David Cronenberg’s filmography has given us some of the most horrific and nauseating body horror ever depicted from The Fly to Videodrome (long live the new flesh!), his work taps into this undeniable, visceral fear of the deconstruction of self as a tactile physical form but also as the site of conflict. It’s a dissociation of the human as a body and a deep dive as an exploration into the facets that make us who we are as entities coexisting but largely shaping each other with each interaction. Then it should come as no surprise that his first feature film, Shivers (1975), earnestly explores these concepts as an extended chamber piece within a consumer-friendly high rise apartment as parasites invade the occupants, turning them into sex-crazed fiends. Just imagine if the Tinder Google Doc for The Standard at Athens hadn’t been deleted and instead of everyone getting COVID, they gave each other massive horny worm parasites.
These laboratory-created parasites spread like wildfire throughout this island resort condominium, infecting everyone with a literal ‘love bug’ with not-so romantic implications. What kicks this whole outbreak into action occurs in one of the opening scenes. After the advertisement slideshow that lured a wholesome young couple in to tour, the audience is berated with a horrifically brutal escape and avoidance scene between a young school girl and an older gentleman that ends with her death and dismemberment. This flagrant and excessive violence against a woman shocks the viewer into the darker underbelly of this middle class paradise facade. Nicolas’s discovery of the girl’s body sets the story into motion as the tacit incrimination of harm enacted on a female and the spread of her parasites into others shifts the film outside the normal paradigm of a low-budget schlock body horror piece and into a critical representation of weaponized female sexuality and brutality in a pre #MeToo-era cautionary tale.
It doesn’t feel like an accident that the ground-zero for this island epidemic starts with a young woman who’s revealed to have been a sexual preoccupation of one of the scientists. Her body was mutilated and mangled from the inside out by her former lover who had injected her with trial parasites for a medical experiment that he was experimenting on. A story of mistrust and abuse of power, this is really the only scene we see these characters throughout the film, but they’re integral in creating this backdrop based on a secret no one is willing to confess to publicly. When her body is discovered, the investigation of the circumstances leads nowhere as the woman’s involvement in the experiment had already been known by his colleagues, and the focus then shifts towards containment. Containment as a means to insulate the knowledge of the crime and the re-narrativization of the scientist as a martyr to public help really captures this story of concealment as a means to guard against an unpleasant truth about the reality of the situation. His involvement with her death faces no scrutiny nor does his serial preoccupation with younger women ever get highlighted in any real critical light.
Regardless, the initial spread from the young woman to Nicolas redirects anxieties to containment as the characters are unaware of what exactly has been happening under their noses the whole time. There’s a slow pickup of scenes as the contamination lurks in every interaction thereafter, staining the walls and floors with its hidden blood trails as infection sets in. The parasites act as a symbol with dualist meanings in the extended metaphor of the film as both a side effect of the original act but also a perpetuation of it forward unto the guests spreading it to one another. As a side effect of negligence on the behalf of those in the know about the parasite, its rapid progression through the floors and levels squirms and writhes just below the carpet silently lurks in each interaction without knowing it had even taken place at all until the insatiable sexual appetite had consumer everyone in its wake and by then it’s too late and the irreparable harm has been done.
On the other hand, the parasites could just be a physical manifestation of the perpetuation of the crime as it moves from person to person. In other analyses, the parasitic worms have been considered a predictive depiction of HIV. Along that same line, sexual misconduct in all its external and internalized effects do have a way of trickling down from the initial point of contact. Every decision and act after the initial murder of the girl can be traced and her presence is felt through each of the infestations as it progresses further until everyone ends up naked in the indoor pool–as horny worm contagions tend to go. Thinking of this in terms of the current Hollywood climate, it’s easy to see the way that certain executives’ interactions with stars and actors alter the layout and design for not only the final film but everything that succeeds it.
Women as perpetrators and the main driving force of sexual pervasiveness and the spread of the parasite definitely complicates this narrative in a lot of ways, but Cronenberg has a fairly consistent preoccupation throughout his films with women as vessels not just for plot but also for deeper sentiments of primitiveness as humans more intensely linked to their id. As Nicolas deals in restraint of his urges while the worms eat him from the inside, the veil of traditionalism of chastity and modesty is yanked away as the impropriety of lust takes hold. The female body becomes the site of danger and excess as actual incubation chambers that are absolutely bursting with eroticism–perhaps as a compensation for scarcity of satisfaction that normally characterizes these women’s intimacy.
Having a phallic shaped worm be the monster of the film coheres well with this idea as it’s grotesquely misshapen and persistently invasive that tends to speak to a larger issue of consent. The look of the worm as the means of creating body horror for the plot of the film is so genuinely impractical as a prop for a practical effect which makes its design so feel intentionally useless but still assuming in its probing movements. Using something like this to facilitate a mass orgy of lust defies the logic of reason but champions its practicality as a mutant penis meant to terrorize an unassuming prudish middle class into sexual awakening solidifies this as a Cronenberg film in its execution of not only being a body horror piece but also an exploration into the language of deceit and suppression to the underground world that has altered the visual world of film forever.
To understand the pure direction that went into something that looks so conceptually simple that guides the story in a remarkably pointed and mindful way is exactly what you’ll find with Cronenberg’s work. This as a first feature film for him really sets the tone for his body of work as a whole but moreover the personality that makes this movie a cult classic.