A Look at David Cronenberg’s First Major Film Shivers: Was this Prelude of What was to Come

A Look at David Cronenberg’s First Major Film Shivers: Was this a Prelude of What was to Come

Shivers was David Cronenberg’s first major film and his lack of experience at that time really shows. The movie plays out in typical horror movie fashion. It is set in an apartment building on a tiny island where, unbeknownst to the rest of the residents, a mad doctor is conducting horrific scientific experiments. As it always goes in these kinds of films, the mad doctor creates a sort of mutant virus that turns people into mindless zombies that end up causing a lot of trouble for everyone around them. It would be very easy to simply dismiss this film as just another scary movie, something for teenagers to take their dates to go see. One might look at this film and focus only on the terrible acting or the shoddy sound design but hiding underneath this amateurish exterior lies a truly brilliant gem, one that hints at a young Cronenberg’s bright future as a master filmmaker.

The main difference between Shivers and the average zombie flick is that Cronenberg’s zombies are sexual animals. These are not the walking dead with a taste for human flesh; these are normal people who have devolved so much that they are driven solely by man’s most primal instinct, the need for sex. The infected go about brutally raping anyone they lay eyes on, spreading the disease to their victims. Sex has been a big part of Cronenberg’s films. Nurse Forsythe in Shivers says at one point, “He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh, that disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other, that even dying is an act of eroticism.” Cronenberg often times melds the sexual with the terrifying and the diseased. For instance, his film Rabid has porn star Marilyn Chambers in the lead as a beautiful woman driven by a lustful need to devour her male victims. In Videodrome, violent and sexual images on the television screen open up receptors in the brain, allowing people to reprogram the main character’s mind. Dead Ringers focuses on twin gynecologists, one of whom goes mad and invents painful looking gynecological instruments specifically designed for deformed women. All of these films unflinchingly bring the act of sex to the forefront. Suddenly something that is usually reserved for behind closed doors is blown up and taken to terrifying extremes. This causes the audience to feel uncomfortable and shaken, which is what every good horror movie should do.

One thing that Shivers reveals is Cronenberg’s tact with grotesque visuals. The parasitic creatures in the film look like a mixture between excrement and a phallus and although they may not look entirely lifelike, they do look especially vile and disgusting. This image, that of a slimy, oozing phallus, is one that is repeated in numerous other Cronenberg movies. In Videodrome, a gun grafts itself into Max’s hand and transforms into a phallic symbol. In Naked Lunch, penis-like instruments come out of Bill’s typewriter and excrete addictive substances when it likes what has been written. Shivers also shows Cronenberg’s general flair for special effects techniques. There is a scene in which the parasites can be seen moving underneath a character’s skin that is very reminiscent of some of the special effects done in Videodrome with its pulsating television. These visuals work extremely well in frightening the audience and were very different from those seen in other horror movies at the time.

Another thing that Shivers has in common with some of Cronenberg’s later works is that it is surprisingly prophetic. Shivers is not just a horror movie, it is a warning of what can happen when scientific progress goes too far. Similar themes are explored in his other films such as The Fly in which a scientist ends up transforming into a monster all because a little insect flew into his invention. Rabid is as much about the dangers of plastic surgery as it is about a dangerous cannibal. Videodrome’s dark future in which man is controlled via his entertainment seems all too real now that we live in the age of information. In each of these films, the true horror does not come from outer space, nor is it caused by mysterious outside forces. The horror in a Cronenberg movie is something that we do to ourselves and that makes it all the more terrifying.

There are quite a few ways one can view the movie Shivers. It can be seen as a cheap horror flick or as a prophetic warning of what happens when scientific progress is taken to the extremes. However, if one knows Cronenberg’s other works, one can see in Shivers the beginnings of a master film director.