Monday, December 15, 2014

Shivers: The Social Disease

Think about Western culture’s metaphors for romance, attraction, and sex. A lot of them pivot around the idea of losing control, of going crazy, of surrendering to something larger than ourselves. It’s the little death, it’s getting lost in another person, it’s sweet surrender, it’s a bad case of loving them, it’s fever. Love, lust, and attraction are typically described like an external force imposed upon us. Well, what if that were the actually the case? What are the implications of that? If our loss of control, our loss of self was imposed on us from without?

Shivers (also titled They Came From Within) brings a nicely detached, clinical eye to this idea. It’s interesting, and definitely bold for its time, but as important as it is in a historical context for introducing us to the idea of body horror, as a piece of film, it doesn't hold up as well as it could have.

We open on a sales pitch for Starliner Tower - it’s a luxury apartment complex on an island near Toronto. It’s got all the latest modern conveniences - an underground parking garage, furnished apartments with brand-new appliances, tennis courts, a huge swimming pool, entertainment, shopping, and even medical facilities. If you don’t want to, you never have to leave the island except to go to work. Everything you could want in one place, the epitome of modern living circa the mid-70s. After we’ve been shown the slide show, we move to follow a young couple who are there for a tour.

Well, them, and an older man who is apparently in the process of strangling and dissecting a young woman in her apartment.

Things get pretty weird pretty fast in this movie, as it becomes quickly apparent what one of the big problems of Starliner Tower is. It’s a self-contained environment, sure - a self-contained environment in which things are bred and spread and attempt to be contained. The older man is a doctor, and he has been working on a very interesting bioengineering project for some time. The young woman, as it becomes clear, has served as sort of a vector for it in all of the ways you might expect of an isolated high-rise apartment community in the mid-1970s. It was the era of free love, when the rejection of conventional sexual mores had spread from the counterculture to the suburbs, the era of key parties and swinging and a rejection of the status quo that still managed to be firmly underpinned by deeply sexist assumptions about human sexuality. The suburban malaise of infidelity here has costs, in the form of a parasite that radically reshapes human behavior, turns people into mindlessly hedonistic creatures who want nothing more than to couple, to spawn, to pass the parasite along and replicate it.

This setup - a single location, locked down and isolated, and a threat that spreads easily and isn’t immediately obvious- can be an excellent formula for isolation and paranoia. Almost a cross between [REC], where limited opportunities for retreat and location in space play a very important role, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where anyone could be the enemy, threatening to assimilate you into a mass consciousness. These are potent ideas, but here it's not really fully taken advantage of. If everything you need is on the island, that's worth exploring, if everything you need is in this luxury building, that's worth exploring as the idea of a closed system that ends up being its own undoing, but it never really takes advantage of that by ramping up the paranoia or emphasizing the isolation of the people in this high-rise. It's a little stilted in its dialogue, and feels sort of airless. Scenes don't really follow naturally one from another as much as they each sort of happen in their own space and then get chained together. The acting is a little awkward and amateurish as well, which doesn't help in the dramatic stakes, though it (combined with the unmistakable aesthetic of 70s suburbia) does sometimes lend it, in modern viewing, the feeling of an instructional training film gone horribly awry, which is sort of an interesting vibe. It doesn’t really build up momentum or a crescendo - things happen, then more things happen, and then they happen at a faster pace and it gets frantic, and then it’s over. The ideas are there, they’re just sort of sloppily executed.

And it’s really too bad, because those ideas are really provocative. Shivers is a movie about a parasite that subsumes all other feelings to that of sexual arousal, engineered in the hopes of making people less rational and more intuitive, more sensual. It’s like someone took this lesson from the counterculture and almost weaponized it - liberation as tool of mass oppression. That’s because the way it’s portrayed in the film, there's nothing really hedonistic or titillating about it. It's an ugly, invasive process, and people afflicted act more like, well, hosts to a parasite with its own agenda than people perpetually turned on. They are just masses of grunting, writhing flesh, as devoid of humanity as the things inhabiting them. The really interesting expression of this idea comes in late, as one character under the control of the parasite describes her belief that all flesh is erotic, all life processes - including death - are sexual, and disease is just the love of two alien creatures for each other. It's a daringly dispassionate look at the body and desire (one the director would explore to far greater success for the majority of his career), and especially interesting given this movie was made in the 1970s, when much of the hedonism (and casual sexism) that emerged from the counterculture had gone mainstream. The era of "free love" is a really interesting thing to characterize as a parasite spread from host to host, reducing human beings to insensate bodies in perpetual rut. It's just too bad it isn't more persuasively conveyed.

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  1. Nice take on this seminal (heh) movie. Cronenberg clearly struggled with trying to make a more mainstream movie after his earlier experimental works, in which he didn't have to deal with things like dialogue or conventional narrative structures. He's talked about how much he struggled with directing actors here, resorting in one case to slapping an actress repeatedly (on her suggestion) to induce tears. He didn't really start getting good performances until Videodrome, when he started casting more verbal actors like James Woods. As you say, the only really effective performer here is Lynn Lowry as the nurse, who was already well established as a b-movie star having worked with folks like George Romero and Lloyd Kaufman (she's in the first ever Troma movie).

    I keep meaning to do a compare & contrast between Shivers (which Cronenberg wanted to title Orgy of the Blood Parasites) and John Waters's much later A Dirty Shame, in which head injuries turn ordinary folks into joyously sex-crazed fetishists of various sorts. Cronenberg claims to be on the side of the sex zombies, but it really doesn't play that way; Waters is very obviously on side with his happy perverts.

  2. Man, I don't think Cronenberg is on the side of people in general. Not that that's a bad thing, that's what I love about his early work, that he approaches the idea of biology and humanity without any of the basic assumptions or taboos we usually take for granted. I can see the ideas here, he just hadn't quite gotten his directing chops down yet.