Friday, February 3, 2012

KIDNEYS ON FILM PART TWO: SHIVERS (Zombies, Parasites, Softcore Porn, STD's & Kidney Failure)

You got men, you got parasites that live in, on, and around men. Now. Why not breed a parasite that does something useful? Eh? Why not breed a parasite capable of taking over the function of any one of a bunch of human organs? Why not, for example, a parasite living in the human abdominal cavity that plugs into the circulatory system and filters the blood like a kidney? If it takes a little blood for itself, so what? Be generous! You can afford it...You put the bug into the body of a man with a diseased kidney, the bug attacks the bad kidney, dissolves it, it's assimilated by the body, and now you got a perfectly good parasite where you used to have a rotten kidney. I know what you're gonna say. You're gonna say it's crazy.

That dialogue above is taken from a scene in David Cronenberg's feature film debut; 'Shivers': The story of an experiment involving parasites to be used for good that goes terribly wrong. I know this film doesn't just strictly focus on kidneys, or even organ transplants for that matter, but it still deserves a spot on the list of kidney-related films. A blog series involving human organs just doesn't seem right without a lil early David Cronenberg. From organs & parasites ('Shivers') and exploding heads ('Scanners') to the transformation of a human being into a giant fly ('The Fly') or a man transforming in to a woman ('M Butterfly'), the exploration of the human body (especially whats on the inside) is a common theme in his work Even his recent more "straight forward" films like 'A History Of Violence' and 'Eastern Promises' deal with the idea of "transformation". Had I followed David Cronenberg's career from the start with his early short films (which come off like really bad cliche student films) I woulda never guessed that he was capable of not only writing a script like 'Shivers' (which was ahead of its time for various reasons that we'll get in to), but going on to adapt the work of William S Burroughs & JG Ballard, or making a film like 'Dead Ringers', 'M Butterfly', or the 'World On A Wire'-influenced 'eXistenZ'.
'Shivers' is unique because it combines the campy & amateur elements of those early bad shorts (bad acting, cheap quality, low budget special effects, etc) with the more sophisticated techniques and story telling that Cronenberg still uses today. And as bad as those early short films may be, you could still tell that the person responsible for them was highly intelligent. 'Shivers', in my opinion, was Cronenberg's first true success as a filmmaker. Its basically 'Night Of The Living Dead' with a little bit of social commentary snuck in to the plot. The film centers around a secluded island community outside of Montreal that gets exposed to an epidemic which essentially turns people in to sex-crazed zombies. The epidemic/breakout is due to a science experiment that was supposed to be used for a groundbreaking organ transplant procedure where "good" parasites were to be placed in to the human body to essentially replace bad organs. The problem is that when the parasites are implanted into a human body (or "host body") they unleash a virus/aphrodisiac turning them in to sex crazed maniacs. The first person to be experimented on with this procedure is a promiscuous teenage girl who lives in the gated community that gave it up to just about everyone which causes this parasite sex virus to spread fast, slowly turning everyone in the island community in to a carrier of this new parasite sex disease.
What starts out as a movie about organ transplantation (with an emphasis on the kidneys) quickly turns in to an allegory/comment on the spreading of STD's (an element that could be found in future films like 'Poison', 'Trouble Every Day' or even 'Safe' to a certain extent). The idea of one person spreading this sexually transmitted virus/disease could be compared to the idea of the alleged "Patient Zero" for AIDS (which hadn't even come up at the time this film was made). And whats interesting about the real "Patient Zero" (Gaetan Dugas) that ties everything in this blog entry together is that not only was he french canadian (which is where 'Shivers' is set), but in real life he actually died of kidney failure. For a film like this in the mid 1970's, you have to admit that this is a pretty progressive story (even if it is essentially a low budget zombie movie). Neither Kidney disease or sexually transmitted diseases (especially HIV/AIDS) were addressed in film during the early/mid 1970's. Was David Cronenberg really that ahead of his time, or was the plot of 'Shivers' purely a coincidence. Just for the simple fact that David Cronenberg can make a film with an excessive amount of (obvious fake) blood, guts and bad acting but at the same time can get you to relate it to issues like sexually transmitted diseases makes this film unique. And not only does 'Shiver' deal with the spreading of STD's, but Cronenberg also explores things like incest (there's a scene involving an infected mother and daughter participating in an orgy together), pedophilia (a scene involving 2 young girls tied to a dog leash) and other various fetishes.
The film, which at times comes off like a softcore porn with a lot of blood, features more than a few obvious scenes of sexual innuendos (and the phallic shape of the actual parasites that spread from one host body to the next makes the symbolism even more obvious)

You can also trace certain aspects of 'Alien' back to Cronenberg's 'Shivers'. In fact, Cronenberg had this to say about 'Alien' and its screenwriter Dan O'bannon....

Ron Shusett, who’d had a lot of success with Alien, which, I have to say, took a lot of stuff from Shivers. There’s a parasite that lives inside you? Burns its way out? Jumps on your face and goes down your throat? I did all that before Alien and Dan O’Bannon (who wrote Alien) certainly knew my work.

Its always nice when directors aren't afraid to speak up and call someone out (although not to say that 'Alien' isn't a classic film). And on a side note, David Cronenberg is not only one of the most interesting directors to read about, but he never holds back his opinions on directors he doesn't like...

a parasite bursts through a host
body's stomach in 'Shivers' (1975)

classic scene from 'Alien'

And on the flip side, certain scenes from 'Shivers' towards the end when things start to get more and more out of control (especially the sexual scenes involving young kids), reminded very much of Passolini's 'Salo...


'Salo' (1975)

Given the release of recent popular "plague films" like 'Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes' and Soderbergh's 'Contagion', 'Shivers' is a film that some of you may wanna dust off the shelf and revisit. Like I said before, its quite campy and cheesy in some parts, but the ending of the film, which shows all the infected residents driving away from their gated community in to the city of Montreal (as if to insinuate the virus spreading all through Canada and eventually the rest of the world) is quite chilling and very mature for such a low budget film. I guess that's what makes watching 'Shivers' such a unique experience. Its both fun & entertaining (even kinda funny in parts where its clearly not supposed to be funny) but also ahead of its time and very progressive. Its watching the birth of Cronenberg and his foray in to the genre of "Body Horror" (a genre where he reigns supreme to this day).


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