Cronenberg on Sex and Gender: Shivers (1975)
We are going back in time a couple of years for this installment of the Cronenberg series, but I wanted to visit his first feature film which I had not seen previously, Shivers from 1975. In the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg the director mentions that he believes Shivers is the first Canadian made horror movie and although this is difficult to verify he does go into detail about how hard it was to make films in Canada in the 70s. That being said it was a very controversial movie when it first came out, which makes sense when you hear that the overarching plot is that people are being infested with slug-parasites that turn them into sex crazed zombies. This is a movie that is infamous in horror circles and has a well-earned reputation. Although I was fully prepared for the amount of gore in this movie I was surprised by how smart and well done this movie was, especially for a debut film. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and it is fascinating to watch through a sex and gender lens.
The movie opens by introducing the Starliner Towers, in which the entire film takes place. This is a state of the art complex that is somewhat isolated and is able to function mostly on its own. The space even includes a restaurant and a doctor’s office. Cronenberg cuts between a couple doing a walkthrough of the complex and a scene of what appears to be an attempted sexual assault by an older man on a student. The scene ends with him strangling the woman, stripping her, cutting her open, pouring a chemical inside of her, and finally slitting his own throat. Based solely on these few minutes, this movie’s reputation is well deserved. A man named Nick, who lives in the building with his wife Janine, discovers the scene of the murder-suicide.
The film is only 89 minutes long, so we very quickly learn very quickly that Nick is having an affair with the student Abigail who was just murdered. We also discover that the man who killed Abigail is Dr. Hobbs, who found an alternative to organ transplants: parasites that can take over the function of any human organ. We also learn that Hobbs is a pedophile and has been using Abigail for his experiments and his own perverted desires since she was 12 years old, so over the course of 7 years from what the movie tells us. Hobbs kills Abigail after apparently realizing the horrifying side effects of these parasites.
One of Hobbs’s associates goes through his research materials and learns more about the parasites and what they are capable of. His journal shows that he believes humans are the cause of most of their own problem. Humans have become too intelligent and think too much, and therefore he sees the parasites as a way to get humans to stop getting in their own way and turning the world into “a giant orgy”. This of course is exactly what begins to happen at Starliner Towers. Roger St. Luc, the resident doctor at the Towers, mentions that Abigail has been involved with several men in the complex and the parasite has clearly spread more than they thought.
I think this is where Cronenberg really starts to make some interesting points in the area of sex. You are immediately shown characters that are sexually deviant and abusive even without the parasites. Nick, the husband, is clearly abusive to his wife and is also unfaithful to her. Then of course there is the mad scientist behind it all, Hobbs, that seems to try to make his action and feelings legitimate by using parasites to make the world just as deviant and perverted as he is. It is obvious that his relations with Abigail were going on for a long time and he did not have any intentions of changing his behavior, therefore the world had to change. On the other side you have Abigail who was abused starting at a very young age. Although she is having relations with many people in the building, the movie and its characters never seem to judge her actions. It even seems possible that Cronenberg is trying to show how abuse can manifest in different ways; people becoming promiscuous or engaging in sexual relations earlier than others might.
This makes it seem that in some way that the parasites were not the problem necessarily, especially with many deviant or abusive sexual relations going on long before they begin to spread. As the movie progresses we start to see more people become infested with the parasites and start attacking other people. I had noticed in other movies like Videodrome that Cronenberg shies away from showing scenes of rape and most of those actions are implied. He once said that he wanted the audience to see things they could not comprehend “I have to show things because I am showing things that people could not imagine. If I had done them off-screen (like Nick puking parasites onto old ladies below him) they would not exist. If you’re talking about shooting someone, or cutting throats, you could do that off-screen and the audience would have some idea of what was going on.” You see children infected with the parasites and know what most likely happened to them, but it is not at all necessary to show it. This is something I appreciate, especially as a woman who finds most scenes of rape in film unnecessary and disturbing. I have noticed him avoiding this so much that I have to believe he is doing this on purposes. So thank you Cronenberg for showing that this can be done!
An interesting part of the film is watching Nick slowly deteriorate. His wife Janine tries to care for him as long as she can even though he is truly dreadful to her. His one attempt at being nice to her is clearly just an attempt to seduce her and try to infect her. When she struggles with him he hurts her and yells at her about how she is his wife and tries to make her feel obligated to have sex with him. She is able to escape when he begins coughing up more parasites.
Janine runs to her free-spirited friend Betts, who also lives in the building, looking for comfort after leaving Nick, but unfortunately for her Betts has already been infected when a parasite crawls inside of her vagina during her bath. She and Betts share a kiss, and that is all that is necessary for her to be infected. After the women are infected they often seem more empowered. Janine seems to be much more self-assured, confident, and even looks sexier after she has the parasite. Something similar happens when Nurse Forsythe, who works in the building, is infected. She gives an interesting speech to Dr. St. Luc:
I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I'm having trouble, you see because he's old and dying and he smells bad and I find him repulsive. But then, he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two kinds of creatures for each other. Even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him and we make love beautifully.
This quote struck me, as well as a quote that was in the background of a scene, on the refrigerator of Dr. Hobbs’s fridge it says “Sex is the invention of a very clever venereal disease.” I went to see who this quote was attributed to and it might be unsurprising to find it is one that Cronenberg made up.
Unsurprisingly the Towers descend into sex-crazed insanity with people running around and engaging in sexual relations all over the complex. Dr. St. Luc is one of the only people who has not been infected. He ends up stuck between the zombies who are outside and the three main women in the pool who eventually drag him into the pool and infect him. Essentially the movie ends with a typical male fantasy turned into a waking nightmare. Eventually they all drive away, off to infect the rest of the world. The most amusing part of Cronenberg’s feature film is that his biggest nightmare involves a bunch of people are having sex with each other. It makes sense that this movie is known as an exploitation movie, especially with the content and time that it came out. However when this movie ended I just sat there wondering if it was appropriately labeled, especially considering how smart it is and how much substance is behind the crazy imagery of Shivers.
Since starting this project I keep having the same thoughts and conversations, mainly I keep saying “This seems so smart, is Cronenberg doing this on purpose?” and I have to believe after saying this so frequently that he must be. In the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, which is giving me incredible insight on this madman I have become obsessed with, he says “I don’t want to have unfettered access to the brains, nervous systems, and sensibilities of my audience. I want them to have unfettered access into mine. Then they can reject it, absorb it, be affected by it or misinterpret it.” I don’t think that I am rejecting it, but that’s all I have figured out thus far. It is obvious that as smart as he is still a male director and writer and he is still obsessed with sex. He mentions seeing movies with sex in them as a young child while on trips to the States and says that in his head he has always intertwined them. It is hard for me to say what exactly he is trying to say with some of the films I have seen so far however it does not seem like he is trying to say sex is inherently good or bad, but humans are flawed and can pervert things like sex and make it bad. People like Hobbs can act as a “god” and change people’s “old flesh” and turn it into something wrong and perverted. But even after people were infected by the parasites some of them seemed like and acted like zombies, while others seemed to take it and use it as an opportunity to fully enjoy, and even empower themselves.
I still do not understand Cronenberg but like his other films, Shiversis doing and saying many interesting things. I understand how this was rejected by so many people when it first came out. However tying this in with some of his other filmography is interesting and I am excited to discuss some of these commonalities as I progress in this series, like his complex female characters. His male characters I find are often a bit bland and do not seem to have too much below the surface. Maybe his interest in the opposite gender makes him work harder at creating these characters and understanding them.
Another common thread is showing different types of trauma and abuse. In Shivers he shows several different types of abuse throughout the story; marital abuse is shown in this scene as well as women assaulting men, men assaulting other men, and pedophilia. Finally I notice him shying away from or not showing rape even when it seems to be a major part of some of his stories. For a movie about sex zombies you see very little sexual violence, I noticed this separation especially in Videodrome,which I will come back to at a later date. Also tying back to Videodrome is the quote from Nurse Forsythe who brings up “old flesh” something that has clearly been rattling around in Cronenberg’s brain and is now infecting mine very much like one of these parasites.