David Cronenberg makes films from the perspective of the disease. Described as the King of Venereal Horror, a moniker the Canadian director has gone on record as relishing over the “body horror” descriptor more frequently attached to his work, he depicts infection as revolutionary. Whether biological, psychological or technological in origin—and most often some intertwining combination of the three—infection is an ultimate form of anarchy against an ordered system, and one that, when lensed from the disease’s POV, is often triumphant and transformative rather than degenerative. Through this conceit, instead of causing a body to fall apart, viral infection and parasitic infestation can be viewed as capable of turning a well-functioning body into what the director has described as a “new but still well-functioning machine with a different purpose.”

While his subsequent work would do this much more artfully, no other Cronenberg film more directly articulates this point than 1975’s Shivers. As his first truly feature-length film following two hourlong experimental projects, Shivers hinges on a simple plot device of a mad scientist who lost his way while exploring a method to make a healthy parasite replace the function of a damaged organ in a human body. While much of Cronenberg’s body horror in the ‘70s and ‘80s focused on post-human manifestations—think Brundlefly, telekinetic “scanners” or the new flesh in Videodrome—this attempt at symbiosis in Shivers does the opposite and regresses human biology and cognition to its basest impulses. Rather than the benevolent (if icky) goal of using parasites in place of donated organs, Dr. Hobbes (Fred Doederlein) has ended up creating an invasive organism that is “a combination of an aphrodisiac and a venereal disease.”

With a concept and execution as crude and garish as suggested by the project’s working title, Orgy of the Blood Parasites, Shivers presents Cronenberg’s artistic sensibilities in larval form. Cronenberg himself has explained that “watching this movie is watching me learn how to make a movie.” This is rudimentary body horror, with rubber worms wriggling about on occasionally visible wires, and the gore is relatively tame by Cronenbergian standards. The vision behind the film is no less roughly sketched: these engineered parasites cause their afflicted hosts to go around attempting to rape each other. You see, despite his initial intentions, Dr. Hobbes believes the world has become too intellectual. To combat this, he’s created these sex worms to “turn the world into one mindless orgy.”

Of course, things went awry, and the spread doesn’t stop after an opening scene where Dr. Hobbes burns the parasites with acid in the sliced-open abdomen of his human guinea pig (Cathy Graham) and then slits his own throat. Even in the film’s early moments, the entire apartment complex is infested. Despite largely ineffective gore that spills too-red blood, Cronenberg does show flashes of unnerving implied violence. The most cringe-inducing body horror involves afflicted resident Nick (Alan Migicovsky) affectionately talking to the large parasites that visibly ripple under the skin of his stomach. And the most frightening use of the rubber slugs involves one slithering in a bathtub between the outstretched legs of the lascivious Betts (Barbara Steele). Elsewhere, we indirectly see transmission of the parasite through the bulging throats of Betts and Nick’s wife, Janine (Susan Petrie), when the two women share a kiss.

While Shivers isn’t without merit, when one considers its lurid content, it’s not difficult to see why the film was largely panned upon its release. In fact, given that it was partially bankrolled through Canadian taxpayer dollars, the prurient subject matter served as an obstacle in Cronenberg’s attempt to secure funding for his next project, Rabid. The director was even evicted from his apartment under a morality clause. And yet Shivers isn’t outright depraved exploitation. A deep cynicism of straitlaced, button-down society pervades the film, with the façade of professionalism of doctors and businessmen subverted by frenzied lust and violence brought on by the parasitic infection. With the prevalence of sex scandals involving powerful men in the decades since the film’s release, there’s biting satire here in retrospect. And although the film may not contain the same incisive commentary on the blurred lines between meat, mind and machines as found in Cronenberg’s later work, some of the rudimentary structures are still there, simply awaiting the metamorphosis the director’s art would subsequently undergo.

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