They Came From Within
Review by Teddy Blanks
Posted on 29 October 2006
Features: 31 Days of Horror
From the mutant insect typewriters in Naked Lunch to the fleshy game controllers in eXistenZ to, well, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, David Cronenberg has founded a veritable Jim Henson Creature Shop of Horrors, one in which the bizarre, oozing puppets are inspired by sex organs, skin, and guts. If we stick with this analogy, Cronenberg’s Kermit is the slimy, phallic parasite that steadily makes its way through the bodies of all occupants of the Starliner Towers in his debut feature, Shivers. We learn that this leechish monster is the creation of a doctor at the Towers’ in-house clinic. To secure grant money, he told his backers that he was breeding a parasite that performs the function of an organ, but its true function is considerably less noble: it’s “a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that will turn humanity into one mindless orgy.”
The pestilence this parasite wreaks upon the secluded apartment complex is as violently sexual as it is gory. Oddly, everyone seems to have a different reaction to the slug: in some cases, it simply inspires a heightened arousal, while in others, it gives rise to a rabid, amorous fervor, sending its host into an aggressive fit of sex mania. In the most horrific example, the parasite splits open its near-catatonic victim’s stomach and writhes around in his exposed intestines, waiting for someone to come close enough for it to leap on.
That the sex parasite spreads so quickly — and it does: Shivers has an unrelenting pace, beginning with the first infection and not letting up until everybody’s got it — is a product of isolation. Introduced in the hilarious slide-show advertisement that serves as the film’s opening, the Towers are located on a private island just outside of Montreal, and they are a necessarily self-contained community. “Most modern name-brand appliances, drug store, dry cleaning service, dental and medical clinics” are all included in this “island paradise,” the droll announcer tells us over ominous synth music and washed-out ‘70s photography. It’s a scary idea, and I’m not sure such a place actually exists, but if it were to be anywhere, it would be around Montreal, a town known for having an entire city underneath the actual city. The residents, young and old (and almost all white), of the Starliner Towers are generally unfazed by the Big Brotherish nature of their existence. This, and that they are basically stuck there, make the location ripe for epidemic.
In a movie that can’t seem to settle on a human protagonist, this apartment complex is the camera’s favorite subject. Cronenberg glides along the outside of the shimmering glass-and-steel exterior, through the expansive lobby, down the hallways with their tall, orange apartment doors, and into the pre-furnished rooms themselves, with their great late-modern puke-upholstered furniture, yellow curtains, shag carpets, and zebra-print wallpaper. I still haven’t decided if Cronenberg displays a genius with color here, or if it’s just the ‘70s. Shivers is one of those movies, like Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven, whose low-budget lighting and archaic decor only look better with age. It’s impossible that either director could have foreseen the ironic visual delight their films would give us thirty years on.
Shivers is a bold and original horror movie. I can’t imagine its first American audiences, who viewed the film under the rather stupid title They Came From Within, were prepared to experience such a unique cinematic voice. In retrospect, it’s almost too perfect that this was David Cronenberg’s first widely-seen picture, but its intense exploitation of deep human sexual desire and angst must have been quite shocking at the time. Which is not to say that it doesn’t still shock. The mere idea of a building terrorized by sex zombies is taboo, even — no, especially — in today’s horror landscape, which is gore-and-dismemberment friendly, but still treats sex as something that happens only to girls with boob jobs right before they get stabbed.
Cronenberg’s low-budget effects, in addition to previewing his own long list of contributions to great movie-monster history, have had a considerable influence on other filmmakers. Ridley Scott emulated the protrusion of the parasite from the chest of one victim for Alien’s most famous sequence. And James Gunn, Troma graduate and horror newcomer, basically made Shivers as the rhyming Slither, re-casting the slug as a brown slimeball from outer space and relocating to small-town middle America. There is a bathtub scene in Slither that Gunn obviously wanted to be iconic, but Cronenberg’s, where the slug comes out of the drain and enters its victim, is far more chilling.
Near the end, at the height of the sexual outbreak, a lone uninfected doctor hides out in a small locked closet of the clinic with his nurse, played by Lynn Lowry, strange blond beauty and B-Horror starlet (incidentally, I once met her at a DVD signing of I Drink Your Blood, and she had become soft and matronly, an image that has since altered my reaction to her nude scenes). She tells him about a dream she had, in which she was making love to an old man who at first disgusted her, until he explained to her that all flesh, even old flesh, is erotic. “Talking is sexual,” she says, “breathing is sexual, to physically exist is sexual.”
“Even dying,” she says, “is an act of eroticism.”
There is a silent microscopic war that has always been part of our physical world, a war between self-conscious animal life forms and the parasites that prey on them, and the parasites are winning, will always win. There is something like four times as many types of parasites as there are species of animal, and when the apocalypse comes, surely the parasites will remain. And although they are not intelligent, in many cases they seem to be, taking advantage of their hosts in miraculous, sometimes unbelievable ways. In this war, it’s natural, if not realistic, to root for the home team; it takes a twisted mind to be on the parasites’ side. The idea of creating a parasite to induce a second sexual revolution must come from a parasite fan, and the doctor-creator, who we briefly glimpse during the film’s opening, surely is one. It is only after hearing the sincerity of Lynn Lowry’s monologue, and seeing the disturbing final scene, as the residents of the Starliner Towers take their newfound sexual freedom to the outside world, that we begin to see that Cronenberg is also, as always, rooting for his gooey little creatures.