For me, the best of Cronenberg’s earlier works is an exercise in claustrophobic tension building, wrapped in a concept of pure exploitation, and all further used as an excuse for a wicked Buñuelian-like satire on the woes of contemporary consumer culture and the antiseptic nature of modern living. The way that Cronenberg creates this world of gated purification turned into a beacon for the very best of late twentieth century existence, only to then pull the walls down from within as the characters are turned into dribbling, sex starved deviants is not only an effective horror-film scenario – drawing on the prevalent notions of isolation and paranoia usually found in films of this particular nature – but also as a comment on the vapid, overwhelming sense of boredom that modern life, with all its consumer fads and soulless pursuit of social fulfilment can present.
Like the very best of these retro exploitation films, Shivers (1975) works on at least two distinct levels of enjoyment and interpretation, with the obvious shocker elements suggesting an even more warped take on the territory of Night of the Living Dead (1968) – with sidelines into the same kind of atmosphere created by John Carpenter in his subsequent Assault of Precinct 13 (1976) – while the more personal and psychological aspects of the script complement the more recognisable elements of horror in a way that creates a perfect symbiosis between presentation and form. Admittedly, the look of the film and the obvious limitations of the low budget might disappoint some viewers more accustomed to glossier, 21st century thrillers; whilst the once shocking elements of the film might even seem somewhat quaint, especially in light of the veritable pornography of violence in films such as Saw III (2006), Hostel (2005) and The Hills Have Eyes (2006). Nonetheless, I think many viewers more familiar with horror/thriller/science-fiction cinema of this particular period will still be able to appreciate what Cronenberg was trying to achieve with this depiction of violence and depravity; with the scenes and scenarios specially in the film’s frenzied final act – really going for the jugular in terms of outré shock spectacle and the subversion of traditionally wholesome, all American iconography.
The idea of a small band of survivors coming together in the name of self-preservation as an inexplicable horror affects those closest to them is still a well worn concept in horror cinema, and one that works incredibly well when combined here with Cronenberg’s cold, Kubrickian vision of a sterile, social environment as sex and death become distorted amidst moments of stock exploitation, sly wit and a genuinely subversive sense of satirical absurdity. Though it is admittedly rough around the edges and lacking in the obvious prestige of films like The Brood (1979) and Videodrome (1982), I’d still take this over A History of Violence (2005) or Eastern Promises (2007) any day; with Shivers standing out as not only one of Cronenberg’s very best films, but one of the most unique, unconventional and completely engrossing exploitations works of this particular cinematic period.