When David Cronenberg first started directing, he made horror films like no others. Marrying social concerns with a willingness and ability to exploit an audience's discomfort with its own bodies, in such films as Rabid, The Brood, and Videodrome, Cronenberg turned unspoken anxieties into full-fledged nightmares. While his work has grown subtler, the same sensibility continues to inform it. What most people missed in all the furor over last year's Crash was that it wasn't so much about car-crash fetishists themselves. Instead, it used sex and car crashes as a powerful metaphor for all uncomfortably entwined, difficult-to-control desires. The recently re-released Shivers (a.k.a. They Came From Within) is Cronenberg's first film, and it can easily be seen as a more graphic examination of similar themes. Set in an isolated, ultra-modern high-rise apartment building in Cronenberg's native Canada, Shivers concerns the aftermath of a mad scientist's attempt to breed a helpful parasite. Designed to bring about a sexual utopia and described as a cross between an aphrodisiac and a disease, the parasite takes the form of what looks like a raw phallus and causes those it infects to couple indiscriminately, often violently. As the infection grows to epidemic proportions, an increasingly smaller number of "normal" people are left trying to fight it off or escape. Shocking in its violence, Shivers would be just as shocking without it. The film relies as heavily on the director's already-evident ability to disturb through suggestion as it does on its special effects, which would later inspire Alien. Released in 1975, Shivers can be seen as an expression of discomfort with the then-swinging sexual revolution, but it doesn't have to be. By the time its concluding sequences arrive, the apartment building has been turned into a horrific landscape of sexual fear that's applicable to any era. Like the creatures in the films, and many of Cronenberg's other films themselves, Shivers is disturbing on an almost biological level.
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