David Cronenberg is a man with a lot of issues and these have frequently spilled out into his movies. In particular he has had an obsession over the years with various horrors being done to the human body. The follow-ups to this movie - Rabid and The Brood - manage to handle his themes better, with the strange obsessions he has with parasitic infections and venereal disease. The roots of that can be found in Shivers which, in some ways, seems to be a dry run for Rabid.
Starliner Apartments is an exclusive residential block on an island in Montreal. Unfortunately, it's also the home Dr. Hobbes (Fred Doederlin), who has been doing experiments on a young student named Annabelle (Cathy Graham). Originally a project in partnership with Dr. Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver) to replace organs with benign parasites, Hobbes instead decided to breed something that would free humans of sexual inhibitions.
Hobbes has second thoughts and kills Annabelle (and then himself) to make sure the parasites don't spread. Unfortunately she has been getting around the complex, infecting a number of people, including insurance adjuster Nicholas Tudor (Allan Kolman). His wife Janine (Susan Petrie) becomes concerned and informs Dr. Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), the doctor at the complex's clinic. He begins to investigate Hobbes's work with Linsky's help as well as with the aid of his girlfriend Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry), soon finding out to his horror that the parasite is loose in the complex and has infected most of the residents.
Shivers was partially funded by the Canadian government and became the touchpoint for controversy as the question came up about whether tax dollars should be backing the making of what some critics considered trash. It was certainly not the first Canadian horror film - Bob Clark had released two, Dead of Night and Black Christmas, in 1974 - but he was largely working on his own rather than using government funds to help finance the movie. The resulting blowback from Shivers resulted in Cronenberg having trouble getting financing for Rabid, despite the fact that Shivers (under the title They Came from Within) became one of the most financially successful Canadian movies to that point. Between he and Bob Clark he managed to kick off a minor wave of Canucksploitation films that would carry on through the 1980s.
I am sure the sexual content of the film had something to do with it because, especially compared to other Cronenberg movies, the actual gore is kept to a minimum. Obviously this had a lot to do with budget, but he probably figured the slug creatures looked frightening enough. Oddly, quite a few contemporary films with Shivers would have celebrated the sexual freedom, as this was still during the sexual revolution and prior to the AIDS crisis. Instead, Shivers works as kind of a warning. The transfer of the parasite, even between married couples, is often through non-consensual sex. Janine and Nicholas's marriage doesn't seem the best to begin with and, prior to the infestation, it does seem like she is in the beginnings of a relationship with Betts (Barbara Steele). It's consummated after the parasite takes over Betts, but the true feelings that were developing are destroyed.
Consent aside it is also shown that all other forms of sex - including incest and pedophilia - are unleashed as well. The film has had some unfair modern criticism for being homophobic, largely because of a scene where two gay men attack Dr. Hobbes, but again we are talking about a consensual relationship between two men that has been corrupted to where they attempt a non-consensual attack on another person. It also makes it clear that the sexual orientation doesn't exactly play into how the desires come about, and they are acting no different than anyone else in the building. It is important to state again that one of the few healthy relationships - the one between Janine and Betts - is presented without judgment.
Shivers certainly does break a lot of taboos, but as a horror film it is pretty much routine. The ending owes quite a bit to Night of the Living Dead, and in fact it is kind of disappointing to see it turn into a virtual copy of that movie toward the end. There are also some pacing problems and pieces that could have come out. Dr. Linsky, for instance, serves the purpose of providing exposition, but then he spends most of the rest of the movie driving to the apartment complex, and by the time he is there I had forgotten why he was going in the first place. The couple moving in at the beginning never serve any other major purpose in the movie either; it seems just an excuse to introduce the audience to the apartments, something that is done just fine with the advertisement and still pictures at the beginning.
Despite that it is an interesting first look at Cronenberg and the themes he would pursue. In truth, Rabid does much of the same, and does much more than Shivers to promote the idea of body horror, and association that Cronenberg does not necessarily enjoy but has been saddled with due to the similar themes of many of his films. This is the rough beginning of all that.
Time: 87 minutes
Starring: Paul Hampton, Lynn Lowry, Joe Silver, Allan Kolman, Susan Petrie, Barbara Steele
Director: David Cronenberg