'Shivers' Is the Shame and the Pride of '70s Canadian Cinema

By using the language of the American horror film to explore notions of northern modernity, Cronenberg left his mark on Canadian national cinema.

Shivers David Cronenberg
Cinémathèque québécoise

To understand horror cinema is to understand national cinema. For decades, countries have exported works from their best and brightest horror filmmakers, opening doors in markets that would otherwise be resistant to arthouse or political cinema. Scholars and critics often argue that horror deserves a seat at the table of national cinema; if we have room to discuss the works of Tarkovsky or Renoir through their contemporary political lens, for example, the same can be said for low-budget genre films that were quietly doing big business around the world. No filmmaker better represents this need for a nationalist-horror lens than David Cronenberg, who damn near broke the Canadian film industry in 1975 with the release of his pseudo-zombie feature Shivers.

Shivers follows Dr. Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), the private physician at the self-sustaining Starline Towers off the shores of Montreal. St. Luc is called upon to investigate a murder-suicide that took place in one of the complex’s residences; as he digs deeper into the history of the killer, he discovers an ongoing medical experiment that feels more fiction than science. It seems that the now-dead doctor and his research partner were trying to develop a parasite that would remove the need for organ transplants. This parasite, when injected into the body, would consume and replace a damaged liver or spleen, performing the organ’s function as the host moves through life no worse for wear. As St. Luc digs into the research, though, he discovers an ulterior motive: the doctor wants to unleash a sexual plague upon the earth, using the parasite to turn humanity into a horde of sex-starved animals. As the parasite spreads throughout the compound, residents find themselves on the run from violent sexual assaults.

In Shocking Representation – an academic text that explores the intersection of the horror genre and national cinema – film scholar Adam Lowenstein devotes an entire chapter to the importance of Shivers to Canadian cinema. He frames the Canadian film industry as Hollywood’s younger brother; throughout the decades, filmmakers defined their work in opposition to American cinema, first by refusing to participate altogether and, eventually, by developing a nationalist view of cinema that echoed the work of European filmmakers. When Shivers arrived on the scene, the Canadian film industry had pivoted towards arthouse cinema, which made a low-budget horror film about erotic parasites a tough pill to swallow for audiences and critics alike. This was the kind of low-art, blatantly commercial film they’d come to expect from the big studios in California, not the self-financed work of a would-be Canadian auteur.

“Critics were incensed that it was Canadian-made with support from the Canadian Film Development Corp., but not distinctively Canadian,” wrote The Ottawa Citizen critic Richard Labonte upon the film’s release. “No maple leaf and beaver sentiment, no goin’ down the road to a new Canadian awareness.” Les Wedman, film critic for The Vancouver Sun, celebrated the end of the film’s theatrical run by cataloguing the various reasons the CDFC has previously refused to fund the movie: first because the budget was too high, then because the characters were too unlikable, and finally, because the organization claimed to have no strict guidelines on horror cinema. “It’s no wonder that Shivers is precisely the movie Cronenberg intended to make,” Wedman wrote, “even if he’s accused of selling out and bringing down the level Canada’s film industry is trying to achieve.”

These criticism were not just being levied by writers, either. In March of 1976, the Edmonton Journal ran a man-on-the-street style feature on how audiences describing the film, with comments ranging from “sick,” “garbage,” and “a waste of money.” But no criticism of Cronenberg’s film, professional or amateur, was as devastating as the one offered by Saturday Night magazine editor Robert Fulford. Incensed that Shivers had been funded in part by taxpayer dollars, Fulford took it upon himself to call out both the filmmaker and the CDFC for their “disgrace” of a film. “If using public money to produce films like [Shivers] is the only way that English Canada can have a film industry,” he wrote, “then perhaps English Canada should not have a film industry.” This language, while extreme, was echoed by many critics and contemporary audiences. Sure, it was great that a Canadian film was making money and playing around the world, but at what cost? Was this film an appropriate flagship for their fledgling film industry?

There’s certainly no denying that Shivers was a shocking film, even in the wake of movies like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The film opens on two sets of characters: one a young couple preparing to sign a lease at Starliner Towers, the other an old man and a young woman grappling in a hotel room. We watch the old man strangle the woman to death, then cut her open, and finally slit his own throat. What follows is part zombie movie, part contagion: the on-site medical team tries to identify others who might have been infected by the young woman before the parasites can spread. Meanwhile, dozens of residents are brutally attacked before giving themselves over to the sexual pleasure that the parasites convey. Cronenberg owes much to the work of George Romero, of course, but Shivers shows the filmmaker already preoccupied with notions of sex and rebirth.

In this way, Shivers set the stage for decades of Cronenberg films that explore the intersection of technology and biology. Contemporary readings of the film – that Cronenberg was critical of the sexual revolution of the ’70s or had doomed humanity to a sex-fueled apocalypse were later dismissed by authors like Lowenstein, who viewed the filmmaker as condemning the systems of power that allowed the director’s brand of body horror to flourish. It’s no accident that the film takes place in the unimpressive confines of Starliner Towers. As Lowenstein notes, the very proliferation of these luxury high-rises was part of a broader trend towards “sterile [environments] structured by the commodification of the sexual revolution.” The island has its own market, its own butcher, even its own medical clinic. It’s not exactly earth-shattering criticism to suggest that the environment functions much like an organism; it’s only when the blood is flowing organically that it achieves its highest function.

And the very absence of things that would make the film thematically “Canadian” – the lack of maple leaf and beaver sentiment, to quote Labonte a second time – can be seen as much as a rebuff of cinematic mythmaking as anything else. The idea that Canadian films needed to tell arthouse narratives about culture and nature did not necessarily align with the overall North American trend towards suburban living; by setting his film in an ultra-modern apartment complex, Cronenberg was able to craft a horror film about Canada, just not the Canada that his contemporaries wanted to see at the cinema. And as noted by Lowenstein and others, the restrained storytelling that is found in Canadian cinema finds a strange bedfellow in the excess of the horror genre. Just because the expectations of the audience are subverted does not mean their nationalist message is any weaker for it.

This is the unique space that Shivers occupies. At once both a low-budget horror film and a work of national cinema exploring issues of Canadian modernity, Cronenberg is able to bridge the divide between the cinematic output of two countries like seldom can. In one of the film’s final scenes, a now-infected nurse tells Doctor St. Luc about a recent sex dream and the erotic philosophies spouted by her imaginary partner. “Disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other,” she recalls, offering a near-perfect summary for Shivers itself. Cronenberg’s movie, ‘diseased’ as it may be, is the perfect love story between Canadian nationalism and Hollywood independent horror. It may have outraged his contemporaries, but both the film and the filmmaker have withstood the test of time and proven that horror is a more-than-acceptable way for English Canada to have a film industry.

Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.