Today, David Cronenberg gives you Shivers.
Starliner Towers is the hottest new thing in housing. Located on Starliner Island, less than 13 minutes from downtown Montreal, the apartment complex is entirely self-sufficient. There's copious parking spaces, a golf course, tennis court, heated Olympic-sized pool, a restaurant, store, deli, boutique, drug store, dry cleaners, even on-site dental and medical clinics.
And there's something very bad going on inside the complex. The movie makes us aware that something's wrong from the start, intercutting the delivery of the Starliner sales pitch to a couple who are considering moving in with a horrific murder/suicide being committed in one of the apartments. A middle-aged man strangles a young girl, dissects her, pours acid into her abdomen, then slits his own throat.
The girl had some kind of growth in her stomach, lumps that could be pushed around with your finger... or sometimes would move by themselves. Through the research of the Starliner clinic's M.D., we gradually learn that the abdominal growths were actually parasites developed by the girl's killer, Doctor Hobbes. Hobbes was working on finding an alternative to organ transplants, the idea being that a parasite could be bred to take the place of a human organ. The parasite would be placed inside the body of a person with a failing organ and would proceed to dissolve the organ and take over its function.
Hobbes placed his parasites inside the girl, his teenage mistress, but when he didn't like the results, he was driven to kill her. He used acid to destroy the parasites inside her, not knowing that she wasn't the only person in Starliner who had them. The parasites are already being spread among the Starliner residents.
The plight of the afflicted is primarily shown through the experiences of one man who refuses to go to the doctor to be checked out, and the scenes that deal with the trouble the growths in his abdomen cause him are the most disturbing to me. The man feeling in his stomach for the lumps, the pain they cause him, the sight of him coughing up blood, the "stay positive" theories that his problems could just be fatty cysts and ulcers. As a hypochondriac germophobe who lives in fear of disease, I find this all very troubling.
As it turns out, Hobbes had changed his intentions during his experiments. Feeling that the human race has become too rational, that people think too much these days, he decided to make a parasite that would get them back in touch with their base animal instincts, working both as an aphrodysiac and a venereal disease. As the parasites are spread through sexual contact, or even by the slug-like creatures getting loose from a host and crawling their way to another, Hobbes's hope was that they would eventually turn the world into one big, mindless orgy.
That's exactly what starts to happen at Starliner Towers, the place descending into chaos as the parasite-infected dwellers become sex zombies determined to love up everyone in their sight.
Released in some territories under the title They Came from Within, Shivers was conceived by writer/director David Cronenberg under the much cooler title Orgy of the Blood Parasites and marks his first straightforward narrative feature film after many television shorts and a couple experimental films.
It's a great movie, the plot Cronenberg crafted is intelligent and twisted and he brought it to the screen in a very effective way. The bland, sterile setting of Starliner Tower doesn't allow for much in the way of interesting sets, but it does provide a strong contrast against the horrors that occur within the location. The body horror aspects are disturbing and there's a very creepy atmosphere throughout. Remove the horror element and just take the fact that the teenage schoolgirl first victim is said to have been sleeping around with all these flabby, hairy older men in the building and it remains an extremely creepy concept.
The ensemble cast assembled includes character actor Joe Silver, who had a hell of a mug and a voice, and genre fan favorite actresses Barbara Steele (Black Sunday, Pit and the Pendulum '61, etc.) and, a particular favorite of mine, Lynn Lowry (I Drink Your Blood, The Crazies, Score, etc.).
As mentioned in the Slither write-up, Shivers was a big source of inspiration for that movie and the bathtub scene that plays out in this film with Barbara Steele, providing an image used in its marketing materials, was directly referenced with a bathtub scene in that film.