Thursday, August 16, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.3: David Cronenberg's Shivers

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

Grade: 87 (A-)

Stereo and Crimes of the Future showed David Cronenberg’s talent, but both were radically experimental slogs that suffered from lack of narrative drive. Neither were particularly satisfactory. Cronenberg took some time between 1970’s Crimes of the Future and his theatrical debut, 1975’s Shivers (released in the U.S. as They Came From Within), and it made a huge difference. The film is Cronenberg’s first proper exploration of the Body Horror subgenre, if not the first proper Body Horror film altogether; some arguments could be made to precursors like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Fly (which Cronenberg would later remake) or pregnancy-horror films like Rosemary’s Baby and It’s Alive. But Shivers is the first visceral depiction and blueprint of what the subgenre was  (Dan O’Bannon took more than a few ideas for his Alien script), and Cronenberg’s first great movie.

Something strange is happening over at the Starliner Apartments in Montreal. Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doerlin) has bred a strange parasite, ostensibly to be used in transplants. But the doctor has more sinister plans: believing humanity to have become over-reliant on the mind rather than the flesh, he develops the parasite to work as “a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease”. After the parasite latches onto the host, it causes unrestrained sexual behavior, which can then be spread through sexual contact. Hobbes implants his sexually promiscuous teen-aged mistress with a parasite, but he panics after he loses control and kills her. But it’s too late: she’s already begun a chain of events that spreads throughout the apartment complex.

The greatest influences on Cronenberg’s work are not filmmakers, but rather writers. Certainly Cronenberg’s chilly reserve resembles that of Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman, but it seems more connected to the aloof remove of Cronenberg favorite Vladimir Nabokov. Shivers also shows a more pronounced influence from William S. Burroughs- the frenetic, horrifying orgies that make up the film wouldn’t be out of place in Naked Lunch, while the setting and concept is oddly well-timed in its close proximity to the release of the 1975 novel High Rise by J.G. Ballard. It’s no wonder that Cronenberg would go on to adapt works by both Burroughs and Ballard. The idea of a transformation is less literally physical here than in later Cronenberg works, but the psychological transformation still feels of a piece to the work of Franz Kafka.  And then there’s the whole philosophy of the film: that sexuality is natural and should not be repressed by bourgeois values, taken from the studies of psychologist Wilhelm Reich. Cronenberg takes these diverse influences and applies it to the structure of a horror film, specifically a Romero zombie movie, and makes the converting force internal rather than external. This new genre structure gives Cronenberg a more accessible and effective framework to filter his obsessions through than his rambling early features did.

Cronenberg was learning how to direct a feature film on the job while making Shivers, which lends to the film’s awkward framing during expository scenes and an occasional sense of hesitancy, but it’s only a hindrance a few times. For the most part, it shows a director leaps and bounds beyond his beginnings in a remarkably assured theatrical debut. Cronenberg contrasts the sterile dullness of the Starliner apartments with the horror lurking underneath early on in a scene which cuts between the hotel manager showing a group around and Hobbes murdering  his mistress, performing a crude autopsy, and pouring acid into her body before killing himself. It’s a deeply disturbing sequence that showcases jarring shifts in tone, chaotic and brutal but coldly matter-of-fact violence, unsettling sexual overtones, and what-the-hell weirdness, a playful touch that’s absolutely horrifying. Cronenberg also shows a strong sense of how to build suspense in several long, dragged out silences where the audience just waits for one of the parasites to jump out. I particularly love a shot of one character walking down a hall after her husband has been taken over, her world crumbling around her.

The parasites are rather crude effects, but their crudeness is part of what makes them so effective. They look disconcertingly like a cross between a lump of shit and a phallus, which speaks to both their nasty, infectious quality and their ability to spark powerful sexual change. Cronenberg’s earliest real depictions of body horror is the stuff of nightmares- from early signs of retching and bleeding from the mouth to more viscerally affecting sequences of characters vomiting parasites and parasites causing lumps under the skin. Horror movies are often a good excuse for young couples to get close, but it’s hard to imagine anyone making out during Shivers. It’s a film that makes one deeply uncomfortable with their own body, what with the viral invasion of the body and unhinged sexual behavior.

But is that a bad thing? The film maintains the neutral stance that Cronenberg’s earlier features did- there’s no moral lesson to be learned from this horrorshow, only a biological event. One could argue that the lack of character development or depth is a flaw, but Cronenberg isn’t playing with characters here. He’s playing with repressed bourgeois archetypes- plain vanilla doctor, bonehead yuppie, distressed, uptight housewife. Wilhelm Reich’s philosophy argued that middle-class sexual mores added to neurosis, and Cronenberg represents that perfectly (he's said that he sympathizes with the characters after they've undergone their change). Everyone in the Starliner apartments seems uncomfortable with their sexuality and cut off from one another- husbands and wives don’t sleep together, and the affair between Paul Hampton’s doctor/ostensible protagonist and his nurse seems awfully lacking in chemistry. When she strips in front of him, it’s rather nondescript, and he doesn’t take much of an active interest in her (he is getting some odd news about the parasite’s origins at the time, though).

 Along comes a crazed doctor with no sexual mores and a liberating parasite that enters the body in any way it can, be it by bite or though an orifice (any orifice). The film is certainly filled with plenty of rape imagery- the parasite entering people, newly sexually liberated beings single-mindedly pursuing new conquests- but the screams often turn to moans from pleasure as the characters make friends with the disease. There are no more boundaries, with rigidly defined heterosexuality giving way to an omnisexuality that gives equal regards to male-female, male-male, female-female, and so on. “Everything is erotic”, as one character says. It’s deeply disturbing to us- any film that shows a father-daughter relationship and orgies where age isn’t discriminated is going to be. But then, liberation is often an ugly process. The film’s chilling final shot maintains that moral ambiguity- is there a right or wrong in this situation, and are these formerly repressed people now better off having had sexual release- exemplifies what makes Shivers so effective as a horror film. It’s deeply disturbing, sharply satirical, and wholly original.

But don't take my word for it. Shivers is available in its entirety on YouTube.

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