Friday, September 10, 2010

Shivers (1975)

This post is part of the Cronenberg Blogathon, hosted by Tony Dayoub at his blog, Cinema Viewfinder. Click the link and check out his work and, of course, the other submissions.

Shivers did start with a dream I had about a spider that emerged from a woman's mouth at night while she slept. The dream was very casual. It wasn't a horrific dream at all. It was just "Oh yeah, the spider that lives in her mouth." It seemed that the creature just lived there, inside her. It would come out at night, go round the house and go back into her mouth. Back into her body. During the day she knew nothing about it. Afterwards, on reflection, I thought, "My God, that image is really giving a physical presence to the idea that things go on within us which are strange and disturbing." Also, it seemed the spider in some way gave her life when she was awake. Embodying that in an insect or creature was really the unique thing about the dream. That was really the crystal at the centre of what became Shivers. (43) Shivers, written and directed by David Cronenberg, is set almost wholly in Starliner Towers, only twelve minutes away from Montreal, on Starliner Island in isolation. A slide-show sales pitch plays behind the credits, detailing the amenities which the apartment complex has to offer. It is a small world unto itself. Janine (Sue Petrie), a Starliner resident, is experiencing marital problems with husband Nicolas (Alan Migicovsky) who has grown extremely distant and cold towards her. Meanwhile on a upper floor, an older man assaults a very young woman in an apartment. The older gentleman is fixated upon her stomach. He opens it and burns the young woman's insides with acid. The police arrive to investigate the death. Doctor Roger St. Luc, Starliner Towers' resident physician, discovered the young woman's corpse. Dr. St. Luc was summoned to the apartment by his old teacher at medical school, Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein). Hobbes is the older gentleman who attacked the young woman. He has killed himself, as well. "Roger," says Lynn Lowry's character, who plays Roger's nurse and lover, "I had a very disturbing dream last night. In the dream, I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I'm having trouble, you see, because he's old...and tiny. And he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic. Everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. Disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. Even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. And even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him. And we make love beautifully." Shivers is Cronenberg's debut feature-length film as a professional filmmaker. Despite the film being thirty-five years old, it undoubtedly is still very much shocking and provocative. From the idyllic modern setting of Starliner Towers, its residents present the diversity of civilized folks of both genders in a wide range of ages, living in harmony, together. The original title of the film was "Orgy of the Blood Parasites" (35)--a wholly apt yet deceptive description. In the brief set-up which I detailed for the film above, all psychological and physical problems, abnormalities, manifestations, etc., all result from the presence of a parasite. As the parasite infects one resident that resident infects two who infect two more and etc. Their actions become violent, perverse (-ted), and sexual. David Cronenberg offers his insights:

The standard way of looking at Shivers is as a tragedy, but there's a paradox in it that also extends to the way society looks at me. Here's a man who walks around and is sweet: he likes people, he's warm, friendly, articulate and he makes these horrible, diseased, grotesque, disgusting movies. Now, what's real? Those things are both real for the person standing outside. For me, those two parts of myself are inextricably bound together. The reason I'm secure is because I'm crazy. The reason I'm stable is because I'm nuts. It's palpable to me. ¶ The older you get, the more children you have, the more accepted you become in your society and the more a part of the establishment you become, the more tenuous the grip on your 'insideness' is. Your awareness of yourself is driven deeper because the layers or veneer of civilization become thicker and thicker, but inside you know. I'm just much more in disguise. There's a strength to be taken from that. There's also a certain sadness at the same time. (50-51) Roger's old teacher (and perhaps mentor) Dr. Hobbes has a wonderfully allusive name which hides much of the film's philosophical background. Cronenberg, a serious court jester of cinema, is not content with just exploring philosophical ideas but contrasting them: those with a cursory knowledge of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche will see quite a bit of his philosophy, as well. The film is by far not totally cerebral: it's quite organic. Cronenberg presents philosophical ideas and questions or rejects them. The genesis for the creation of the parasites is a wonderful perverse joke which reflects this. I don't know where these extreme images come from. It seems very straightforward and natural and obvious to me as it happens. Often they come from the philosophical imperative of a narrative and therefore lead me to certain things that are demanded by the film. I don't impose them. The film or the script itself demands a certain image, a certain moment in the film, dramatically. And it emerges. It's like the philosophy of Emergent Evolution, which says that certain unpredictable peaks emerge from the natural flow of things and carry you forward to another stage. I guess each film has its own version of Emergent Evolution. It's just like plugging into a wall socket. You look around for the plug point and, when you find it, the electricity is there--assuming that the powerhouse is still working. That's as close to describing the process as I can get. (41) Shivers is driven by raw energy from an extremely fertile and creative mind; and the film runs with subversive, perverse, and wicked themes and imagery. (Imagery at times is evocative of Pasolini's Salo, made and released around the same time.) Subtle sexual imagery like Lowry getting rebuffed by a preoccupied Roger only to disrobe in front of him while he handles an important phone call to the taboo--Roger opens the door to witness an older man who introduces a young woman as his daughter who then embrace. In another brilliant brief sequence, Roger encounters a man and a nude woman tussling in the hallway. He points his revolver at the couple but he cannot discern whether one or both is infected; whether they will lose interest in each other and attack him; or whether they're having kinky fun. Roger's reaction is ambiguous but interesting. It's an at-times rough-looking film but also has some very creative compositions. Indisputably, Shivers is one of the best horror film debuts, ever. All parenthetical numbers that follow facts or quotes represent page numbers from Cronenberg on Cronenberg, edited by Chris Rodley, Faber and Faber, London, 1992.