Skulking down from its natural habitat of the backwoods of the frigid North down to our prudish American confines, David Cronenberg’s early Neanderthal of a body horror film delivers a scatterbrained, deviously crude twinge right to the spinal fluid and sends the mammalian brain running wild. A premonition of icky in-your-pants terror to come, this unruly, mutilated motion picture about a sex slug that invades the inhabitants of an apartment complex somewhere in Canada doesn’t hit the deliriously otherworldly heights of Cronenberg’s latter-day triumphs. But the director already displays an almost Machiavellian skill for bodily manipulation even on a shoe-string budget (a budget he marshals for a film that is more than the sum of its parts). And his peculiar aura of marrying undisciplined/unmitigated with judicious/precise flavors ultimately colors in his hypothetically barren production with formal rigor and subtextual meat a mild wide, creating a horror that runs both fiery hot and cold like a reptile.
Calling it subtext is perhaps wishful on my part, since Shivers finds the hungry Canadian heating up this otherwise antiseptic mausoleum of a hyper-modernist apartment block with a veritable oil slick of taboos that are more in-your-face than embedded under layers of fat. He aims right for the veins, essentially. And make no mistake, when it’s Cronenberg, the liquid sprays everywhere. Essentially charting the breakdown of an apartment block as some sort of phallic alien sex slug invades people’s minds and unravels their social propriety, the characters morph into hot-and-bothered animals with sex and violence on the brain, and the film joins them in the ruckus. Charging his film with an affective allure as well as a disobedient streak, the camerawork slowly bends and breaks and liberates from its languorous early immobility, and the editing has a conniption fit as the director mounts a deep-sea expedition into humanity’s most primal urges. Although the early goings are formidably shrewd in the framing department, sequestering people into whatever corner of the frame alienates the audience the most from the characters, Cronenberg eventually mimics the societal breakdown the film traffics in with a visual breakdown as the narrative is shot through into tatters. And it’s about that point when Cronenberg’s commitment to bumping and grinding in the night nosedives his film straight into the grindhouse, where the libido meets the pancreas.
There’s admittedly a whiff of nihilism to be found in the way the film accuses flower-power laissez-faire sexuality as an ultimately self-devouring, narcissistic failure to seriously critique oppression intellectually, instead resorting to benign platitudes about free love and carnal discourse. But, in the way it dares to sever the nerves linking hippie communalism to genuine social critique, the woebegone mood of the film feels hard wired to crumble our innermost mental faculties for hope in our own race. Just as it ruptures the dehumanizing emptiness of a life driven by pure intellect and rigid social moorings, Shivers also flips the coin to tackle how impulsive sexual radicalism can distort itself into a kind of insular, inward-looking rebellion that achieves little at a systemic level.
Plus, Cronenberg’s commitment to slathering all of his characters in their own stew is commendable to say the least, with many of the same minimalist techniques registering with barbed emphasis no matter the type of character. For instance, the negligible acting registers as closeted alienation, like people unable to communicate with one another schlepping around an anonymous life like zombies pretending to be liberated from the confines of domesticity. For a gritted-teeth scientist, the mannequin-like acting suggests his emotionally-neutering commitment to rationalism and empiricism at all costs, and for a sexually-crazed free-love community willing to act on their urges with quicksilver release, the hollow style of the performances drains any joy from their carnal action.
Ultimately, everyone seems to be victim to the numbness of the lighting and the drab white frailty of the sets, both formal realities registering suggestions of violence that eventually erupt corporeally as Cronenberg dementedly raises the roof for the crash and boom social toppling act of an orgy in a pool that concludes the film. Decades later, when Cronenberg, more money in hand, has returned perhaps one too many times to the scene of the crime with the same themes in more intellectual “prestige” airs, there’s a dyspeptic charge to this early work, all skin, bones, and bile (and flesh) and no fat. Obviously, Cronenberg never exactly strayed far from the madding crowd even at his most prestige-y, but there’s a ruined psychic peril on display in this early film that actually trounces much of his more complicated later work.