Sometimes a writer-director might want to make a film solely to capture one scene, one performance, even one bit of dialogue. For the Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, making his feature debut with 1975’s Shivers (aka Frissons, The Parasite Murders, or They Came from Within), the impetus may have been a monologue late in the game, when a nurse (Lynn Lowry, that cult fan favorite with features as pristine as a doll’s) tells her doctor lover (Paul Hampton) about a dream she had:
Roger, I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I’m having trouble you see, because he’s old… and dying… and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? 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. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully.
This is essentially an Arthur Schnitzler moment out of Traumnovelle given the standard perverse tweak by Cronenberg, whose cinema of tortured flesh runs long on ruminations like this. The thing that sets Shivers apart, of course, is that under Cronenberg’s watch it takes the point of view of the monster — the disease, the parasite. In form, the movie is sort of Night of the Copulating Dead. A community bound together by convenience, an island apartment complex peopled by the moderately well-to-do, is invaded by a parasite that passes from body to body. Ensuring its survival, it also creates powerful lustful feelings in its host body. So the film is also pornographic in structure, though not in practice (it’s erotic but not very explicit).
The doctor, an upright, Graham Chapman-resembling sort, is the putative hero, though it’s a while before we figure out that this is Cronenberg territory and that the parasites (slimy, red, phallic things made by special-effects guru Joe Blasco) are the heroes. Cronenberg takes a relaxed, measured, very Canadian approach to the parasite; he asks, in effect, why it shouldn’t survive, why it shouldn’t get what it wants. What it wants, in brief, is to procreate and to be, just like the rest of us. This was, and remains, a prickly and unique way of looking at horror. The horror, if any, resides in leaving the known and comfortable behind en route to a new and radical way of thinking, feeling, living.
Because Shivers is also Canadian tax-shelter pulp and not just Cronenbergian art, naturally, there’s nudity and gore and taboos not so much broken as dismissed and tossed aside. Intimations of pedophilia and incest stand alongside more upfront depictions of male and female homosexuality. Since this is the supremely nonjudgmental Cronenberg, though, we know that as long as it’s consensual he doesn’t have a problem with any of it — at least within the context of this film. People will be messily infected but will stride into a more authentic and less repressed future.
You do have to give early Cronenberg the benefit of the doubt. His filmmaking hadn’t yet really caught up with his ideas; a lot of the movie, borderline boring, has the inert compositions and staging of ‘70s television drama. But the film is wild where it counts, and in various ringers — Lowry, genre queen Barbara Steele, deep-voiced Joe Silver creating a fresh portrait of casually insensitive intellectualism — Cronenberg has the actors he needs. (God knows the dull, top-billed Paul Hampton doesn’t light any fires.) Shivers announced to general audiences (at least those who hadn’t caught his short films) a genuinely original voice in horror cinema — maybe the only one who owed more to literature than to Hitchcock or to Universal monsters. Has there been another since?