By 1974 David Cronenberg was worried that after three years his film directing dream would never properly come to fruition. He’d made his two short experimental films STEREO and CRIMES OF THE FUTURE and the TV shows he has hired for had not helped to build a reputations. He went to Los Angeles, wondering after reluctance if he would have to consider being part of the Hollywood machine to get funding for his latest script ORGY OF THE BLOOD PARASITES. Roger Corman’s company loved it, feeling its inexpensive sensational horror premise would be viable for their undemanding drive-in audience.
Upon returning to Canada, Cronenberg suddenly found that the exploitation company Cinepix had come through with backing themselves, and so in wary conjunction with the government body the Canadian Film Development Corporation, his first feature was in business to the tune of $179,000. He narrowly avoided an early assimilation into Hollywood by just one month. This is something which he has still adhered to, having never shot any of his films in the industry environs of L.A.
SHIVERS deals with the horrific transmission of parasites between residents in the lavish apartments of the new Starliner high-rise complex on the fictional Starliner Island in Montreal. It is activated by the creation of a parasite by Dr Hobbes, who infects his young mistress with it as an experiment to connect people to their primal fleshy selves, but doesn’t realise how free his mistress is with her affections. Hobbes kills his mistress early on and then himself but he is too late to stop the infection outbreak. Thus, the leech-like creatures are passed orally amongst the whole building, causing a psychosexual frenzy of lust and homicide-driven insanity across the Starliner’s occupancy. Finally, after the heroic efforts of the medical clinic’s doctor result in his being infected also, we see that come the morning, the hordes of libidinous occupants now drive out into the city and beyond, now apparently normal but calmly focused on spreading the terrifying contagion.
Shooting covered August to September 1974 and was a valuable first opportunity for Cronenberg to understand how to delegate to a professional crew; for his previous films he had been forced to handle all the technical roles himself. Now he needed to learn the various department’s names and duties and entrust them. Fortunately he had Ivan (later famous for GHOSTBUSTERS) Reitman as producer and music composer as well as Joe Blasco, whose under-skin bladder FX earned great admiration from make-up guru Dick Smith who had pioneered the technique. Cronenberg also saved money by living in one of the apartments in the Nun’s Island high-rise used for shooting – by doubling it as the FX workroom. He had intended to use real leeches for the close-ups but they were accidentally frozen by a fellow crew member in the freezer.
The cast was made up of virtual unknowns for the most part, except for Lynn Lowry who’d been in George Romero’s THE CRAZIES the year before, as the nurse here, and famous horror genre star Barbara Steele as the vampy lesbian Betts. Those who’ve seen STEREO and CRIMES OF THE FUTURE will recognise Ron Mlodzik as the unruffled, soothing promotional agent for Starliner (It’s his voice you hear as well on the promo film at the start selling the complex’s virtues). He has a chillingly effective scene near the end where he helps take a terrified couple to a room and then reveals it’s a trap to throw them to the libidinous wolves waiting for their next sexual victim. Paul Hampton, the smooth Doctor Roger St Luc is overly-relaxed for the most part until the tension is amped to critical. He is more famous in real-life as a writer of pop songs. Probably the most accomplished performer of the supporting cast is Joe Silver as the researcher Rollo Linsky, making the connections between Dr Hobbes, the girl and the infection. He is also almost never seen without eating a pickle, even when driving.
The horror sequences and the almost documentary feel of SHIVERS have a nightmarishly effective tone. Despite some haphazard acting and awkward fight scenes, they have a macabre edge. The passing of the parasite through the throats of Steele and Lowry is unsettling, as are the corridor rampages and a great sequence where St Luc escapes outside from the pool only to be confronted by a zombie-esque chain of residents looming up out of the dark.
It’s not surprising that there are staging weaknesses occasionally in the scenes. Because of the intense budget strain, many more set-ups had to be shot each day than would be normal including FX, car-crashes etc
The title changed upon release to THE PARASITE MURDERS and then finally once the French-Canadian distributors saw how well it did under the French title FRISSONS, they used the English equivalent SHIVERS (aka THEY CAME FROM WITHIN in the USA). French critics saw the film as almost a political attack on the insulated, middle-class bourgeoisie and Cronenberg at least agreed enough to admit that “people vicariously enjoy the scenes where guys kick down doors and do whatever they want to the people inside… a vicarious thrill in seeing the forbidden”.
In the UK, James Ferman’s BBFC passed SHIVERS uncut, which is slightly surprising as he was known for being highly sensitive to film-makers who exploited clear combinations of sex and violence. Clearly, he felt that there was justification for sexualised brutality in the plot. There were complaints back in Canada from appalled people getting wind of taxpayers’ money being used to fund such a graphically-unpleasant horror movie. However, the film made a profit - unlike many. Like Clive Barker later, Cronenberg had no patience with the idea of hiding the horror from the audience: “The very purpose was to show the unshowable, to speak the unspeakable…”.Also, as he pointed out, in a film that relies on visual depictions, if you cut away from the FX shots, the audience wouldn’t know what was happening.
SHIVERS not only made money, it began to make the writer/director’s reputation in the horror field. Even Martin Scorcese was quoted as admiring the ending’s power: “The last scene…with the cars going out to infect the entire world…is something I’ve never been able to shake”.
The perversion of science for human experimentation, the revolt of the body from the inside against its owner, public panic in the face of infection, all these themes would be developed by David Cronenberg in the follow-on RABID and then beyond into the decades to come…