Shivers (1975)

SEPTEMBER 14, 2020


Vestron lives! After releasing a series of collector edition blu-rays fairly steadily, the line stopped in late 2018 and hasn't been heard from since. Given how many libraries Lionsgate acquired over the years, they certainly didn't run out of movies to do, so I just assumed they had quietly canceled the series. Thankfully, that doesn't seem to be the case - after a two year hiatus, they've come roaring back with a special edition of David Cronenberg's "professional" debut Shivers (aka They Came From Within), featuring a new commentary and interview with the master along with other goodies. In other words, it'd be exciting even if it was their 20th release of the year - it'd a hell of a way to come back from the dead!

Most exciting was that it would give me a chance to reevaluate the movie, which I had only seen once about six years ago. I didn't review it for whatever reason, and my lone tweet about it was about a discrepancy about how long it was, since IMDb said it was 87 minutes and the disc I was watching had it running just under 1:50 (turns out the DVD had included the accompanying interview with Cronenberg as part of the runtime), so I could only assume I wasn't too impressed with it. But after watching The Fly again last week (at the drive-in!) got me nostalgic for the guy's horror output, which as we know is intermittent at best for the past thirty years. Also, for some reason I thought maybe I'd have a different take on a movie about an out of control virus, not sure why.

Anyway, I did indeed enjoy the movie more than I seemingly did before, but that isn't too surprising - it tends to be the case quite a bit when I'm mixed on a film. With a second viewing I know what I'm in for, and can suss out what works instead of being (freshly) disappointed at this or that narrative decision. I think what kept me at bay before was that the film is kind of scattershot - there's a main plot about the two doctors trying to figure out why a colleague murdered someone and then killed himself, discovering that he created a parasite that turned its human host into a sex crazed zombies, and all that stuff is fine. However, there are also the scenes of the parasite infecting people in the high rise building where nearly every character resides, and that's where it falters a bit.

Don't get me wrong, the scenes themselves are fine and the mutated penis-looking parasite is appropriately icky to see in action. The problem is we know nothing about any of the residents being attacked (and in turn attacking others), so these scenes are never as tense or exciting as they should be. Sometimes they cut to people fighting and it's not even clear which one is the infected party, and it's constantly introducing new characters as if it didn't already have enough. Early on we meet two daft old ladies who are almost victims of the parasite when a guy pukes one out from his balcony above, and hell I could watch a whole movie about the two of them navigating this outbreak! Instead, we never see them again. Barbara Steele also feels a bit underutilized; the fact that the character is being played by Barbara Steele is deeper than any of her in-film characterization.

And the movie is almost over by the time the two things really converge; our hero doctor is kept out of any sex zombie shenanigans until the final 25 minutes or so, and by then things are so out of control it's obvious that saving the day is out of the question. There are comparisons to Night of the Living Dead to be made for sure, but what the movie really needed was a central group that could meet once or twice, instead of an ensemble that rarely interacts. Until the final scene where (spoiler for 45 year old movie ahead) just about everyone we've seen is now infected and swarming a swimming pool, most of the characters never share a scene with more than one or two other people. When Steele grabs the doctor near the end, I am pretty sure he doesn't even know who she is.

To be fair, Cronenberg will be the first to admit that the film is far from his best work. On the bonus features he calls it his first professional film (after the "underground" Crimes of the Future and Stereo) and that he had no idea what he was doing, crediting the producers for believing in him and hiring top guys for the various departments who would know how to do their jobs and help the young director see his vision through instead of waiting for him to tell them what to do. With that in mind, it's a wonder the film works at all, let alone mostly works well; there are some wooden actors and a few technical snafus (some of the ADR is downright comical) but its also ambitious and original, distinguishing it as a "David Cronenberg movie" more often than not.

On a personal level, it was also much more exciting than last time I saw it because I spotted not one, not two, but THREE Cathy's Curse cast members among the building's residents! I wouldn't have noticed them last time because at the time I only had the blurry VHS rip of my beloved, so I wouldn't have been able to recognize even the main actors in a lineup let alone supporting players. But now, with that beautiful Severin blu-ray at my disposal, I could easily recognize Paul the drunken groundskeeper as an infected resident, Mary the housekeeper as one of those old ladies, and that random inspector who makes the dog bark for reasons unknown as the building's handyman. It's rare I see anyone from Cathy in anything (some, including Cathy herself, never made another movie) so to get three at once was a true treat.

The disc has a healthy supply of bonus features, including the aforementioned commentary by the filmmaker. He says he hasn't seen the movie in decades (it's recently recorded) so the moderator occasionally has to prompt him along, but he also adds something to the discussion himself, which is what I like to hear from the moderators on these things. Sometimes it's like they're afraid to speak up when the director goes silent, and it's obnoxious - they might as well just write down a few questions and let the filmmaker sit there solo. More like this please! The new interview with Cronenberg covers some of the same anecdotes, and in turn many of them were featured on an older interview (I think the one that was attached to that old DVD), so if you go through everything you're gonna hear him tell some stories three times, but that's OK - hearing about how Dan O'Bannon ripped him off in Alien never gets old. Lynn Lowry and Joe Blasco also provide interviews, and there's another commentary with the producer that I haven't gotten to yet. HMAD might be back but I still have a kid - I can't go through the entire thing like I used to!

No one will argue that this is essentially a warmup for Rabid, which covers some of the same ground but with more finesse and experience bringing it together, not unlike Argento's animal trilogy getting him in shape for Deep Red. I'm actually curious why this wasn't the one to get remade instead of Rabid, as there's more room for improvement here and plenty to work with in order to modernize it (also, a modern production could explore male on male scenarios, which are barely even hinted at here, as if the sex crazed zombies had some boundaries). Flawed to be sure, but a fine start to an ongoing career, and a solid choice to relaunch the Vestron line. Let's hope it's here to stay this time!

What say you?


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