Today David Cronenberg remains one of the most famous directors to emerge from Canada. He also remains one of the most controversial directors to emerge from Canada. In the late Seventies and early Eighties he was a pioneer, if not one of the inventors of body horror--a subgenre of horror in which horror is derived from the graphic alteration, degeneration, or destruction of the human body. And while David Cronenberg would eventually drift away from body horror, he would return to its themes from time to time, even late in his career.
As body horror can be extremely disturbing, especially in the hands of David Cronenberg, it should come as no surprise that some of his films would meet with controversy. This was true of such early films as Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1977). It was particularly true of his 1996 adaptation of J. G. Ballard's novel Crash, which met with such controversy that in the United Kingdom there were calls for its ban. The Westminster City Council of Westminster, London even went so far as to ban the film. As controversial as Crash was, it was perhaps not nearly as controversial as David Cronenberg's first commercially successful film. Shivers was originally titled The Parasite Murders in Canada and retitled They Came From Within in the United States. By any title it was a cause célèbre in Canada upon its initial release.
Shivers centred around the residents of Starliner Towers, an ultramodern, high-rise apartment situated outside Montreal. Unfortunately for the tenants of the high-rise, Dr. Emil Hobbes (played by Fred Doederlein) has been developing a form of sexually transmitted parasites that turn people into uncontrollable (and often violent) sex maniacs. As might be expected, the parasites are ultimately spread through the high-rise, resulting in a miniature, sexual apocalypse.
At the time that David Cronenberg directed Shivers, he was hardly new to filmmaking. As a student he directed two short films, "Transfer" (1966) and "From the Drain" (1967). He then directed two short, experimental, science fiction features that received little distribution beyond art houses in Canada: Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970). For the next few years he shot several short television documentaries for the CBC, as well as episodes of Canadian TV show Programme X and Peep Show. It was during this period that David Cronenberg came up with the concept for Shivers. Unfortunately finding somewhere to pitch Shivers proved difficult, particularly given its concept. In the end he found a distributor in the form of Cinépix.
Founded in 1962 by John Dunning and Andre Link, at the time Cinépix produced primarily soft-core porn films. Despite this Cinépix liked David Cronenberg's treatment for what would become Shivers (the original title of the script was Orgy of the Blood Parasites). They submitted it to the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) in order to receive government funding. It took the CFDC three years to approve Orgy of the Blood Parasites for funding. It was then in September 1974 that it finally went into production.
Shivers was shot on Nun's Island (an island located in the Saint Lawrence River in Montreal) with a shooting schedule of only fifteen days. It was made for only $185,000. The film's title would be changed before its release. Both Cinépix and David Cronenberg felt that Orgy of the Blood Parasites sounded too much like a Fifties movie. It was the retitled The Parasite Murders for English speaking Canada and Frissons (literally "Chills" or, well, "Shivers") for Quebec.
The Parasite Murders was first shown at the film market of the Cannes Festival in May 1975. There it drew several buyers for the European market. At the same time it also came to the attention of European critics. In August 1975 it was shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Unfortunately its reception there was chilly at best. In particular critic Robin Wood attacked the film in a review of the festival that appeared in Film Comment. Of The Parasite Murders he said, "Its derivation is from Invasion of the Body Snatchers via Night of the Living Dead, but the source of its intensity is quite distinct: all the horror is based on extreme sexual disgust." Robin Wood would remain one of David Cronenberg's fiercest detractors, attacking Shivers and Mr. Cronenberg's early films as "reactionary" in both The American Nightmare from 1979 and "Cronenberg: A Dissenting View" in the anthology The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg.
As hostile as some of the reviews that emerged from the Edinburgh Film Festival might have been, they were nothing compared to the reception that The Parasite Murders would receive in David Cronenberg's native Canada. One month before its official release in Canada, a special preview was held for The Parasite Murders. The end result was one of the biggest controversies in the history of Canadian film. In an article with the sensational title "You Should Know How Bad This Film Is. After All, You Paid For It" in the September 1975 issue of the popular Canadian general interest magazine Saturday Night, Canadian journalist Robert Fulford, writing as "Marshall Delaney", attacked The Parasite Murders as "..the most repulsive movie I've ever seen." He further questioned how the CFDC could have financed such a film, writing, "If using public money to produce films like The Parasite Murders is the only way that English Canada can have a film industry, then perhaps English Canada should not have a film industry."
Robert Fulford would not be the only person to attack The Parasite Murders. Martin Knelman, film critic for Saturday Night, characterised the film as a cheap exploitation movie in the newspaper the Globe and Mail . In the Montreal Gazette film critic Dane Lanken also attacked the film. Extremely negative reviews of The Parasite Murders appeared in the film magazines Séquences and Motion. The Parasite Murders was even denied a screening at the Canadian Film Awards.
While The Parasite Murders produced a negative, nearly visceral reaction in many Canadian film critics and journalists, the film did have its defenders. Film critic Natalie Edwards gave The Parasite Murders a positive review in Cinema Canada, beginning her rather humorous review with, "Well, I really have bad taste. I liked it." Cinema Canada also ran an article on David Cronenberg and The Parasite Murders by Stephen Chelsey. David Cronenberg's friend John Hofsess took up for the film in Maclean's.
Ultimately the furore over The Parasite Murders would prove so great that it would reach the House of Commons where there was a debate on whether the CFDC should have financed the film. Cinépix did not take the controversy lying down, and even went so far as to send a pamphlet entitled "Is There a Place for Horror Films in Canada's Film Industry" to every single member of Parliament.
The controversy over Shivers would have an immediate impact on David Cronenberg's career. After the publication of Robert Fulford's article in Saturday Night, David Cronenberg's landlord kicked him out of his apartment, citing a "morality clause" in his lease. For many years afterwards David Cronenberg found difficulty in finding financing for his films. In Canada his films would consistently open to negative reviews until the release of Videodrome in 1983.
Despite the controversy (or perhaps even because of it), The Parasite Murders performed very well at the box office in Canada. In fact, it was particularly successful in Ontario and Quebec (where, as mentioned earlier, it bore the title Frissons). Having only been made for $185,000, within a year it had made $5 million. This made it the most profitable Canadian feature film up to that time.
The Parasite Murders also performed well around the world. While nowhere else did the film produce the kind of controversy that it did in Canada, it was not always well received. Film critics in the United Kingdom were divided with regards to the movie, with some critics regarding it as "degrading" and others regarding it as "witty". The Parasite Murders was somewhat better received in Europe, where its reviews were more positive. Indeed, it won the award for best direction at the Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya in Stiges, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain in October 1975.
Given it success in the French speaking parts of Canada, by June 1976 The Parasite Murders had been given a new title more in line with the French title Frissons: Shivers. When Shivers debuted in the United States it would bear yet another title--it distributor in the U.S., Trans American Films, retitled it They Came From Within. While in the United States the film would not cause the furore that it did in Canada, it would encounter some difficulties. In order to avoid receiving an "X" rating from the MPAA ratings board, twelve scenes had to be cut. Worse yet, it was often shown as part of a double bill with outright B-movies. As a result its reviews in the United States were often quite negative. A notable exception was Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, who said of the film, "It scares and shocks us because it's so cleverly made."
Treated as a B-movie in the United States, Shivers (or They Came From Within, if you prefer) did not receive particularly good distribution. Not surprisingly, in the United States it did not do the phenomenal business it had in Quebec. They Came From Within performed well in Chicago and New York City, but did not do as well outside of metropolitan areas.
In many respects it is easy to understand the controversy that Shivers evoked upon its release in Canada, particularly given its subject matter. The Parasite Murders (as it was titled then) was released only a little under seven years after Night of the Living Dead (1968), which became a similar cause célèbre in the United States. Of course, while the controversy over Night of the Living Dead centred on its content and the fact that young children could actually see the movie (the MPAA ratings system would not go into effect until a month after its release), the controversy over The Parasite Murders centred not only on its content, but the fact that it had been funded by the CFDC as well.
While Shivers remains disturbing even today, it seems possible that much of the controversy stemmed from the fact that in many ways Shivers was at odds with Canadian cinema as it was in 1975. Unlike many films made in Canada, there is no doubt that Shivers is a Canadian film. It is set in Canada. It was filmed in Canada. It was directed by a Canadian. At the time, however, it must have seemed to some of its critics to be a very un-Canadian film. In 1975 Canada may have been best known for its documentaries of the sort produced by the National Film Board. In fact, the documentary genre known as Direct Cinema largely originated in Canada--to be specific in Quebec. With regards to narrative cinema, at the time Canada was producing a homegrown variety of the French Nouvelle Vague or the British kitchen sink cinema, films such as Goin' Down the Road (1970) and Mon Oncle Antoine (1971). Shivers was most decidedly not kitchen sink realism or realism of any sort. It was a horror movie--a very sophisticated horror movie--but a horror movie nonetheless. And unlike the United States or the United Kingdom, horror was not part of the Canadian film tradition at the time.
Regardless of what was at the root of the controversy over Shivers, even today it is a very disturbing film. What many might find surprising for a film that stirred up such controversy is that very little is actually shown in Shivers. The viewer gets a few glimpses of the slug-like parasites, which can be transmitted sexually or through mouth to mouth, and can even travel though air ducts. The viewer glimpses some gore, but no more than in many prime time American police procedurals today. Even given the film's subject matter (normal humans turned into sex crazed zombies), there is very little sex to be seen. Rather than relying on gore that could produce at best a brief shock, with Shivers David Cronenberg relied more upon the power of suggestion to create a genuine sense of horror. In the end Shivers is then much more effective than many more graphic horror films.
Shivers may be all the more disturbing in that it isn't so much about sexual desires gone out of control as it is about attacking the upper middle class. In the Sixties and the Seventies in both Canada and the United States there was very much a trend towards upscale, self-sufficient apartment complexes similar to Starliner Towers in the movie. Regardless of what tenants of such apartment complexes in the Seventies might have been like, in Shivers the residents of Starliner Towers are not very nice people even before they become infested with parasites. Starliner Towers is a regular Peyton Place, complete with secrets, deceit, adultery, and hypocrisy. In addition to being a horror movie, Shivers is then very much a black comedy that spoofs the upper middle class. Indeed, much of what might have upset its many critics is that Shivers can be interpreted as treating the infestation of the residents by the parasites as an act of liberation.
Ultimately the controversy over the CFDC having financed Shivers would have no lasting repercussions for the Canadian Film Development Corporation. In fact, the CFDC would continue to provide funding for David Cronenberg films, including Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), and Scanners (1981). The CFDC would be renamed Telefilm Canada in the Eighties and continued to finance David Cronenberg movies, including the controversial Crash. The CFDC would go onto finance horror movies made by people other than David Cronenberg as well: Rituals (1977), Death Ship (1980), My Bloody Valentine (1981), Visiting Hours (1982), and yet others. If Robert Fulford had hoped that his article attacking Shivers in Saturday Night would stop the CFDC from financing horror movies, then he failed miserably.
In the end the controversy over Shivers would prove to have an enormous impact on David Cronenberg's career. While he would have some difficulty finding financing for his next few films, the controversy turned him into a household name in Canada for a time. Shivers proved to be the first commercially successful feature film for a director who is still making films forty years later. What is more, while many Canadian directors would eventually depart for Hollywood, David Cronenberg continued to make movies in Canada. In fact, his 2014 film Maps to the Stars marked the first time he ever filmed in the United States!
Upon its release in Canada Shivers was a source of controversy and a film that received extremely negative reviews. Upon its release in the United States Shivers was treated as little more than a B-movie and also received some extremely negative reviews. Despite those negative reviews over the years it has become a cult film. It has also become a much more respected film, particularly among fans of horror films. It currently has a rating of 84% on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes and a user rating of 6.6 on IMDB (which is fairly high for the site). Ultimately it was the film that started David Cronenberg's career. In its own small way it changed the history of Canadian film forever.