Shivers

I have a little experience with going through people's papers after they have died, because my father died about ten years ago and I helped out with estate a little bit. I even have some experience with surprising wills, because when my grandmother's will was out of date when she died - she had left everything to my father, but he had preceded her into the grave by about half a year. However, there's a scene in Shivers where Doctor Linsky looks into his recently deceased partner's papers which puts my experiences to shame.

Shivers opens with a man violently wrestling a young woman, killing her and then performing an autopsy on her body on top of her dining room table. (The autopsy doesn't begin until the movie's 8 minute mark, which means that this might be one of director David Cronenberg's more restrained movies.) After the man has removed a few organs he pours acid into her chest cavity, then slits his own throat with a scalpel.

Later in the day the police arrive on the scene and are perplexed. The murderer turns out to be Doctor Hobbes, and no one can figure out what motive he would have for mutilating one of his neighbors. The cops call up his research partner Doctor Linsky and ask him to go through Hobbes' most recent work to see if he can uncover any clues.

Linsky hits the jackpot: he discovers that Hobbes had invented a new parasite  and implanted it in the young woman. When it began to grow out of control, he had to kill her to get at the blood sucking beast, and then he had to destroy her body to destroy the evidence. But why would he do that? Well, it turns out that Hobbes had a grand vision for the next phase of humanity, and to that end, he created a parasite that was "a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that will hopefully turn the world into one beautiful mindless orgy".

Well, alrighty then!

Although that scene is really funny - well, at least I found it funny - the rest of the movie isn't quite full of such knowingly ridiculous dialogue. Shivers is mostly a body-horror movie about people who have been possessed by a parasite that makes them want to spread their infection to their neighbors any way they can. (The preferred method of exchange is coitus, but there's at least one scene where someone is walking below a balcony and the host body tries to puke the monster onto them.) The film has a lot of time for people to run away from bloody mouthed zombies and not quite as much time for witty repartee.

However, even with minimal dialogue, the film taps into the cultural zeitgeist of 1975, the year it was made, in a way that most of Cronenberg's movies don't. Cronenberg has his own specific obsessions, and they don't line up with society's broader concerns very well, so his movies often end up existing in their own idiosyncratic world. But Shivers taps into post-Watergate anti-authority sentiments and pre-AIDS paranoia about sexual promiscuity with a surprising amount of force.

Shivers is set inside a gigantic luxury condo, and Hobbes is the condo's doctor - it turns out that the man who supposed to heal the Starliner's occupants was actually poisoning them. It's a set up with Nixonian overtones, since it's clearly discussing the way cancers spread in our society. In that way, it harkens back to the immediate past of the early 70s. That said, it also doesn't have a lot of love for the counterculture, either, since the movie is very, very concerned about the potential downsides of free love. In that regard, it harkens to the coming darkness of the 1980s, when promiscuity would lead to a national health crisis.

Of course, all of these concerns are focused through a very Cronenbergian lens - he's always been interested in watching bodies pulsate with hidden cancerous evils, and that definitely happens in this movie. But while the internal terrors of Videodrome or eXistenZ were meant to say something metaphorical about abstract concepts like "technology", here the invasive parasites are tapping into specific dreads in straight forward ways. That specificity is probably coming from the fact that this is one of his first films: either he hadn't quite learned to express his ideas artistically yet, or else he was under pressure from his producers to make a more mainstream film. Either way, it's kind of nice to see a Cronenberg movie that's not expressing it's concerns so abstractly that they are almost inscrutable.

Shivers isn't perfect - the pacing in the beginning is slow, and the cinematography is pretty low rent. There are also stretches that feel like they could be from any generic monster movie, and that's a bit disappointing. But as far as generic monster movies go, Shivers is actually pretty great, since it executes a simple monster-in-your-body premise in a way that mixes humor, horror and sex together into a compelling total package. Also, it made me glad that my grandmother wasn't secretly plotting to turn the world into an unrestrained blood-beast fueled orgy, and that has to count for something.

Winner: Me

Shivers on IMDB