SHIVERS (1975): A DAVID CRONENBERG FILM
A review by Bob Stephens
Human sexuality has often provided a basis for horror in literature and cinema. For example, the figure of the male vampire represents the elegant circumvention of Victorian repression, the double standard that discriminated against women, and amnesia has been a nightmarish mechanism for post-coital forgetting, the costly denial of having participated in a taboo act.
Canadian director David Cronenberg, very aware of the subversive effect of such an approach, has made a career of specializing in the linkage of sex with horror. His 1975 movie "Shivers," which is being revived for a six-day run at the Roxie on Halloween, is a fine example of his idiosyncratic, morbid preoccupations.
In "Shivers," a group of apartment houses, separated by its island setting from a big city, is the location of a disturbing parasite infestation, one that involves the sexual transmission of some bloody, nastily phallic creatures.
As the infection spreads, Cronenberg opens up a world of terror in which incest, pedophilia, homosexuality and heterosexual lust are punished by a lethal disease. Though some viewers have complained that the director's attitudes are mere moralizations, they conveniently ignore his equally repellent victimization of the sexually innocent, the aged and the disabled.
"Shivers" exhibits the major characteristics of Cronenberg's canon, his use of architecture as reinforcement of the film's creepy tone and the deliberate reduction of men and women to a single, compulsively sexual aspect of their identities.
The array of dwellings in which the movie is set constitutes a self-contained environment as isolated from its surroundings as a science fictional space station or undersea laboratory are from Mother Earth or terra firma.
Sterile-looking, de-natured domiciles promise safety for their inhabitants, protection from the hazards of urban existence. Layer upon layer of glass walls also symbolize the transparency of false emotions and the strange separation of people who live in proximity to each other.
When security is violated and their living spaces are penetrated, the buildings' function is reversed: They no longer serve as fortresses and become, instead, inescapable traps. The huge structures have endless corridors, barren hallways like tunnels that turn back upon themselves, leading nowhere.
Though "Shivers" occasionally echoes a couple of its forerunners, "The Tingler" (1959) and "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), the film achieves its own peculiar power with one ingeniously lurid scene after another.
There's a variation on a common male fantasy of surreptitious rape, the pornographic presence of a serpent in a woman's bath tub; a man experiences autoerotic pleasure in the subcutaneous play of parasites inside his belly; a suggestive comparison of a parasite's ravenous appetite with the revolting gluttony of a man eating a cherry pie; and a sardonic woman who's always carrying a glass of rose-colored wine - a drink that foreshadows, in its pink contamination of pure water, the bloodshed to come.
Cronenberg is obviously an artist who exploits our disgust at the gore and goo of carnality, our shame over, and fear of, physical decay. (Is anything more frightening than the violent eruption of incomprehensible symptoms of an illness?) Furthermore, he detects in our vague anxieties an unacknowledged, horrifying sensuousness, a pathological confusion of sex with death that often haunts us.
Finally, "Shivers" is an unnerving vision that overwhelms the medical profession's complacent rationalism. It takes malicious pleasure in the transmission of a sexual plague by a simple, superficially harmless kiss. Perhaps the most oral of horror films, Cronenberg's work reaches its chilling climax as the fashionable housing project is transformed into a hive swarming with cries of a dreadful, undesirable ecstasy.