Thursday, October 2, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies 2014: Shivers (aka, They Came From Within)

Shivers (aka They Came From Within)

Shivers is a movie about a sex zombie apocalypse.

It's also a movie about the isolation of modern life, relationships, infidelity, body horror, mad science, and venereal diseases. In other words, it's a David Cronenberg film.

Shivers was the one early Cronenberg film I hadn't seen (the feature releases, that is - I still haven't seen Stereo or Crimes of the Future). I'd heard about it, but could never find a copy. I remember reading an article about it during the 1980s - probably around the time that The Fly was being released - that called it the goriest and most disturbing of his films. By that point we'd had Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome, so that was saying something.

So it was always on my 'must watch' list, but I never was able to come across a copy - VHS or DVD. It's been on my Netflix "Availability Unknown" list for years and I'd given up on ever seeing it.

Forward to yesterday. I'd been planning on watching a Cronenberg film anyway - I picked up a copy of the Criterion Collection release of Scanners last month specifically for this thread. I'll end up watching it this month sometime, but during the day got a notification from Netflix saying that Shivers was now available on streaming. Plans went out the window - I was finally going to see one of the great white whales of my horror movie list.

The Medium
I'm guessing that someone is re-releasing Shivers on Blu-ray, because the streaming version is pretty high quality. Actually, let's not guess, the Internet is our friend... Yeah, looks like Arrow is releasing a Blu-ray edition next week. Region B only, though, so I won't be able to pick up a copy until a US company releases it - I'm not holding my breath.

I need love! And a decent blu-ray release in the US. I mean, come ON.

The picture quality, as mentioned, is pretty darn good for a streaming movie made for a shoestring in 1975. There were a few low-quality shots with some noise, but that could easily have been my connection. This is probably as good as it's gonna get for us in Region A. Enjoy your Region B release, Greenland.

The Movie
Shivers starts off with a come-on, one of those real estate video advertisements. This one is advertising the latest in luxury, the Starliner apartment complex. The building sits on an island reachable only be a single bridge. It's a self-contained living area with all the amenities one could want - including a store, a medical clinic, heated swimming pool, and parking garage. This is the primary movie location, of course. A modern, swinging apartment building - with plenty of great suites still available.

There's something a little sterile about the Starliner, though. It's a bit too shiny and clean. It's just like the brochure - a little lifeless. Of course that's all on the surface. Dig a little deeper and you'll find all kinds of things going on - horrible things.

Cronenberg introduces us to the location via a young couple who are inquiring about an apartment. They're buying into the illusion. Meanwhile, he juxtaposes their scenes with a brutal sequence going on in one of those very apartments. An older man is struggling violently with a very young woman. As the couple downstairs peruse listings and listen to the salesman's patter the young woman upstairs is strangled, stripped, cut open, and has acid poured into the incision. The older man then promptly cuts his own throat.

This is literally the least disturbing image from this scene.

This is pretty messed up stuff. The actress playing the victim is young enough that it almost felt like it was crossing a line. In that respect the movie immediately feels a little dangerous, a little transgressive. What sorts of things will a director do who's willing to do that?

Worse things, actually. Much worse things.

The older man turns out to be a scientist named Hobbs. The doctor-in-residence at Starliner - Roger St. Luc - is brought in during the police investigation and soon learns that Hobbs had a grant that involved using parasites as organ replacement. He begins to suspect that Hobbs may have been conducting his experiments in the field.

Hmm... maybe I should have worn gloves.

Meanwhile, a man named Nick is obviously sick, having developed some strange lumps on his stomach. He won't go see the doctor, but his wife goes to Dr. St. Luc anyway, and convinces the doctor to come up to their apartment later to see her husband. Unfortunately, things are going from bad to worse with Nick, and he ends up vomiting blood into the tub. A slimy trail leading down the drain reveals that more has come out of him than just blood.

St. Luc learns that the murdered woman was, despite her schoolgirl appearance, very promiscuous and has slept with a number of the men in the complex - including Nick. All of the men are now developing weird cysts in their stomach. An associate of Hobbs tells St. Luc that the parasite is transmitted like a venereal disease and that it acts like an aphrodisiac. It makes people amorous so it can spread.

And spread it does. The gross, sluglike things are moving all around the complex. They leap through the air to latch on to people's faces, they burst from stomachs and crawl out of mouths. In a memorable sequence one  of the parasites exits a bathtub drain and slides between a woman's legs.

I didn't know whether to laugh or throw up at this scene.

Things begin to spin out of control and the inhabitants quickly degenerate into wandering mobs of crazed rapists. In one of the most disturbing scenes an infected man enters an elevator with a woman and her young girl. The doors close. Later, the blood soaked little girl passes on the infection.

I told you. Much worse things.

The ending falls down a little bit, as the action devolves to a standard set of zombie movie chase scenes. The doctor tries to escape with his lover/nurse and they're both hunted throughout the complex before a final apocalyptic orgy at the heated pool. There's a nicely creepy denouement the next day with various people - who we know to be infected - leaving the apartment complex by car, one by one, heading to the city to spread the parasite. Our 'hero' included.

Pig-pile in the middle, pig-pile in the middle!

Technically, there are issues. The lighting is pretty flat, as it is in a lot of low-budget 1970's films. The editing is uninspired, as is the framing (with a few exceptions). The effects range from fairly realistic to laughably bad (it's really hard to make a penis-shaped slug seem threatening when it moves). Action sequences - of which there are too many as the film progresses - are poorly choreagraphed. The behavior of the parasites is inconsistent, as if Cronenberg changed his mind several times over the course of the film.  

The Bottom Line
I had ups and downs while watching this film. It's uneven and frustrating at times. People act in unbelievable ways. Some of the dialogue - particularly from the lead male - is recorded so low as to be almost inaudible. Some of the effects are bad enough that they puncture any tension a scene has built up.

Why are there all these wooden slats in the basement, anyway? Are we even still in the same movie?

And yet - I kept thinking about it after the credits rolled. The obvious references to STDs are only one layer of a complex film. There's a level that's a commentary on how, in a modern society, we never really know our neighbors and what's going on behind closed doors. There's a condemnation and fear of science run amok. There are questions of sexual identity and sexual politics. There's fear and repulsion at our own fleshy nature.

I think, in the end, the film works despite itself. It's rough in spots - and sometimes seems to be working primarily as a low-budget exploitation film - but It's an intriguing filmmaker's first foray into questions he'd explore in much more accomplished ways in films like Rabid and The Fly.

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