The Deepest Cuts is a weekly invitation into some of the sleaziest, goriest, most under-explored corners of horror and cult film online. Every title will be streamable and totally NSFW. Whether it’s a 1960s grindhouse masterpiece, something schlocky from the 90s, or hardcore horror from around the world, these films are guaranteed to shock, disturb, tickle, or generally blow your mind.
One of the threads running through horror history is that of the intellectual or artistically-minded auteur who turns away from their earliest works, claiming to always have wanted to do other work. Wes Craven is perhaps the prime example of this, whose bitterness toward the genre was always palpable in Q&As; one of his peers, David Cronenberg, similarly avoids discussion of his first films. However, his debut feature, Shivers, like that of Craven (The Last House on the Left), is a fantastic entry in the genre – and it features a parasite that is both fecal and phallic. Clearly, it’s a must-see.
Shivers (aka They Came From Within) begins with an ominous soundtrack over a commercial for the “Starliner Apartments,” a complex that includes a full shopping center and medical staff and located on its own island, clearly intended for the Canadian yuppies of the seventies. Interspersed with a well-dressed couple’s tour of the facilities is a disturbing sequence in which an older man attacks a young woman in a school uniform; the sexual undertones of the struggle between – as we eventually learn – doctor and mistress/subject, combined with her gruesome disembowelment, set the tone for the film to come, a tone which is definitely Cronenbergian. This is further interrupted by scenes of Jim, who’s experiencing some kind of stomach trouble. This cutting between different rooms in the apartment complex lend the film a feeling of frightening intimacy and claustrophobia.
What’s the cause of the violence spreading like wildfire through the Starliner? A parasite that’s “a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease, that will hopefully turn the world into one beautiful, mindless orgy.” In effect, these squirmy turds turn the whole building into a frenzy of brutal sexual attacks by no-longer-rational men and women, whose grunts and moans are disrupted only to vomit up more of the blood-thirsty creatures.
Cronenberg wrote Shivers, originally titled “The Parasite Murders,” and struggled to find a production company to support a work that was clearly an outlier for Canadian filmmaking – and the first feature of an otherwise un-proved director. Eventually, he managed to spark Cinépix’s interest; the Canadian equivalent to Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, the b-movie, independent production company that functioned as a proving ground for New Hollywood luminaries like Scorcese, Coppola, Jack Nicholson, and so on, Cinépix (eventually) supported Cronenberg and his insistence on directorial independence.
Of course, the film was still partially backed by the Canadian taxpayers via the Canadian Film Development Corporation, a fact which fueled the controversy surrounding the film’s reception. While relatively financially successful and lauded by none other than Roger Ebert, Parliament debated Shivers’ “value” and thus the ethical feasibility of funding such works of “artistry.” Shivers inspired one Canadian film reviewer’s infamous review, titled “You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is, You Paid For It.” Little did he know a filmmaking star was being born, as well as the “Canuxploitation” genre as a possible avenue for Canadian filmmakers.
And the very qualities that most disgusted some viewers – the gore and sexual violence – are exactly what make it such a great film. The special effects were done by makeup artist Joe Blasco and included some of the first usage of blatters: balloons or condoms that were inflated beneath a fake skin to give the body the appearance of inner pulsating (and allowed for the suspenseful build-up to bursting). These same effects were being used in the making of The Exorcist at the time, for equally righteous and disgusting results. You might also note some similarities to Alien, like parasites with acidic properties that attack their victims’ faces, traveling via mouth-to-mouth interactions; Cronenberg always reminds during interviews that Alien came out after Shivers, and Alien’s writer, Dan O’Bannon, has acknowledged watching and appreciating the earlier film.
Sure, the shower scene in Psycho is terrifying and changed filmmaking and -going forever, but I submit that anything that crawls out of the bathtub drain and floats into its unsuspecting, naked victim is about a thousand times more disturbing. This movie takes psychosexual anxieties and stomach-churning gore to a new, upsetting, and totally fucked-up place – and it’s great. The first hints of Cronenberg’s operatic style to come show up in a beautiful slow-motion attack sequence in the Starliner’s pool, where the orgy reaches its frothy, sexy apex, which cuts directly into a wonderfully pessimistic conclusion. Shivers is required viewing not only for the Cronenberg fan, but for all lovers of horror.
You can find Shivers streaming free on Amazon.
For more insight into the best (and worst) of cult horror classics, check past editions of The Deepest Cuts here.