You almost want to say Dr. Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver) is on to something when telling Dr. Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) about his latest scientific experimentations between bites of his pickle. He and the late Dr. Hobbs (Fred Doederlein) have been funneling grant money into a project that hopes to put parasites to work for humanity. The pitch is as follows: Which is better? A faulty kidney? Or a working parasite? If the latter cleans your blood without needing to wait for a new organ, doesn’t it earn the blood it siphons off for itself? St. Luc laughs at the idea without outright rejecting it because he assumes it won’t go anywhere. But what if it already has? What if Hobbs’ death proves it’s gone too far?
The result is body horror maestro David Cronenberg‘s first feature-length theatrical film Shivers—a work that became the highest grossing Canadian film ever at the time (with one million at the box office) while also causing a stir for its overtly depraved sexuality (legend has it that his landlord used it to kick him out by enforcing a morality clause in his lease). First, it’s Nick Tudor (Allan Kolman) poking at his stomach. Then its Hobbs assaulting a nineteen-year-old (Cathy Graham‘s Annabelle) in her apartment before cutting open her chest and subsequently slitting his own throat. By the time we start to see shapes moving underneath residents’ skin, it’s too late. The man-made parasite described as a cross between “an aphrodisiac and a venereal disease” is running rampant.
If there’s a positive in all this, it’s that ground zero is isolated. These people (besides Linsky) are neighbors inside a Montreal island-set complex wherein St. Luc serves as live-in physician. It’s therefore not long before he puts two and two together as far as what Linsky told him and the strange gastro-intestinal issues popping up. If this thing is what he thinks it is, nobody is safe. The parasite will incubate inside its host while driving their libido into overdrive. Sex becomes the venue for its physical transfer from body to body until it’s strong enough to exist outside human flesh to scurry around the hallways in search of its new meal. Suddenly everyone becomes violently aroused en route to rape, orgies, and hedonistic pleasures.
Because St. Luc knows what’s going on, he and Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowery) have been able to avoid becoming infected. How long can it last, though? More and more victims are found scared and confused while the number of predators seems to be increasing every minute. Soon both St. Luc and Forsythe find themselves tip-toing around so they can try and escape behind a corner before the half-naked, unsatiable man or woman with their back turned sees them. But as the hosts get more hostile, they too will have to get violent just to fend them off. And all the while innocent bystanders are being grabbed, violated, and chemically altered to do the same to others. It’s men, women, children, and the elderly. Nobody’s safe and nobody’s impotent.
It’s a schlocky concept that Lowery herself admits felt tacky while filming. Seeing it now in context with what came afterwards, however, has cement it as a cult classic with real historical value as far as pushing the envelope. It’s quite transgressive for 1975 and doesn’t care in the slightest about taboo. There are a ton of misogynistic attacks and the scenes with children are uncomfortable at best, but it’s always with the intent to find a line and jump across. Eventually—about two-thirds in—we don’t even need to see the parasite anymore because Cronenberg has conditioned our brains to equate kissing and sex with the creature. If orifices come in contact, we can assume it has crossed over to increase its numbers yet again.
What really stands out cinematically above the content is the kinetic way Cronenberg takes us through the plot via his sprawling cast of characters. We’re never shown one person’s actions from start to finish without crosscutting to another. Sometimes he has them pass in the hallway to then marry their current circumstances via an image strobe between them. Sometimes he’s juggling three or four simultaneously with nothing connecting them but the locale itself. And honestly that’s enough. Besides St. Luc serving as our de facto protagonist, the parasite proves to be the true star. How will it ravage this building and seek its way out into the world? The writhing bodies within its carnal nightmare aren’t therefore the point. They’re merely the byproduct of this other species’ evolution.
That’s what makes Shivers so memorable. Beyond the sex and gore, its centering of the monster as the focal point and humanity as the food source allows Cronenberg to be ruthless in a way that too few horror films are. The nihilistic sense of self being lost to pleasure almost has you wondering if these people may be better off after giving into the parasite’s inevitability. Like Linsky says, what’s worse? Living life with the pain of rejection, the burden of responsibility, and the constraints of societal norms? Or embracing the pure, unadulterated pleasures of sexual desires. Because once these bodies let go of the shock and awe of their initial assault (consent is ultimately where Linsky’s hypothesis falls apart), that which remains is worldwide orgasm.