This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is an off-putting one, given the nature of the fundraiser: Shivers, directed by the Canadian master of body horror, David Cronenberg (The Brood, Crash, Dead Ringers, The Fly). Shivers was requested by an anonymous donor. (Ooh, mysterious!) It’s also the first feature film by David Cronenberg, who has gone to become something on a national treasure, even winning the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and being made a Member of the Order of Ontario. But at its release, Shivers was so controversial, it was debated in Canadian parliament! I rented Shivers from my friends at Queen Video.
As the opening credits to Shivers (also known as They Came from Within, The Parasite Murders, and the very sophisticated Frissons) roll, a sales slideshow about the new Starliner Towers, located just twelve minutes outside of Montreal progresses. The narrator extolls the virtues of this modern apartment complex: the luxury suites are located on an island, which is populated with stores and services intended solely for the Starliner residents. Kind of like The Village in The Prisoner. (Whoever did the photography for the sales pitch should be fired. Who fills a promotional slideshow with grim winter shots?)
A happy young couple, the Svibens, arrive at the Starliner Towers to meet with Mr. Merrick (Ronald Mlodzik), sales rep for the building. The woman asks the security guard if he’s ever had to use the gun he carries as her partner, looking like He-Man in a gingham shirt, smiles on. The security guard reassures her the building is very peaceful. However, the scene we immediately cut to suggests otherwise. In an apartment upstairs, an older, professorial man (who looks a lot like my childhood barber, Angelo) is seen barging in on a Catholic schoolgirl’s bedroom and wrestling her to the ground. As Merrick shows the Svibens different apartment plans, the professor pins the teenaged girl on the couch and chokes her to death. He then places tape over her mouth and lays her body on the dining room table, ripping open her blouse shortly thereafter.
The scene then cuts to two other apartment residents: Nick Tudor (Alan Kolman, who looks like Ross Gellar would have looked in the seventies) and Janine Tudor (Susan Petrie), seemingly locked in an oppressively grim marriage. Ross Nick uses an electric toothbrush in the bathroom, but chokes and starts to palpate his tummy. Back in the murder apartment, the professor – now shirtless and wearing a face mask – slices open the girl’s abdomen with a scalpel. He sprays an acid inside the open cut and before he can do anything else, he slowly cuts his own throat. All while downstairs, Nick and Janine are having an existentially dreadful breakfast. Example: when Janine asks if she can call him at the office, he replies, “What do you want to do that for?”
Nick heads off to work, but instead of taking the elevator down to the parking garage, he takes it up. See, instead of heading to the insurance firm where he works, Nick is heading for a little morning delight with his nineteen-year-old (ick) lover, up in Apartment 1511. However, when he calls for Annabelle (Cathy Graham), there’s no answer. He opens the door and finds his lover gutted on the table and immediately falls sick. Blissfully (well … not blissfully) unaware of all this is Janine, downstairs, who discusses with her friend Betts (Barbara Steele) a growth in Nick’s stomach and the best way she could trick him into seeing the building clinic’s doctor, Dr. Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton). (Men! They’re like grown children sometimes, am I right?) Dr. St. Luc, coincidentally, is in Apartment 1511 with the police, now investigating the seeming murder-suicide that occurred there. The dead girl is identified as Annabelle Brown and the suicide is Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein), a professor at the university. (I was right about the “professorial” comment.) Dr. St. Luc studied under Hobbes when he was in school, but that’s not how St. Luc came across the murder scene. He hadn’t seen Hobbes in years when he received a call from him, out of the blue, that told him to meet him in Apt. 1511, as it was “time to further his education.”
Just as this mystery is getting more mysterious, the room receives a telephone call: it’s Rollo Linksy (Joe Silver), a colleague of Hobbes from the university and former classmate (maybe?) of Dr. St. Luc. He wants to meet St. Luc for lunch and fill him in on what Hobbes was hoping to tell him. Over lunch in Linksy’s office, Rollo tells St. Luc that he and Hobbes were working on an alternative to organ transplant.The project was developing a parasite that would serve the same function as an organ – for instance, a parasite that could do the same job as a kidney and benefit both itself and its host. Annabelle Brown, the girl Hobbes apparently murdered, was a student that Hobbes was caught fondling when she was only twelve. (Apparently sexual assault in the academy was treated with just as much severity then as it is now.) Meanwhile, Nick Tudor, forced to go to work because his teenaged mistress had the audacity to die, can’t seem to focus on insurance appraisals. Instead, he stares into the void, blood oozing out of his mouth. After a couple minutes of this, he heads back home.
Janine and Dr. St. Luc discuss Nick’s strange tummy condition. The doctor knows of no cancers or stomach ailments that would cause growths to occur so fast. Nonetheless, he’ll make an evening call to check on Nick. (Late-night house calls from the apartment doctor: spared no expense at the Starliner Towers!) Upstairs, Nick pours himself a mid-afternoon drink, but chokes and spasms before he can finish it. He drags himself to the washroom where he retches blood all over the bathtub, towels, and carpeted toilet seat. (This is 1975, remember.) Feeling a bit better, he goes for some air on the balcony, and is soon overcome with nausea, puking over the balcony’s side, spraying an old woman’s clear umbrella with blood. The woman fears a bird flew into a window – someone call Margaret Atwood! – resulting in the bloody stain, but the audience sees something slither away in the grass.
In the apartment complex’s laundry room, a resident who looks not unlike Divine sets some of her clothes on spin cycle. Behind her, a slime trail runs from the vent along the wall. She opens another washer and massive flatworm leaps out, attacking her throat. Back at the medical clinic, Dr. St. Luc has an appointment with old rogue Brad, who is complaining about lumps in his abdomen. He attributes the lumps to a girl he slept with who had similar lumps in her tummy: a sexy young girl in 1511. (Annabelle!) Janine, in the interim, has returned to her apartment and finds an unconscious Nick slumped in front of the refrigerator. Strangely, she wipes his bloody mouth first, then helps him to the bed. Then she finds the bloody mess in their bathroom and begins to freak out. She has to take a couple Valium (or something similar) to calm her nerves.
Out in the apartment hallway, two kids prank their neighbours by screaming into apartment door mail slots (which is a pretty good prank, now that I think about it). Their Dennis-the-Menace-level fun is interrupted by a bloody worm that pops out of one mail slot. Nick, alone in the bedroom, begins to talk to the lumps in his belly like they’re his favourite dogs. The things inside wriggle and squirm until they’re frozen by the sound of his wife’s voice. Janine tries to care for the clearly ill Nick, but he’s not having any of it. “Can I feel those lumps on your tummy?” she asks. “Go away,” he sulks. “Leave me alone.” (Nick is such a Ross, you guys.)
Betts, Janine’s kind-of-goth friend, sits in her nightgown, drinking in her apartment at 7 p.m. (no judgment), and decides to draw a bath. (I think we all know generally how this is going to end.) Down at the clinic, Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry) delivers a number of patients’ files and papers written by Hobbes to Dr. St. Luc. She requests a kiss in return – clearly the two are in some probably-counter-Hippocratic relationship – and Dr. St. Luc, distracted by the weirdness in the apartment complex, reluctantly complies. While Nurse Forsythe undresses in front of him, St. Luc receives a call from Rollo Linsky, who has found out something very troubling from Hobbes’s private papers. Emil Hobbes was screwing everyone – the university, the funders, Linsky – over. He was never trying to find an alternative to organ transplant; instead, he felt people had become too intellectual. He was attempting to create a “combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that will turn the world into one mindless, beautiful orgy.” (Now do you administrators see why you should have dismissed the professor who was also a child molester?)
Annabelle was Hobbes’s guinea pig, but she went berserk and Hobbes had to kill her to kill the parasite he introduced to her body. St. Luc has worse news – Annabelle seems to have had sex with a few other men in the apartment building, as at least three or four men are experiencing similar symptoms. Linsky warns St. Luc that the parasite acts very fast, and advises him to be on the lookout for any “bizarre sexual practices,” whatever those might be. Linsky says he’ll drive to the Starliner Towers immediately to help them. Back to Betts, still lounging in the tub with a glass of wine: a flatworm crawls up from the drain into the tub and slowly begins to creep up between her legs. (I’m really sorry, readers, about what happens next.) Soon, Betts is flailing and screaming, knocking her wine glass to shatter against the floor, and blood fills the tub. When she emerges moments later, she walks over the broken glass as if she doesn’t feel a thing.
Nurse Forsythe, heading home after an eventful day at the clinic, invites Dr. St. Luc to dinner, but he has a lot of research on sex-worms to do. She tells him to drop by, no matter how late. She can even make him dinner. Speaking of dinner, room service arrives at the building (from the on-island restaurant), and the tuxedo-clad delivery man takes the elevator to an upper floor. Soon, the woman from the laundry opens her door and cries “I’m hungry for love!” before forcefully dragging him into her apartment. Nurse Forsythe, prepping a fairly elaborate meal for the doctor, is interrupted in her culinary efforts by an insistent knock at the door. When she opens it, it’s Mr. Sviben (who I guess never left after meeting with the sales rep), who bursts into the room and immediately attempts to rape the nurse. Forsythe stabs him with a meat fork – lucky Dr. St. Luc isn’t a vegetarian – and flees her apartment.
When St. Luc gets back to his apartment later, Nurse Forsythe (who has keys, I guess) leaps into his arms and tearfully describes the attack. The doctor instructs her to stay in his apartment while he investigates hers. When he arrives, he finds clothes strewn everywhere, the bloody meat fork, and some other bloody spray. He collects a few samples of sputum and is then startled by Forsythe, who couldn’t help herself and returned to her apartment. On another floor, an elderly couple walk home from a show, and a sex-worm climbs up the woman’s cane. It progresses – to her great dismay – up her arm, causing serious burns and lacerations. She topples over and her companion comes to her rescue, bashing the worm to bits with the cane.
Back in the Tudor apartment, Janine restlessly smokes, reads, and watches television in the living room while Nick talks to his worm buddies in his belly. The older couple attacked by the worm find Dr. St. Luc and ask him to treat the wife’s arm. St. Luc sends them with Nurse Forsythe back to their apartment and instructs her to lock the door and not let anyone in but him. St. Luc already suspects the worst has befallen the Starliner Towers. Other horrors occur: a mom and her tween child are attacked by the room service guy, now so worm-infected he eats a slice of pie in a manner that can only be described as pornographic. Janine eventually falls asleep but is awakened by Nick’s call. She goes to the bedroom, where he’s suddenly feeling fine – and quite randy. He requests some love-making in a manner just about as erotic as I made it sound there. When she hesitates, Nick becomes very insistent, wrestling her to the bed. Janine gasps in horror when she feels the worm in his stomach, but that doesn’t stop Nick. “Make love to me, Janine! You’re my wife!” Attempted marital rape is but one of the monstrous transgressions Cronenberg has in store for us viewers.
Dr. St. Luc has gone into the apartment basement and starts digging through the building’s garbage until he finds the worm the older couple killed. He retrieves it with a crowbar and is suddenly jumped by the maintenance man (one of the only people of colour in the entire apartment). But the maintenance man didn’t count on the doctor having a crowbar. St. Luc brains the man with his weapon and leaves to find Nurse Forsythe. Back in the bedroom of horror, Janine breaks free from her husband, saying she wants to put in contacts before they make love. She goes to the bathroom, crushes the contacts in her hand, and returns to bed. She leans against him, but his earlier thirst is absent. Instead, he drools out blood and a worm crawls from his mouth onto the pillow. Janine, face wet with tears, walks down the hall to her friend Betts’s apartment.
The elevator with the room service guy, kid, and her mom reach the ground floor, and the trio promptly attacking the security guard. (In a really icky touch, the kid transfers the worm to the guard with a kiss.) In the basement, someone cuts the telephone line, so when Nurse Forsythe – deadbolted in an apartment with the nice old couple – calls for the police after hearing what sounds like raucous sex in the hallway, she hears no dial tone. Forsythe leaves the apartment (eep!) to find Dr. St. Luc. Instead, she first finds the bloodied corpse of the maintenance guy in the basement. St. Luc has returned to the ground floor to tell Merrick to call the police. He, meanwhile, calls the older couple to check on Forsythe, but she’s gone looking for him. (Classic farce!) Moments after St. Luc hangs up on the old couple, a sex-crazed gang of tenants force their way into their apartment.
Forsythe has made her way to the parking garage, where a man – possibly the detective from the film’s opening – is busy sexually assaulting a woman on the hood of his car. Our hero nurse gets into her car to drive away, but the automatic garage door won’t work – that line’s been cut, too! Forsythe opens the door to check on the garage door trigger and is attacked by the security guard. The guard is so sex-crazed and rabid that he doesn’t even notice when Dr. St. Luc removes the pistol from his belt and shoots him twice in the back. The rapist across the parking garage hears the gunshots and leaps into his own car. The doctor takes the wheel of Forsythe’s car and attempts to ram the garage door open. But just as he’s about to make impact, he’s T-boned by the other man in the garage. (Does any filmmaker love car crashes more than David Cronenberg?) The collision kills the man, but the doctor and nurse are still alive, and escape by pushing out the front windshield.
Merrick, who has still not called the police, fields a noise complaint from two other tenants, the Wolfes. Merrick says the noise resulted from a theft in their storage unit, and he needs them to look at the items recovered from the area in his office. When they arrive in the office, they walk straight into the middle of an intense five-person orgy. Merrick is one of the infected! Having trapped the Wolfes under false pretences, he locks them inside his office and the orgy participants seize upon them. Upstairs, Janine is being comforted by Betts, but Betts starts to take advantage of Janine’s distraught state. She commands Janine to make love to her, and Janine – upset at first – agrees to a kiss. That’s all the worm needs, and it slides down Janine’s throat.
Rollo Linsky is apparently taking the long way to the Starliner Towers, because he’s only made it to the island now. At this point, Dr. St. Luc and Nurse Forsythe have hidden themselves in the boiler room. St. Luc says all they have to do is avoid people until the police arrive. (Too bad, then, that the police aren’t coming.) Linsky finally reaches the apartment building and heads to the Tudors’, which is where St. Luc said to meet him – but that was hours and several murders and sexual assaults ago. Linsky doesn’t find St. Luc, but finds Tudor, unconscious in his bed. Linsky pulls back the bed sheet to reveal a roiling mass of the worms on Nick’s bloody torso. One of the worms leaps onto Linsky’s face and he falls face-first into the pile of worms. (Come to Shivers for the revulsion, stay for the slapstick!) The worms burn his face, and he staggers to the kitchen, eyes blinded with blood. He grasps at pliers left out on the kitchen counter (?) and uses them to peel the worms from his face. Nick starts awake and sees Linsky struggling with the worms. “What are you doing?!” he shouts, and attempts to force the worms back into his own mouth. Unable to make much headway in this effort, he resorts to beating Linsky to death with the pair of pliers.
Locked in the boiler room, Nurse Forsythe tells the doctor about a dream she recently had, a dream about having sex with a revolting old man who told her that “everything is erotic, everything is sexual …. even dying is an act of eroticism.” At the conclusion of her monologue, she goes to kiss the doctor and a worm squirms in her mouth. St. Luc clocks Forsythe, knocking her out, and then ties a rag around her mouth. He drags her dazed body with her as he leaves the boiler room and tries to escape through a section of the building still under construction. It’s no use, though, the sex zombies find them and attack. St. Luc leaves his nurse to the rampaging hordes and returns to the Tudor apartment.
In the Tudors’, he finds Nick straddled over the body of his old friend Rollo Linsky, both of them drenched in blood. St. Luc opens fire immediately, killing Nicholas Tudor. St. Luc, with all the people he cares about either dead or infected, now looks to make his escape. Before he finds an egress, he (and the audience) is subjected to more scenes of degradation: two tween kids being walked like dogs, Salo-style; an old bearded man making out with his daughter. Things start to get a bit beyond the pale. Finally, he makes his way to the swimming pool, where the infected Janine and Betts are frolicking. St. Luc manages to open one of the panel windows that surround the Olympic-sized pool and runs onto the apartment lawn.
Then, emerging from the night, comes a human wall of the sex-and-murder-crazed residents from the Starliner Towers. St. Luc can’t escape that way. He returns to the pool and Betts leaps out of the water, pulling on his leg. The crowd enters the pool area and shoves the doctor in. He is soon swarmed by the residents, who plunge into the water. It is his cat-eyed nurse, Forsythe, who does the honours of the final Judas kiss. And in slow-motion, to boot. In the final scene of the film, we see Dr. St. Luc and Nurse Forsythe, all smiles, driving out of the apartment and toward Montreal. An number of the other couples from the Starliner Towers follow in what is sure to be the start of a massive pandemic.
- Many have commented that the predominant metaphor in Shivers is one of the animal bestiality that seethes just below the level of middle-class (or upper-middle-class) “respectability.” What at first appears to be an upscale, modern apartment complex filled with respectable professionals devolves, within a day, into a den of sex-crazed monsters who assault everyone in sight. And the real trick is, even before the sex-worms entered the picture, there was something very rotten below the surface of the Starliner Towers. Remember: multiple men in the complex were having sex with a girl young enough to be their daughters (or granddaughters). So is this a class critique? After all, the Starliner Towers are isolationist (secluded on their very own island) and strongly consumerist. Is Shivers suggesting the middle and upper classes are just as base as your average mandrill? That the violence of modern capitalism is as destructive as the more mindless brand of violence?
- Having just seen High-Rise, Ben Wheatley‘s pretty swell adaptation of J.G. Ballard‘s novel of the same name, at the Toronto International Film Festival, I immediately saw the parallels. Especially if you accept the reading of Shivers described above. In High-Rise, tenants of a new building divide themselves into classes, divided by floor, and soon degenerate into violence between their groups. Eventually, the tenants shut out the outside world completely and give into their most primal urges. Shivers is like High-Rise re-written through a body horror filter. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, given that Cronenberg is a fan of J.G. Ballard (even directing the film version of Crash). However, High-Rise (the novel) was published in 1975, the same year Shivers was released, so it’s impossible for Cronenberg to have been influenced by it. Must have been something in the urban zeitgeist.
- At the conclusion of Shivers, what is remarkable is how happy and content the residents are as they drive out into the world. Once the entire apartment is converted, it’s as if a strange peace has fallen over them. Is the film telling us that humans would be happier engaging in this mindless, animalistic violence and sexual assault? Certainly Nick and Janine seem unhappy at the beginning of the film. And certainly Nurse Forsythe’s cream would suggest this: “Everything is erotic, everything is sexual …. even dying is an act of eroticism.” (The speech could basically serve as Cronenberg’s artist statement for his body of work.) And that’s a tough pill to swallow. Even if this end state of total sexual abandon makes the participants happier, they had no free will in the choice. At every instance, the tenants have their will robbed from them – quite often through sexual assault. They are forced to host the parasite – from patient zero (Annabelle Brown) all the way down the line. Perhaps this is why the language and imagery of sexual assault is used throughout the film – since I hope there was a reason – to serve as a lurid reminder of denial of free will.
- As I mentioned in the introduction, Shivers was the subject of much controversy in Canada when it was released, largely because it was partially financed by government funding. Cultural critic Robert Fulford (National Post), writing at the time for Saturday Night, headlined an article: “You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is, You Paid For It.” His review of Shivers? “Crammed with blood, violence and depraved sex … the most repulsive movie I’ve ever seen.” Sounds kind of like a ringing endorsement! Jokes aside, the write-up and resulting parliamentary discussion about the movie’s merits (!) meant that the director had a terrible time finding funding for his later movies. It also, allegedly, led to him being kicked out of his apartment, due to his lease’s morality clause. Huh.
- I can’t be the only one troubled by Rollo Linksy’s warning for Dr. St. Luc to keep an eye out for any “bizarre sexual practices.” The problem with this warning are the events that follow, as a result of the sex-worm parasites’ infection. The audience understands victims have been infected because they attempt to rape their fellow residents or make out with their nuclear family, right? But lesbian sexuality (see the character of Betts) and, in one troubling scene, gay sexuality – the two men in underwear in the hall – are also indicators of the infection. The result is that the many acts are subliminally conflated. That the film – inadvertently, I hope – places rape and homosexuality under the same tent of “bizarre sexual practices.”
- Catholic Fun fact: Saint Luke is the patron saint of physicians and surgeons. That’s a little on the nose, don’t you think, Cronenberg?
Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Shivers was a very bad movie to watch as a person who lives alone in a high-rise apartment complex. I “heard” sounds from around the corner nearly the entire night. Though some of the effects are kind of crude, the rougher film stock and lack of camera trickery means they’ve aged well, and are still effectively creepy. Verdict: still terrifying after all these years.
Best outfit: Post-work, Nurse Forsythe changes into an amazing evening-blue dress that seems inspired by Emma Peel’s catsuit on The Avengers. Paired with knee-high boots, naturally.
Best line: “Nicholas, it’s that man whose Lamborghini caught fire on Ste-Catherine. He’s very angry.” – just another day at the office for Nicholas Tudor
Best kill: Call me old-fashioned, but give me a good pliers-beating (following an acidic sex-worm attack) any day of the week. (R.I.P. Rollo Minsky. You should have driven faster.)
Unexpected cameo: Most people will recognize Barbara Steele (who plays Betts) from Black Sunday and 8 1/2. But did you know that lead actor Paul Hampton was the co-writer to some of rock ‘n’ roll’s earliest hits, sung by the likes of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Sammy Davis, Jr. and more? He also wrote and recorded the theme to “My Mother, the Car.” (Weird.)
Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Be sure you can really trust the other people with whom you are developing an organ-replacing parasite.
Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Northern Hemisphere Transplant Society, after the organization funding Hobbes’s research.
Next up: Lake Mungo (2008).