Canadian provocateur David Cronenberg’s first proper feature, and also the first taste world audiences got of his disturbing biological-horror fixation, Shivers isn’t a fully realized piece of work, but it demonstrates Cronenberg’s skill with pacing and tone. The story is one of the writer-director’s signature cautionary tales about doctors mucking around with the human body and thereby causing organs to rebel. Specifically, a deranged M.D. invents a parasite that can supposedly enter the body of a diseased person, eat a dysfunctional organ, and take the place of the organ as a permanent (and functional) resident in the body. Unfortunately, the parasites have a tendency to turn their hosts into sex-crazed psychopaths, and to multiply by creating new parasites in the bodies of their hosts’ sex partners. (The creatures’ life cycle explains the film’s U.S. title, They Came from Within, featured on the above poster.)
Instead of exploring the broader implications and big-canvas possibilities of this nasty premise, Cronenberg wisely takes the Invasion of the Body Snatchers route by restricting the action to one confined location: a small island outside of Montreal occupied almost exclusively by a high-rise apartment building. So, over the course of the story, the slimy little parasites—which, in one of the director’s characteristically perverse touches, look like crawling sex organs—spread from a few infected persons to the entire population of the building. Battling the creatures is physician Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), and suffering the monsters’ worst abuse is businessman Nicholas Tudor (Allan Kolman), who spends much of the picture convulsing while beasties squirm under the skin of his abdomen. Also along for the ride is B-movie icon Barbara Steele, whose character gets raped by one of the critters during a bath.
Blood flows freely throughout Shivers, which doesn’t hit the balance of gore and ideas that distinguishes Cronenberg’s best bio-horror flicks, though the mercilessness of the picture gives it a kind of sadistic integrity. Cronenberg’s clinical camera style is impressively in evidence, as is his gift for clear-headed storytelling, despite the fact that Shivers features a cast of thoroughly mediocre actors; while some of the unfamiliar faces scream and suffer effectively, only Joe Silver (as a doctor unwittingly caught up in the infestation) conveys a distinct personality.