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Blu-ray Review: David Cronenberg’s Shivers on Vestron Video

Cronenberg’s first feature is a decidedly bloody valentine to libidinal liberation.

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Shivers

Artistic antennae of a certain sensitivity must have been picking up some peculiar vibrations in 1975, when, within months of sci-fi impresario J.G. Ballard publishing High-Rise, a dystopian rumination on modern living, then-fledgling director David Cronenberg introduced his brand of body-based horror with Shivers. Both works explore civilization and its discontents via the microcosm of an apartment complex. Both emphasize the breakdown of social structures, as well as the potential for their perversely polymorphous restoration. And both adopt an affectless, almost clinical style. Not surprisingly, these sensibilities would collide decades later when Cronenberg adapted Ballard’s Crash.

Shivers opens with an advertisement that introduces the film’s central location, the science fiction-sounding Starliner Towers, in all its petit-bourgeois perfection. But dark and dangerous impulses are roiling just below the flawless surfaces of the complex. Witness the scene where a bearded professor type, Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein), murders and then vivisects a young woman, Annabelle (Cathy Graham), dressed like a schoolgirl. She proves to be patient zero in the outbreak of slug-like parasites that invade the Starliner Towers, creatures described by Hobbes’s fellow medical researcher, Dr. Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver), as “part aphrodisiac, part venereal disease.” They are, of course, the result of a medical experiment gone horribly awry.

Or has it? In a certain sense, Hobbes’s radical research project has been all too successful. A sign glimpsed in Dr. Linsky’s office reads: “Sex was invented by a clever venereal disease.” This statement of principle uncannily reverses the flow of conventional causality, viewing human behavior as the result of unconscious biological urges, rather than intellect or volition. Cronenberg’s root metaphor of the parasites as libidinal motivators flips the script on traditional notions of good and evil, the individual and the collective, and sex and death. The depths of sexual perversity to which Starliner residents will sink can just as easily be seen as signs of revolutionary sexual liberation. Cronenberg has repeatedly said in interviews that Shivers actually has a happy ending, if seen from the point of view of the parasites.

Cronenberg sharply contrasts the duplicity and untrammeled hubris of Dr. Hobbes and his “pure research” with dogged frontline responder Dr. Roger St. Luc (Paul Hamptom), Starliner’s resident medico. At first glance, St. Luc seems eminently capable, yet oddly diffident to the tender mercies proffered by Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry). In a fine turn of irony, St. Luc’s medical training becomes less germane as the chaos created by the parasitic invasion spreads. He slowly evolves from dapper diagnostician to beleaguered action hero, slugging and shooting his way out of increasingly sticky situations. Of course, this being Cronenberg, the outcome for him is sure to be less than triumphant.

Shivers is a domestic tragicomedy at heart, charting the dissolution of the marriage between Nicholas (Alan Migicovsky) and Janine (Susan Petrie). The downward spiral begins as a result of Nicholas’s having had secret dalliance with Annabelle. Needless to say, he’s infected and feeling strangely paternalistic about the writhing critters breeding in his GI tract. (The film’s skewed attitude toward fathers in general is compounded by the “Have you met my daughter, Erica?” gag later on.) Alienated from Nicholas’s affections, Janine seeks solace from her next-door BFF, Betts (Barbara Steele), in an encounter that soon turns very intimate indeed.

Shivers comes closet in its final scenes to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, one of Cronenberg’s avowed sources of inspiration, with fugitive St. Luc being chased back into the Starliner complex by hordes of the shambling infected. In a sort of backhanded allusion to its working title, Orgy of the Blood Parasites, the film does in fact conclude with something resembling an orgy in the complex’s swimming pool. The scene also doubles as a perverse sort of baptism into a new state of being, administered, ironically enough, by the very woman who would have been his one true love in a more conventional scenario. True to the iconoclastic genre cinema of the 1970s, Shivers ends not with the restoration of moral order, but with the newly converted setting out to inaugurate an entirely new order, one that unabashedly embraces the “other” in all its manifestations.

Image/Sound

Lionsgate’s 1080p presentation of Shivers looks excellent overall, especially given the film’s ultra-low budget, with grain levels in particular looking suitably cinematic. Colors are bright, flesh tones lifelike, and there’s plenty of fine detail evident in the HD image. There’s little in the way of damage, aside from some slight speckling here and there. The audio track is Master Audio 2.0 mono, which across the dialogue cleanly and clearly, aside from a few moments of reduced volume, doubtless attributable to the original sound conditions.

Extras

The commentary track featuring David Cronenberg, moderated by critic and magazine editor Chris Alexander, is engaging and full of wry observations. Cronenberg opens by remarking how appropriate it is that he has a cold while recording the commentary and that his first commercial film opens quite literally with a commercial. He goes on to discuss leveraging the popularity of the script into a directing gig, using library music because they couldn’t afford a full score, why he likes shooting in bathrooms, and the development of his directorial style over the course of his career from minimalist by necessity to minimalistic by preference.

The commentary track with co-producer Don Carmody, also moderated by Alexander, is a bit more matter-of-fact, yet still covers a lot of interesting ground. Carmody talks about getting the job as producer, casting a lot of local “wannabes” in secondary roles, his hands-on approach, and his later involvement with a number of cult Canadian genre films.

In a recent interview with Cronenberg that contains some overlap with the commentary, he discusses the dearth of genre films in the Canadian film industry at the time, almost moving to L.A. to work with Roger Corman, the film’s less than enthusiastic reception, and its influence on Dan O’Bannon’s script for Alien. Actress Lynn Lowry goes into her familiarity with horror having worked on I Drink Your Blood and The Crazies, how she enjoyed playing a “villain” for a change, performing her striptease scene for Cronenberg instead of her on-screen partner, and accidentally stabbing the director in the shoulder with a meat fork. Make-up artist and creature designer Joe Blasco talks about the wisdom of turning down Easy Rider and Night of the Living Dead, taking the gig on Shivers when he heard he’d be working with horror icon Barbara Steele. He also demonstrates how one of the slug props (which he says looks more like a penis than a turd) was operated with a length of wire and two wooden paddles.

Greg Dunning, son of Cinépix co-founder John Dunning, reminisces about the company’s working relationship with Cronenberg on both Shivers and Rabid, and his father’s preference for putting women in lead roles. An archival interview with Cronenberg from 1998 contains some interesting information, particularly when it comes to the casting of the film, effects work, and locations. There’s also a still gallery accompanied by an archival audio interview with executive producer John Dunning where he talks about his early days working for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, breaking the Jesuit stranglehold on censorship (with a particularly amusing bit about their sweaty tonsured heads giving off steam while viewing a film), and how importing European sex films makes good financial sense.

Overall

Making its domestic Blu-ray debut with a sparkling transfer and lots of informative extras, David Cronenberg’s first feature is a decidedly bloody valentine to libidinal liberation.

Cast: Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry, Allan Migicovsky, Susan Petrie, Barbara Steele, Ronald Mlodzik, Camille Ducharme, Hanka Poznanska, Wally Martin, Vlasta Vrána, Silvie Debois, Charles Perley Director: David Cronenberg Screenwriter: David Cronenberg Distributor: Lionsgate Home Entertainment Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 1975 Release Date: September 15, 2020 Buy: Video

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