Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits David Cronenberg’s first (true) feature film via the Shivers commentary.
David Cronenberg hasn’t made a feature film since 2014 which is a real crime against the future. He’s keeping busy with the occasional acting gig, writing novels, and being proud of his son’s directorial efforts — seriously, see Possessor when it opens this year — and now he’s also recording new commentary tracks. Shivers was his first professional feature film, and it’s new to Blu-ray from Vestron Video along with a brand new commentary.
Commentators: David Cronenberg (director/writer), Chris Alexander (moderator)
1. Cronenberg’s is sick with a cold “virus” as he records this commentary track for a movie about a plague of another kind.
2. The movie was filmed in and around a condominium complex on Nuns Island off Montreal. The cast and crew lived in the building during production.
3. Most of the photos during the opening advertisement for the Starliner Towers appear to be stock photos although Cronenberg isn’t sure where they came from.
4. Ivan Reitman produced the film, but he’s also credited as music supervisor. “We couldn’t afford to have a traditional score, so it’s all needle drop music” that Reitman acquired. It wasn’t until 1979’s The Brood that he was able to hire a composer in Howard Shore with whom he has since collaborated with fourteen more times.
5. The star of his first two films, Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), was Ronald Mlodzik who appears her as the Starliner Towers salesman. “It was my pleasure to get him into a movie where he would be paid.”
6. Joe Blasco handled the special effects here as there wasn’t a Canadian industry in that field yet. “There had not been a serious horror film made in Canada” to that point.
7. The Dead Zone was his first film with stereo sound.
8. “We were very cynical about straight business-like” jobs and workers, he says in regard to the film’s disdain for the norms of a proper society.
9. Cinepix wanted Cronenberg’s screenplay but weren’t too sure about letting him direct. Their desire to snag a horror film — they’d found success selling softcore films to Europe but had no success cracking the US market — left them uncertain. They hesitated so long that Cronenberg had actually visited Los Angeles and found major interest from some of the independents. He returned to Canada ready to pack his bags and move to the US, but the Canadians finally found the financing and their nerve.
10. The only feature footage Cronenberg has shot in the United States is a portion of Maps to the Stars (2014). Perhaps coincidentally, that was also his final film.
11. Cronenberg laments not having the benefit of CG to make the slug look better or at least erase the wires, but he’s okay with it as a product of its time. “Unlike George Lucas I had no desire to go back and correct it with modern technology. Let it live in the time that it existed with all the flaws. That’s where it belongs.”
12. Alexander comments that his films are sometimes criticized for being too serious despite being “secret comedies,” and Cronenberg seems surprised. They agree that people are often nervous to meet him though. “Oh that’s true, they think I’m going to kill them.”
13. Asked about the shifting pathology of the slug and its abilities, Cronenberg says “if there are inconsistencies it’s either intended or its my fault. It’s my disease to play with.”
14. Susan Petrie’s character needed to cry for some scenes, but she told Cronenberg she was unable to do so on command. She told him that “just before the scene where I cry I want you to slap me across the face really hard.” He complied, she asked him to do it harder, and he followed through. “Not being a sadist it wasn’t something that was natural to me.” The cast and crew grew familiar with the process, but Barbara Steele had yet to experience it. When she finally saw it happen “she was shocked beyond belief.” She grabbed Cronenberg and confronted him and only calmed once it was all explained to her.
15. Steele’s bathtub scene features a leg double in the shots of the slug in the tub near her.
16. Cronenberg mentions being offered to adapt J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise into a film, “but I’ve kind of done it already.”
17. The cooking fork seen in Lynn Lowry’s hand at 45:42 left a permanent mark on Cronenberg’s left bicep. The beat where she brings the fork down in self-defense accidentally struck him, and he still has the scar.
18. Shivers was written under the title Orgy of the Blood Parasites, but it was filmed under the title The Parasite Murders. In the US it was retitled They Came from Within which Cronenberg found clunky. He also never really liked Shivers as a title either, but he could think of nothing better.
19. They mention an infamous article about Shivers in the Canadian magazine Saturday Night in which the writer declared that “if we need to make movies like this to have a Canadian film industry then we shouldn’t have a Canadian film industry.” Cronenberg wasn’t bothered personally by the high-profile slam, but as the films were funded in part by the government he soon discovered the damage it cost. The government was scared away from funding his follow-up, Rabid (1977). “It really delayed by career by a year or two.”
20. Wally martin plays the doorman and also played Mr. Cloudhopper on MisteRogers — which I’ve just learned was a series from Fred Rogers that predated Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
21. The moment that often happens in commentaries occurs here around the 1:08:30 mark.
22. Joe Silver plays a doctor here and also voiced the Creep in Creepshow 2 (1987). “I didn’t know that,” says Cronenberg.
23. Cronenberg is convinced that Dan O’Bannon borrowed heavily from the creature element here for his own film Alien (1979).
24. Cronenberg cameos via his voice earlier, but he appears on screen at 1:17:58 as one of the infected.
25. “Body horror” was never a term Cronenberg applied to himself, nor was it an approach her intentionally took with his work.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“My understanding of what horror was, was medical and modern and bodily-focused.”
“He also wrote the theme song for the worst sitcom of all time.”
“People kind of thought of him as an evil Robert Redford.”
“Key scenes in your films always happen in the intimacy of a lavatory.”
“A movie without humor is disconnected from the real world.”
“Watching this movie is watching me learn how to make a movie.”
“I had no idea that I sullied Mister Rogers.”
“You have to admit, this is a very strange movie.”
Shivers remains an interesting slice of early horror from Cronenberg, and it’s great news seeing it finally released on Blu-ray in the US. The extras include a new interview, but this commentary is the supplemental highlight as the filmmaker offers up some fun thoughts and observations on the film. Consider both the Blu-ray and the commentary to be must-haves.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.