline " Terror beyond the power of priest or science to exorcise!" Occasionally, Cronenberg's debut even resembles a '70s porn comedy, where formal situations provide opportunities to disrobe and fuck the plumber (such as when Merrick traps a middle-aged couple in the rec room and starts to undress). In that light, it's even possible to see Shivers as the Deep Throat of horror films, with its fixation on sex and phallic leeches going down the hatch. Yet whatever its influences, the film never becomes derivative. There's too much that is startlingly original to keep it from being dismissed as run-of-the-mill '70s schlock.

" Killer parasites on the loose" is not a novel concept, having already been exploited in The Tingler and Brain Eaters, but what was original about Shivers' aphrodisiac slug was how it related to fickle human flesh. The bug doesn't just attack and control its victim it penetrates, accommodates, and even intermingles with its host, all the while incubating in the stomach. Here, special credit goes to makeup man Joe Blasco for his gross-out work. The bulging of Migcovsky's chest through the clever use of air bladders or the icky parasites themselveslatex coated water balloonsare still gruesomely convincing by today's standards. The movie's overall look has been criticized for its patchy lighting and uneven location sound, yet that only effuses the film with the heightened realism of an NFB docudrama. Plus, Cronenberg's first time direction has a visceral spontaneity his later films lack, turning an ordinary apartment building into a claustrophobic palace of terror. Bathrooms, hallways, stairwells, bedrooms, lobbies and car parks become venues for whatever is lurking in the dark, and almost every shot is designed to give its shocks their maximum impactForsythe's handheld point-of-view shot as she runs through the car park is particularly nerve-wracking. And for all the critical sneers towards the acting, D.C.'s casting seems inspired. Paul Hampton might be a stiff, but he's wholly appropriate as the orderly, by-the-book professional unprepared for the chaos at hand. Joe Silver is fun as the ambitious and cheerful Linsky, exuding a child-like enthusiasm which makes his death all the more tragic. My fave though is Alan Migicovsky as Nicholas. Physically (and maybe intentionally) resembling Anabelle with his curly hair, large pouty lips, and schoolboy mannerisms, Migicovsky becomes a grotesque delight, a spoiled and impulsive adult brat happily over-consumed with the very virus that's wreaking havoc on him and everyone else.

In fact, Nicholas' self-indulgence, which estranges him from all who try to make contact, prompts a question: if the parasite is meant to liberate its dwellers from their imposed isolation, why does the adulterous businessman become more reclusive? Why isn't he running amok with the rest of the tenants? And if Starliner is such an isolating place, as Cronenberg and others maintain, how does it divide people from one another? True, we do see the tension between various couples, and yes, the parasite does draw Janine to Bettes (for a more fulfilling relationshippardon the pun). But I don't think Cronenberg makes the case that it's sterile, modern architecture that's separating or dehumanizing people. There's none of the urban isolation of Egoyan or Antonioni onscreen to indicate this society's need for an enema. All we see, for the most part, are happy-go-lucky citizens going about their business until the plague hits. So however joyful the finale's departing mob is, it's hard to see how their apocalyptic orgy of bloody bacchanalia is going to make the world a better place.

What the movie shows is a different idea altogether. Right from the get-go, Starliner is presented as an urban utopia, civilization at its pinnacle, only to become a breeding ground for the barbarian within. The apartment could even be seen as a metaphor for a body getting corrupted (not far off if you consider Cronenberg's theory that technology is a human extension). Rabid works on a similar premise where a contemporary medical centre paradoxically becomes a breeding ground for human rabies at the price of saving one human's life. In a not too subtle way, both the Keloid Clinic and Starliner Towers are presented as contemporary Edens whose sanctums are irretrievably violated, and rape becomes as much a metaphor in these films as does disease or death. After all, what do both the parasite and Marilyn Chamber's proboscis resemble? A penis that penetrates people, painfully so, and causes them rape and assault everyone in sight. I rest my case.

This message of good intentions going awry wasn't one nationalists in the mid-'70s would be keen on hearing. Canada was still in throes of Trudeau's just society rage, the Olympics were just around the corner, and Quebec separatism was still in the shadows. Nation-building was at a high with its faith in a well-ordered, egalitarian state. So it wasn't just the near-pornographic nature of Shivers that was pissing off anyone with Marshall Delaney-type sensibilities, but the suggestion that any well-ordered, compassionate society is a gateway to our basic instincts. In that regard, it makes sense that Roger St. Luc is head of a medical clinic (like Rabid's Dan Keloid), a man whose job it is to officially care, but not to handle chaos. In the light of the current Medicare crisis, or at a time when the country's unity is in jeopardy, the film seems bizarrely relevant, though I doubt Cronenberg intended to make any commentary on Canada's healthcare system. It does, however, speak volumes about our nation's biggest phobia: breakdown and disorder. That's whymore than the excessive gore'scenes of civilized men, women and children going apeshit in the corridors makes Shivers truly scary and all the more Canadian. Call it our National Scream.

Now, thirty years later, the same media who once burnt David Cronenberg in effigy now honour him continually once the baron of blood, now he's the toast of the Cannes Film Festival. And yet, as his reputation grew along with the stature of his films, something was lost. Even Fulford himself couldn't have foreseen how D.C.'s movies over the years would become even less Canadian. No longer at the mercy of available locations in Montreal, they are usually set in the impersonal, region-neutral settings of generic Toronto, mid-west America, or whatever sets Carol Spiers has on the sound stage. Worse, ever since Dead Ringers, his sense of mise-en-scne has become too controlling and formal, with only traces of his original edge from the Cinpix days. Naked Lunch and Existenz were slow-moving, stagey and insular works, excruciating at times to watch, while Crash and Spider were big-budget arthouse flicks bearing the same esoteric trademarks that could make Egoyan's films so unwatchable. Even with A History of Violence, every shot and character seems too planned, too deliberate, as if to validate Linsky's dictum of brains taking precedence over guts.

Then again, Cronenberg hasn't made a real horror film since The Fly and he's had to grow as an artist, following his own museotherwise, he would have joined George Romero and John Carpenter in simply recycling his glory days. Cronenberg's vision, like that of any great artist, has evolved over time, but remains loyal to the same themesthe travails of our own bodies and minds, along with the carnal terrors they release. Only now it's gone beyond the confines of traditional sci-fi, and with any luck, he might even be an Oscar contender with the success of History. Yet all the same, I miss the low budget, gut-wrenching power of Shivers and Rabid, perhaps because they are so crude, low-brow, and nationally incorrect and this makes me cherish them more than the director's more progressive works. Perhaps it was Mike Holbloom who summed it up best in a line from his short film Frank's Cock: "The body does not believe in progress." Neither does Shivers, nor the citizens of Starliner as they go forth to happily wreck havoc, which alone bringing to mind D.C.'s very own words while once on-set: " More blood! More blood!"


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