The earliest works of an artist have always had my fascination. These projects show in broad strokes what set the artist on their path to creation in a raw, unfiltered way. An artist’s first projects are always rough around the edges, but the driving force behind their creativity is fully on display. It’s interesting to see the ways their earliest ideas become refined and developed as they continue to create. For these reasons, I can’t help but gravitate towards a movie like Shivers. It is David Cronenberg’s first feature, excluding two prior feature-length arthouse films he independently released.
The film follows the residents of a luxury apartment complex under siege from a sexually transmitted parasite. It all starts when one of the residents, Dr. Emil Hobbes, murders a young girl named Annabelle and commits suicide. The general physician of the apartment, Dr. Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) finds their bodies and uncovers a secret experiment from the deceased doctor. Hobbes, who felt humanity was becoming over-intellectual, used Annabelle as a guinea pig to create a parasite that increased primal and aggressively sexual instincts. It’s a race against the clock to stop the parasite before all of the residents of Starliner Towers succumb.
Alan Migicovsky deserves high praise for his performance as Nick Tudor, one of the earliest infected residents. His slow transformation from sickly victim to bloodied killer is my favorite narrative throughline in the film. One of the creepiest scenes in the entire movie is him, alone in bed, talking to the parasite in his stomach as if it were a beloved pet. For a horror film where the monster is only a small lump of meat, he gives the parasite a human face and becomes a tremendous force of evil.
The most enjoyable part of the film is watching the various ways the residents’ lives intersect. One of my personal favorite scenes is when a parasite, vomited out of Nick from an upper balcony, splats against the umbrella of an elderly woman taking a walk below. Watching the infected cross paths with the blissfully unaware creates great tension in the first half of the film. These little moments of tension are exchanged for gratuitous scenes of sexual assault once the infection rate increases.
My biggest gripe with the film is the rape scenes. I know it’s part of the plot, and I know Cronenberg has a penchant for mixing horror and sexuality. Yet at a certain point in the film, the intrigue falls away and it’s just scene after scene of sexual violence. It gets a little droll and more than a little uncomfortable at this point in the film. Once the infection rate rises even higher and it becomes an entire wave of people descending on St. Luc in an orgiastic frenzy, then the fear is freshly renewed, taking on more of the flavor of a zombie flick.
Shivers isn’t Cronenberg’s best work, and given some of the content, I can’t in good faith give it a general recommendation. However, if you’re a fan of Cronenberg’s later movies, it’s an interesting glimpse into his artistic origins. These themes of body horror and sexuality become more refined in his later work. Still, the single location and constant ramping up of tension make for a solid scary movie. – Audrey Griffin
Shivers is available on Criterion Channel, Tubi, and VOD.