David Cronenberg’s Shivers is a gloriously bizarre and haunting horror picture, one that really gets under the skin. Part fever dream and part snarky satire, this 1975 Canadian movie earned the attention of the government because of its federal arts funding. The hubbub over the subject matter blew over quickly, but there were some ripples in the waters.
Also known as The Parasite Murders or Frissons or They Came from Within, Shivers is hypothetically about several things that all come back to the one thing. As Lynn Lowry’s nurse Forsythe says, “everything is erotic…everything is sexual.”
The film opens by describing the glories of the Starliner apartment complex, an isolated structure on an island in Montreal. It seems a harbour for the upper class, where living can be done without the inconveniences of hobnobbing with the dregs of society. After a bizarre murder, the complex’s Dr. Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) sees weird symptoms in several patients.
He reaches out to his scientist friend Rollo (Joe Silver), who tells him that the murderer was considering the use of parasites for organ transplants and zeroed in on a more sinister goal. This resulted in the release of a disease exhibited as smarmy, bloody parasites inside the host’s body. And this, in turn, produced wild sexual desire. Naturally, the parasites are loose in the Starliner complex.
Shivers follows Dr. St. Luc and his nurse (Lowry) as he tracks the slithering parasites from apartment to apartment and patient to patient. Nicholas Tudor (Alan Migicovsky) is inflicted after sleeping with the host. Tudor’s wife (Susan Petrie) is worried sick and believes her husband may have cancer, so she consults Dr. St. Luc between visits to her sexy but solitary neighbour (Barbara Steele).
As the parasite advances, it manifests as an swelling growth inside the body. Tudor tries to make friends with his, especially after the bloody retching has passed. It seems he’s come to terms with it and its sexual indicators take their toll when he rapaciously begs his frantic wife for sex.
Sex is the thing, of course, and soon everybody’s having it whether they want to or not. The halls of the Starliner are full of people humping and grinding and squirming around in various states of undress. It’s rather ridiculous yet rather frightening and Robert Saad’s cinematography combs the terrain with enthusiastic, voyeuristic eyes.
Dr. St. Luc tries to navigate everything with that cool Montreal tenacity, but even he has to kill someone. He tasks his nurse to keep an elderly couple safe, but she’s been showing signs of arousal. One must wonder if her interest in the doctor is normal or parasitic, which details the psychological effect the slinking phallic symbols can have.
Shivers is full of many moments of bloodsucking glee, like when Steele’s character is taking a bath and has a parasite scuttle right up inside or when the infested woman from the laundry room comes on hard to a high-class delivery man or when the swinging old man takes his shirt off to reveal he’s in great shape.
Cronenberg has suggested that Shivers is partially about the liberating power of the parasite and that’s certainly apt. The hermetically-sealed machine of Starliner is blown wide open into full-blooded sexual revolution, typified best as the joyful residents flock out into the rest of the world at the end. And in a sense, breaking free of the self-inflicted class cocoon is a victory of sorts. But at what cost?