Coming to Blu-ray for the first time anywhere in the world, David Cronenberg’s debut feature gets a sharp HD upgrade. Filmed a full 40 years ago on a fairly low budget, Shivers looks surprisingly good, even if on Blu-ray you can see the edges on some of the effects. That said though, for a movie that helped create so many of body horror effects that became popular after the film, they still work extremely well. Indeed one scene with a creature crawling around under someone’s stomach has never really been bettered.
Shivers is set in the big, modern Skyliner apartment block. A doctor has been experimenting, using a parasite to replace human organs. He tries to end the research by killing the female test subject and then himself. However it’s not enough and soon the parasite is out, infecting residents of the block. The infection causes all boundaries to break down, with everyone becoming sexually voracious as they look for more victims.
When it was released Shivers was a controversial film, not least in Canada, where it opened a debate about the government tax breaks helped such a movie get made. However the controversy was partly because it was the beginning of something new and unlike what most people had seen before, laying the groundwork for what became known as body horror, of which Cronenberg was the master.
It’s not as complete and accomplished as some of the director’s later movies, but it’s still an interesting film. On the surface it seems like the schlockiest, lowest common denominator horror flick – a giant excuse for gory nastiness mixed with as much sex as possible. However it soon becomes clear there’s something more going on, and that actually the film is interested in how the sterility of modern life, as epitomised by the apartment block, has repressed people to the point of being inhuman. The parasite then takes them to the other extreme, where any and all sexuality is fair game.
That does become slightly problematic when it starts suggesting that being gay or lesbian is on a par with incest and paedophilia when showing how things have gone too far – indeed two men chasing after one of the heroes in a sexual way is filmed in a way that suggests it’s just as horrifying as having a creature crawling around inside you.
However this was the mid-70s, and for that time it was actually relatively forward-thinking just for including that t all. Indeed you get the impression it wasn’t just the mixing of sex and violence that upset some people about the movie – after all, even then it wasn’t exactly something new – but the fact that it included a panoply of different types of sex and transgression, not just sexual violence involving women (which even today often passes by in entertainment with little comment). However it still remains an issue that while there are a lot of interesting ideas, Shivers never seems to come to any conclusion about what it’s really all about.
The movie is accompanied by an absolutely excellent set of features. They’re the type of extras where you think you might just check out five minutes of one of the documentaries but then find you’ve spent hours watching everything on the disc. The Blu-ray includes an episode of the Canadian TV series ‘On Screen’, which documents the history of Shivers, as well as the video essay ‘From Stereo to Video’, where Canadian horror expert Caelum Vatnsdal recounts Cronenberg’s story from before Shivers right through to Videodrome.
Best though is the brand new and lengthy ‘Parasite Memories: The Making of Shivers’ documentary, which features interviews with stars Barbara Steele, Allan Kolman and Lynn Lowry, special effects genius Joe Blasco and film critic Kier-La Janisse. Sadly Cronenberg himself is nowhere to be seen, but those who are interviewed give a fascinating insight into the creation of the movie, both what it was like on set and how it’s affected their career. Any horror fan will find all of it fascinating.
Overall Verdict: While Shivers is definitely Cronenberg in the making, there’s more than enough of the fascination with society and body horror that later became his hallmarks to make it worthwhile. And on Blu-ray it looks good and had some excellent special features.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac