Color, 1975, 88m.
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Paul Hampton, Lynn Lowry, Joe Silver, Allan Kolman, Barbara Steele, Susan Petrie, Ronald Mlodzik
Arrow (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL) / (1.78:1) (16:9), Metrdome (DVD) (UK R2 PAL), Splendid (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Image (US R1 NTSC)
First released in America under the title They Came from Within, this queasy take on the post-sexual revolution lifestyles of the mid-1970s marked a splashy (literally) commercial feature debut for Canadian director David Cronenberg. The young filmmaker had already proven his technical worth with shorter works like Stereo and Crimes of the Future, but the task of earning money for this tax-funded project (produced by none other than Ivan Reitman just after Cannibal Girls) allowed him to run wild with an audacious mixture of sex, violence, and biting social commentary, all rendered in the chilly style that would soon come to define the term "Cronenbergian."
The upscale Montreal community of Starliner Towers is home to a hi-tech new island development property complete with its own parking garage, swimming pool, grocery store, and other amenities. It seems like the perfect place to live, but as the opening makes clear with a couple being shown around intercut with a half-naked woman being assaulted and murdered by one of the residents, all is not what it seems. As it turns out, the assailant was a scientist developing a new kind of parasite able to maintain and replenish damaged human organs, but now the fecalesque organism has gotten loose and begun infecting the dwellers. For example, insurance adjuster Nicholas (Kolman) starts to experience unpleasant internal disruptions, much to the distress of his wife Janine (Petrie), and later vomits one of the parasites off the balcony where it splashes off an umbrella and makes its way into the building's ventilation system. Building physician Roger (Hampton) and his nurse (Lowry) start prying into the increasingly grisly developments, which are turning everyone into sexually ravenous, primal beings intent on spreading their love to anyone in sight.
Not surprisingly, the Canadian media was less than amused when this film opened and made a tidy profit while more respectable tax shelter productions were being ignored left and right. Like Cronenberg's second film, Rabid, this turned into an instant cult item, helped in no small part by the presence of horror icon Barbara Steele who had a major '70s comeback with this, Caged Heat, and Piranha. The fact that she had two of the film's most indelible moments (a disturbing bathtub encounter and a chilling lesbian lip lock) didn't exactly hurt either. Then there's the beguiling Lowry, who enjoyed a startling run throughout the decade with films like Score, The Crazies, I Drink Your Blood, and Sugar Cookies. It's nice seeing her with a solid leading role here, and her big moment in the pool during the climax is still one of the most creepily erotic flourishes in Cronenberg's filmography.
At least throughout the 1980s, this film was quite easy to find with VHS releases from both Vestron (as They Came from Within) in the U.S. and under its original title from CIC in Canada. All of these were uncut (while most U.S. prints were slightly censored) and taken from an open matte master that didn't really flatter the antiseptic cinematography at all. The first DVD came from Image in 1999, also open matte and from a better but still imperfect transfer augmented with the Canadian trailer and an informative 20-minute interview with Cronenberg about his tax shelter days in Canada and the birth of his first feature film. The interesting liner notes (including a surprise tidbit about Jonathan Demme) also make this one worth having for completists. (Note: the 110-minute running time on the box refers to the film and all of the supplements combined.) The UK edition from Metrodome was released later and mattes off the image to 1.85:1, with anamorphic enhancement; it looks a bit tight overall and magnifies the grain in the image significantly.
For some reason Shivers became quite difficult to find for a few years, but Arrow came to the rescue in 2014 with a stunning dual-format release that's easily the best to date. The new HD transfer opens up with a Lionsgate logo and a restoration credit to TIFF, with Cronenberg's seal of approval on the presentation. It's a major leap beyond any version we've had before, and while it obviously won't look as sleek as a big-budget production from the same period, fans should be extremely pleased with the natural, impressive color scheme, appropriate filmic texture, and significant boost in detail throughout. The 1.78:1 framing looks perfect here, too. (Don't worry, that slide show over the opening credits is supposed to look pretty bland.) The LPCM mono audio sounds great, with optional English subtitles provided.
Among the extras, the 42-minute "Parasite Memories" is a real gem with gifted film writer Kier-la Janisse giving some historical context about Cronenberg's career at the time as a framework for new interviews with Steele (who launches with a hilarious anecdote about her lesbian kiss scene), Lowry, Kolman, and effects artist Joe Blasco (who reveals he accepted the job because he was a huge Black Sunday fan). Lowry also relates the unorthodox, consensual measures taken by Cronenberg to get one actress to cry, and Blasco talks about his ground-breaking bladder effects achieved with ingenious props like ten condoms (which later influenced Alien). Next up is a 47-minute episode of the Canadian TV show On Screen!!! from 2008 covering the making of the film, complete with interviews with Cronenberg, coproducer Dan Carmody, cinematographer Robert Saad, Ivan Reitman, several film critics and professors, and Kolman, Blasco and Lowry again. It's especially interesting for its portrayal of Cinepix, which financed the film and made an early fortune with the softcore film Valerie. (Cronenberg's account of the slapping incident is worth it all by itself.) "From Stereo to Video" is a new 26-minute video essay by Caelum Vatnsdal charting the progression of Cronenberg's career from his early short work through Videdrome, the apotheosis of his horror phase before finding major studio-backed acclaim. Finally the disc includes the original Shivers trailer (the They Came from Within version can be found elsewhere easily), a brief gallery of promotional material, and an insert booklet with an essay about the film by Canuxploitation's Paul Corupe, relevant extracts from the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, and more stills and poster art. It should go without saying, but this one's absolutely essential.