For what must be the majority of its running time, Tintorera is a sun-and-skin melodrama set in a Mexican resort village where the loitering Steven and Miguel (Hugo Stiglitz and Andrès Garcia) navigate the treacherous waters of a sexy threesome with an English tourist, Gabriella (Susan George), who declares that the only thing off-limits in their relationship … is love. By contrast, about a third of the film is a skeevy underwater adventure-cum-travelogue in which Steven, Miguel, and other local fisherman absolutely have their way with the aquatic kingdom, skewering barracudas and manta rays and using them as bait for larger fish, hanging sea tortoises off the side of boats and slashing them open for blood chum, and cutting open tiger sharks and letting them bleed out on the ocean floor. (Seriously, this movie never met a fish it didn’t want to stab in the face.) And then, for just a few fleeting moments at a time, Tintorera is one of the great killer-shark movies, with underdressed women and overconfident men getting torn apart in mid-swim before the shark flees the scene with a head or torso clutched in its jaws like a happy spaniel carrying a pheasant, entrails dragging behind and gallons of blood saturating the waters behind them.Continue reading
Imagine a downbeat cross between historical romance, rape-revenge thriller and what’s become known as folk horror and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the overall mood of The Reckoning. Writer-director Neil Marshall, who made a splash as a genre director back in the early 2000s with Dog Soldiers (werewolves vs army men) and Sundance smash The Descent (CHUDs vs spelunkers), casts co-writer Charlotte Kirk as Grace Haverstock, a woman unjustly accused of witchcraft after the death of her husband during the English plague epidemic of 1665. After Grace rebuffs the advances of local squire, landlord and sex pest Pendleton (Steven Waddington), he helps convince the townspeople that she must be a witch, summoning Judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee, trying his best to crawl out from under Vincent Price’s indelible Witchfinder General performance) to elicit her confession of heresy.Continue reading
A woman living alone in a drab apartment block may or may not be losing her mind in Knocking, the feature film debut of Swedish documentarian Frida Kempff. The details of the story are nothing new (it draws on sources as disparate as Persona, Repulsion, Mulholland Dr. and Requiem for a Dream) but Kempff’s own vision is unmistakeable. Distinguished by striking frame compositions and camera moves as well as a perfectly balanced lead performance by Cecilia Milocco, Knocking is a modest powerhouse — a threadbare narrative that’s gorgeously shot, beautifully performed and spooky as hell.Continue reading
For a roughly 20-year period beginning in the early 1980s, low-budget horror films were considered a primary threat to the safety of the British public. While reliably puritanical Americans were scandalized by the lyrics to “Darling Nikki,” their British counterparts were shocked and appalled by a slate of so-called “video nasties” — generally low-budget exploitation films that ranged from the ripe theatrics of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast to the grim sexual violence of The Last House on the Left and the Nazisploitation cycle that included such prosaic titles as Love Camp 7, Gestapo’s Last Orgy and The Beast in Heat. Following years of pressure from tabloids and special-interest groups who insisted these titles were corrupting the populace, the conservative government began applying stricter censorship standards to video releases, spurring the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to demand that certain scenes be trimmed or eliminated from even adults-only titles (rated “18”) or denying certification altogether. Selling or renting unclassified videos became a criminal offense.Continue reading
Possessor opens with a glossy murder sequence that seems to be the jumping-off point for a glossy techno-thriller. The killer is revealed to be an assassin who operates by taking over the minds of working-class stiffs who are in a position to be close enough to various VIPs to carry out quick hits. Each unlucky prole chews on a bullet as the possessor controlling their actions blinks out of the equation and returns to her own body. Having established the kind of killer premise that an enterprising show-runner could use as fodder for two, maybe three seasons of a Netflix original, the film gets restless and almost immediately veers into uncharted territory, as the apparently imperturbable killer Tasya Vos (tough, wiry and tender Andrea Riseborough) reveals herself to be distracted by concerns over her disintegrated family life–and perhaps unfit to fight back when one of her meat puppets, a rank-and-file big-tech employee named Colin (Christopher Abbott), manages to rebel against her control.Continue reading
Before watching Studiocanal’s new restoration of the 30-year-old science-fiction adventure Total Recall, I had only vague memories of seeing it on opening night. I mean, I remembered that I hated it, but I wasn’t sure why. I was already a Paul Verhoeven fan based on RoboCop, though I didn’t know anything else about his work. I know I was put off by the scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger puts a bullet in a woman’s head and then yuks it up with one of his trademark murder jokes. Sure, the screenplay has taken pains to establish the character’s unforgivable duplicity, but that’s the problem: She’s disposable, and she’s a punchline. (No wonder Sharon Stone jumped at the chance to play a serial murderer of men in Verhoeven’s next film.) And I recall that I was annoyed beyond reason by the film’s climax, which involves a very sudden change to the environment on Mars. The science behind it struck me as insultingly preposterous. Still, I think what I really objected to, what actually offended me, was the light tone. After RoboCop, which struck me as an appropriately sick joke about fascist tendencies in American law enforcement (still in the news!), I guess I expected Verhoeven to treat Philip K. Dick’s epochal ruminations on human consciousness, thought, and identity with some gravity (cf. the similarly Dick-inspired Blade Runner) instead of turning them into a wildly overblown comic-book complete with an absurdly-ripped muscleman as the self-doubting superhero at the centre of the action. That’s on me; Looking back on Total Recall after three decades, I can see it more clearly. For Verhoeven, the cartoonishness is the point.Read this review at FilmFreakCentral ...
Few films are anywhere near as well made–as fierce and committed–as Requiem for a Dream, which stands as a 20-year-old landmark in an especially fertile era of New York indie filmmaking and one of the most expertly executed feel-bad narratives in the history of popular culture. Darren Aronofsky is a hell of a director, but he’s always been a little, well, intense for my taste. He’s got vision and passion to spare, and he clearly inspires dedication and devotion from his actors, yet I always feel there’s something critical missing from the films themselves. If π is David Lynch without an angle on the truly bizarre and Black Swan is David Cronenberg without the painful psychological acuity, then Requiem for a Dream is John Waters without the sense of humor. I know Waters is friendly with Aronofsky, but imagining him watching this in a dark theatre and positively cackling at its most painfully outré gambits is what helps get me through its pitiless final act.
Based on a Hubert Selby Jr. novel, Requiem for a Dream is the story of four addicts. There’s Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) and his buddy Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), two small-time drug dealers whose lives spiral out of control when the supply of smack they’ve become physically, emotionally, and economically reliant on dries up. There’s Marion (Jennifer Connelly), Harry’s beautiful girlfriend from a wealthy family who sticks with him because, well, largely because he’s the antipode to everything she hates about her rich family. And, most importantly, there’s Harry’s mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), who shuts herself in a closet when she can’t deal with her son, who is about to pawn her TV set for drug money for apparently the umpteenth time. In the film’s opening scene, which plays out in an unbearably tense split-screen where you can see Harry wrestling with the TV on the right while Sara peers out through a keyhole on the left, the younger Goldfarb is already yelling at the elder through the locked door: “WHY YOU GOTTA MAKE ME FEEL SO GUILTY, MA???” “This isn’t happening,” Sara whispers. “It’ll all work out…. In the end it’s all nice.” And then the film’s title card literally falls on-screen from above, accompanied by the sound of a huge metal door slamming shut.
Subtle it isn’t. It’s almost playful, the way this prologue explicitly promises the audience an absolutely terrible night at the movies. You could say that Aronofsky plays fair with his audience by warning them here not to get too attached to these people. Or you could say it’s an example of self-aggrandizement, with a director loudly announcing how hard he is, he and his buddy Hubert, and how uncompromising their combined vision of humanity will be. I feel like this sort of macho filmmaking brio came into vogue a couple of years earlier, when Gaspar Noe announced the impending climax of I Stand Alone by displaying a title card reading, “You have 30 seconds to leave the theatre.” But where Noe identified a point of demarcation for a supposed contingent of sensitive viewers, Aronofsky turns the screws gradually over the course of 110 minutes, his editing tempo forever increasing and Clint Mansell’s musical backdrops–think Michael Nyman showing up at a party DJ’d by the Dust Brothers–growing more staccato, more nightmarish, with every cue.
I’m not saying Requiem for a Dream‘s aesthetic is completely gratuitous. Chemical dependency is a miserable affliction, and if Aronofsky’s work here serves as a PSA that helps any one person recover from a destructive vice or stay clean in the face of temptation, then it’s found its reason to exist. And it’s not merely an anti-heroin screed. By giving Sara Goldfarb’s narrative equal weight to Harry’s, Requiem does more than provide a showcase role to an actress who deserves one: It throws a spotlight on a different kind of miserablism, one that’s not so often romanticized by the movies simply because its victims tend to be older women rather than waifish youths. With little but meals and bedtimes breaking up her days and nights, the widowed Sara is a compulsive TV viewer, gravitating particularly to a serial infomercial hosted by smarmy self-help huckster Tappy Tibbons (Christopher McDonald). Sara lives alone, and something about her loneliness, decoded through the Videodrome-esque signal she seems to receive from Tibbons, compromises her rational thinking.
After receiving a phone call from some sort of audience-recruitment firm for TV shows, Sara convinces herself she’s about to be invited on stage by Tibbons himself. (“It’s a reason to smile,” she says. “It makes tomorrow all right.”) Her determination to lose enough weight to wear a favored red dress to the taping leads her to request diet pills from her too-acquiescent doctor. She loses weight, all right, as her addiction to speed bullies out her addiction to food and drives a worsening series of hallucinations. I’m not necessarily a fan of Aronofsky’s visualization of the inside of her head–images of cookies, cupcakes, and donuts falling from the ceiling and her refrigerator becoming sentient feel like rejects from an entirely different kind of movie about fat people–but Burstyn is astonishingly good in the role. Aronofsky told Vulture about shooting the scene where Harry visits Sara in her apartment and is astounded to realize she’s been prescribed a powerful cocktail of stimulants and depressants that has her as strung out as he is; the director says one shot of Burstyn’s performance came back soft because DP Matthew Libatique was crying behind the camera and had fogged the viewfinder so that he couldn’t properly check focus. That kind of performance.
Aronofsky and Selby have claimed that the film is an illustration of different kinds of addiction rather than a scary fable about four junkies’ worst-case scenarios unfolding in parallel–which is precisely the kind of thing you’d say to avoid being called out as the scolds who made the most wildly over-the-top anti-drug propaganda of all time. But it checks out. Aronofsky’s acerbic visuals make an explicit connection between Harry’s illicit drug use and Sara’s social-norm highs. One quick-cut montage progresses pointedly from the familiar dope-film iconography of rolled-up dollar bills, dilating pupils, and tiny plastic packets full of white powder to diet pills, coffee grounds, and a repeated sip from a mug that sets time racing. Requiem for a Dream is also interested in the intersection between addiction and exploitation, showing how Marion is coerced into a downward spiral where she engages in prostitution in exchange for a steady supply of drugs. As she leaves the apartment of one of her sources, Clint Mansell’s mournful, Kronos Quartet-driven music drives her down the hallway and into an elevator to ground level before she vomits on the street. Other characters have their own inflection points that send them downhill. For Harry and Tyrone, it must be their decision to deal drugs, thus profiting off the miseries of others; they realize too late that their souls are in the same jeopardy as those of all the other dopeheads out on the streets.
What bothers me the most about Requiem for a Dream is that it seems so excited about the requiem and so lackadaisical about the dream. An early sequence returns to the split-screen format to show Harry and Marion in bed, murmuring sweet nothings from pillow to pillow. The standard critical rap on a scene like this is that the frames-within-the-frame isolate the characters from one another, showing how each remains an island despite their yearning for some kind of metaphysical connection. Aronofsky and his editor, Jay Rabinowitz (best known at the time for his work on Jim Jarmusch films), however, have a more lyrical touch than that. In some moments, the double-framing actually seems to close the space between them; in others, one image shows fingers touching skin in extreme close-up as one of the lovers appears in profile in the frame beside. Libatique cites the scene’s “cubist feel.” These are beautiful images. He’s a charming loser and she comes off as a poverty tourist, but as long as they cherish that kind of beauty, you can at least understand why they’re together.
It’s by far my favorite scene in a film that could have used more moments of grace instead of shoving past such delicate interludes to reach almost cartoonish story beats. Tyrone, for example, is a very broadly-drawn character. His big scene involves a nude woman cooing, “Come back to bed, baby” as he zones out, imagining himself as a young boy falling into his mother’s arms. The Oedipal connotations are, presumably, deliberate, as is the reference to exploitation films where Black men prove themselves between the sheets as well as in the streets. A vertiginous sex scene, the camera spinning in circles over the bed, seems engineered to highlight Tyrone’s sleek virility and his lady’s bone structure. Wayans’s performance is direct and affecting, though Tyrone is hemmed into an uncomfortably flat role as a jive-talking sidekick. I appreciated the deaf drug dealer who speaks to Tyrone in sign language, but the only other African-American character of note is Keith David’s Big Tim, a sexually voracious pimp who deals in “pussy” rather than money. (“He’s hooked on the thang, man,” Tyrone explains.)
Requiem for a Dream is hardly race-agnostic. Tyrone’s Blackness gives him a presumed role to play in the drug world, where he negotiates on behalf of Harry and Marion, and it becomes a frightening issue when he ends up, inevitably, at the mercy of racist prison guards. Yet the picture’s willingness to deal in racial stereotypes complicates things. Big Tim is written as Black for the sake of sensationalism–it’s clear that Selby believed it gives Marion’s surrender to his sexual demands an extra transgressive charge. (In the book, this is explicit: Selby has Marion chuckle as she thinks about her family’s reaction if they knew she was “making it with a schvartzer.”) David is nonetheless excellent in the role, investing Tim with a truly wicked variety of charm that could make him a likable villain if he weren’t a literal sexual predator. And none of this, by the way, is to suggest that Tyrone isn’t sympathetic. I believe the guy when he insists, “All I want out of life is a little bit of peace and happiness, that’s all.” Tough, because what Requiem for a Dream does best is strip away happiness–it may be the single most punitive film ever made. Though I wouldn’t say it lacks empathy, it’s short on sensitivity. It is ungenerous. Its horror-show flourishes are crass, its sensual excesses vulgar, and its single-minded bleakness marginalizes its characters. They become soulless caricatures, defined by their vices and shoved into corners by the exigencies of the narrative in which they’re trapped.
It boils down to this (spoilers if such things can be spoiled): a drugged-up Sara Goldfarb shows up uninvited in the lobby of Tappy Tibbons’s TV studio, demanding to know when she’s going to be on television. It’s an effective scene because it forces us to see two sides of the confrontation at once. We understand the chain of events–loneliness, depression, addiction–that has led her to the brink, but the office workers see her behavior as a complete non sequitur. Their solution, which is to call in the authorities for help, is inspired by ignorance rather than malice, though it may as well be a death sentence for Sara. At the same time, Tyrone and Harry are being processed for incarceration by sadistic, racist authorities. Eventually, Aronofsky is cutting from the distressing sight of a helpless Sara being prepped for electroconvulsive therapy to a scene of a woman in a dark and crowded room applying lube and a condom to a double-ended dildo she’s about to share in a sex act with a clearly miserable Marion. It’s a viscerally repellent image undergirded by the quick see-saw escalations of Mansell’s slasher-movie parody score and the nasal, chattering roar of a gallery of piggish Patrick Bateman types crying out for their bread and circuses as an old man hisses excitedly, “Ass to ass! Ass to ass!”
The ensuing sexual display is juxtaposed with the image of Tyrone stirring a vat of food in the prison cafeteria while a supervising warden taunts him with lines like, “You’ve got a rotten attitude.” Said Warden is played, for some reason, by Selby himself; when Aronofsky cuts back to a close-up of Marion’s face during her performance, it’s Selby’s contemptuous snarl that we hear as her body jerks and her eyes roll: “That’s it. Nice and easy. Mashed potatoes.” (Connelly later called the experience “draining, sad, and uncomfortable.” Same here.) The visuals are matched in intensity by the audio, with lines of dialogue edited to fall into sadistic rhythm with the jagged musical passages. Thanks to Brian Emrich’s crazily detailed sound montage, Requiem for a Dream would almost work as radio. Meanwhile, we learn that the infected hole near Harry’s elbow where the drugs go in has necessitated the amputation of his entire arm; and so this multifarious tableau of abject degradation climaxes as a bone saw connects with flesh and sprays blood across Harry’s face, a flourish that qualifies Requiem for a Dream quite literally as a splatter movie.
The thing is, the moment doesn’t come as an extension or amplification of the horror but as a relief: Just as we process what we’re seeing, the image fades to white and we realize, somehow, that it’s over. Requiem for a Dream has done its worst, and the credits will roll and we can get on with our day. As well crafted as it is, that long climactic sequence is so aggressive, so intrusive on anybody’s sense of well-being, that I can’t imagine how shocking it must be for an audience that takes it at face value rather than gaping from a safe emotional distance at the sheer belligerence of it all. That’s the thing about Requiem for a Dream–it’s simultaneously so many things at once, and it’s often engaged in a contradiction of itself. It’s an alienating arthouse bummer and a mainstream home-video success. The MPAA ratings board rejected it as too extreme for general release and Ellen Burstyn’s performance earned an Oscar nomination. It’s an extraordinary feat of cinematic craft and it’s a risible glumfest. It would deserve to be laughed off the screen if not for the obvious depth of feeling driving its performances. The movie is grimy and hectoring, vivid and audacious. It’s both narc and hipster, the cool kid and the capital-E Establishment. Anyway, Aronofsky captures an awful lot of exquisitely-imagined pain on film. But I say pain is spectacle, and spectacle is easy. Big screens and Dolby sound systems love pain because they’re built to overwhelm; like too much of our pain, they’re bigger than we are. Less common in the cinema but more precious are genuine expressions of beauty, charity, and hope. All I can really affirm is that, in the end, Requiem has so much to do with pain and so little to do with hope that I sort of regret having watched it a second time.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Lionsgate, caretaker of the erstwhile Artisan Entertainment catalogue, has brought Requiem for a Dream to UHD BD in time for the film’s 20th anniversary. The film is presented here in its “director’s cut,” meaning it represents the version that went into limited release without a rating after the MPAA threatened it with an NC-17. (Although this cut isn’t any longer than the R-rated alternative, it contains certain offending shots that had to be replaced to get the rating.) The transfer, narrowly letterboxed to the correct 1.85:1, is flat-out gorgeous. It’s not likely to be the sharpest 4K disc on your shelf, but it does appear to have extracted every lick of picture detail from the 35mm camera negative. The image is fairly thick with organic grain and natural color; I’d imagine there might have been a temptation to over-saturate the rich primaries of the film’s palette, but they’re dialled in tastefully and to appropriately film-like levels. Similarly, the Dolby Vision/HDR grade has been executed with restraint. It feels like the presentation often accesses the full dynamic range of the camera negative without allowing the image to pop in ways that were never intended. The new transfer captures Libatique’s painstaking manipulation of color temperature better than ever, and the lighting effects that dominate the film’s climactic sequences, which had an oversized impact on a theatre screen, are intensified by the increased contrast. I hadn’t seen the film since its New York theatrical release and, for what it’s worth, it looks here almost exactly like I remember it.
Requiem for a Dream has also gotten a new Dolby Atmos remix, something I would have expected to find superfluous given the inherent density of the film’s audio. Quite the opposite, this mix has so many elements in it that it convincingly fills the Atmos soundfield. My set-up uses front height speakers (not ceiling speakers), which isn’t an ideal configuration, so I was surprised at how much Requiem for a Dream benefitted from the Atmos treatment. Rather than cluttering up the mix with directional FX (though sounds can be heard circling the room in certain scenes), this track uses sound designer Brian Emrich’s multitude of sonic subtleties to build up atmosphere, generate a strong sense of space, and land the occasional jump-scare. Mansell’s heady score, whose instrumentation sometimes seems to be floating free somewhere above the screen, is treated as the worthy backbone of a smoothly-layered audio mix; one musical cue featured percussive sounds that ping-ponged up and down in the room, massively broadening my front soundstage.
Lionsgate pulled out some stops for this release, shelling out for three new documentary featurettes, all of them presented in native 1080p. “Ellen Burstyn on Requiem for a Dream” (16 mins.) has the actress remembering her extraordinary efforts on the film, such as the two-week period where she lost weight by eating nothing but cabbage soup and the ordeal of removing her prosthetics at the end of each shooting day: “The pain becomes part of the process.” She’s a terrific interview; this one had me Googling “ellen burstyn audio commentary” immediately to see if there might be more like this out there. In “Transcendent Moments: The Score of Requiem for a Dream” (17 mins.), Clint Mansell talks about his relationship with Aronofsky, who got him in the right frame of mind by telling him to think of Requiem for a Dream as a monster movie, which made him decide “Lux Aeterna” would be the monster’s theme. (Mansell insists the funereal motif has “a twinge of hope in it”–the kind of lie you tell yourself if you wrote the most depressing earworm in contemporary cinema, I guess.) He discusses hip-hop and dance music’s influence on his own score (in another life, he led the 1990s band Pop Will Eat Itself) and the process of sampling different sounds from various musical requiems for deployment during the film’s climactic sequence.
And in “Revisiting Requiem for a Dream” (13 mins.), Dr. Bruce Isaacs of the University of Sydney offers a critical appreciation of the film, appraising it as “that bold experiment that suggested a great capacity for [American] independent filmmaking to do something extremely experimental, sophisticated, and challenging.” To which I can only say, wow–it’s almost like the careers of John Cassavetes, David Lynch, and Charles Burnett never existed! Likewise new to this release is an edited collection of B-roll and interview footage dating to the film’s original production and upscaled to 1080p. We get little more than a glimpse of the film’s location shoot on Coney Island, and the tiny snippets from vintage interviews with Aronofsky, Burstyn, Connelly, producer Eric Watson, and Wayans are barely worth a look. (Truth in advertising: Leto says, “I think Requiem is going to be a ride into Hell.”)
The UHD BD additionally recycles material from previous physical releases, such as the audio commentary Aronofsky recorded back in 2000. He delivers a generous, somewhat personal monologue that recalls the golden age of LaserDisc commentaries. His detailed discussion of the film’s 10-minute long scene between Leto and Burstyn, especially the sly way he has Libatique’s camera cross the 180-degree line at one point so that it ends up shooting both characters from the dark sides of their faces, is a highlight. And he helpfully summarizes his take on the material: “Ultimately, Requiem for a Dream is about the lengths people go to escape their reality. And that when you escape your reality, you create a hole in your present, because you’re not there. You’re chasing off a pipe dream in the future. And then you’ll use anything to use that vacuum. So it doesn’t matter if it’s coffee, if it’s tobacco, if it’s TV, if it’s heroin, if it’s ultimately hope. You’ll use anything to fill that hole. And when you feed the hole, just like the hole in Jared’s arm, it will grow and grow and grow until eventually it will devour you.” A parallel commentary from Aronofsky’s longtime collaborator Matthew Libatique is less conversationally engaging but will be catnip for cinematographers and cinematography fans. Discussion of the production’s choice of camera bodies and lenses and his own decisions on lighting and color filtration for individual scenes are dated to some degree, given the quick advance of filmmaking technology, but still shed ample light on his creative process. The overall tone is somewhere between film-school guest lecture and ASC Master Class, so if lines like “We pulled Fuji 500 a full stop for a softer, less contrast-y feel” set your heart a-racin’, this will be an excellent way to spend part of your afternoon.
Since the previous Requiem for a Dream BD comes as a bonus in the same box, purchasers have access to a separate set of standard-definition extras as well. “The Making of ‘Requiem for a Dream'” (35 mins.) offers up a wealth of behind-the-scenes clips from both production and post, including footage of the Kronos Quartet recording the score, with Aronofsky’s descriptive voiceover helping keep the viewer oriented. “Memories Dreams & Addictions” (20 mins.) is a rather philosophical discussion between Burstyn and Selby that begins with the author’s assertion that “36 hours before I was born I started to die.” He explains that, while still in the womb, he experienced brain damage due to cyanosis (that’s when the umbilical cord gets wrapped around the baby’s neck and impairs blood flow to the brain), and the conversation just rolls from there. It reaches a kind of culmination when he admits to being at once “a frustrated teacher” and “a frustrated preacher,” explaining, “I never wanted to just tell a story. I wanted to put the reader through an emotional experience.” Also featured is a clip (1 min.) of Selby on set, reading aloud from his novel to help Burstyn prepare for a scene.
The balance of the platter is given over to deleted scenes, trailers, and TV spots. In the longest clip, running three minutes, Wayans is allowed to improv as the camera rolls and performs in character as Jar-Jar Binks (The Phantom Menace had just come out). Almost as long is an extended take of Selby’s prison guard mocking Tyrone as he mixes mashed potatoes, also running about three minutes and apparently made up of ad-libs. There’s a substantial scene, too, where Harry and Tyrone compare notes on their mothers, followed by a phone call from Harry to Sara, along with a raft of shorter clips that show how Aronofsky and Rabinowitz’s penchant for split-screens could have been taken to greater lengths, splitting the screen into as many as six areas. (In one of the clips, Leto, Connelly, and Wayans appear in a triptych, appearing to glance sheepishly at one another after Marion makes a modest proposal: “Why don’t we stop using?” It made me laugh out loud.) Unused clips from Christopher McDonald’s shot-on-video performance as TV’s Tappy Tibbons (running 5 minutes in total) are also available, in case you can’t get enough of him. Two 90-second trailers and two TV spots (one :30 and one :15) show how Artisan struggled to position the film without making it look like a total downer; three out of four replace the Mansell score with a jangly Moby track. In another blast from the past, the disc features a 90-second trailer for Monster’s Ball, a movie I had forgotten existed. (Well, now I remember. And so do you.)
SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. In some sense, Shivers, a venereal horror movie that invites you to track the vectors of sexual intercourse among a group of apartment-dwellers, is a parody of a soap opera where the point is who is sleeping with whom. It’s also a spit-take on those sex-ed hygiene films that try to frighten teenagers into abstinence. Set almost entirely in a Montréal apartment complex and photographed in a jaundiced palette that leans towards yellow-green, it’s about the proliferation of parasites that make their way from body to body by a variety of sickening means, transforming their hosts into insatiable sex maniacs. Shivers was Cronenberg’s first commercial feature, and by the director’s own admission he was hardly equipped at the time to head up a production with any significant budget. And yet it’s some kind of masterpiece. If it’s a naive film in some respects, it benefits from naivete. The hurried, sometimes awkward mise en scène may as well be deliberate, given that it jibes so well with the film’s chilly, alienating tone. Any cut corners in lighting, design, and special-effects work only enhance the generally grody feel. And there’s a lot that’s grody about Shivers. That’s why it works so well as a chilling overture to a filmmaking career that critics have described as The Cronenberg Project, one in which the director uses film after film to explore love, sex, physical transformation, and mortality.
Certainly, Shivers is Cronenberg’s sleaziest film. As the director himself put it in the Faber & Faber volume Cronenberg on Cronenberg: “Critics often think I’m disapproving of every possible kind of sex. Not at all. With Shivers I’m a venereal disease having the greatest time of my life and encouraging everybody to get into it.” Is he kidding? Well, yes and no. It’s true that there is something devilish and knowing about Cronenberg’s shotgun marriage of the low-budget monster movie and the low-impact skin flick. But even though the denizens of Starliner Towers, the mixed-use real-estate development where the film is set, are among the most boring protagonists in 1970s horror cinema, Shivers doesn’t pretend that sex, all sex, is good, clean fun. The movie’s monster is the creation of a mad doctor who implanted it in a teenager he had been grooming for some time, an unsavory scheme with unplanned consequences, as the newly promiscuous woman became a super-spreader for the parasitic disease. At first, those infected notice only strange shapes under their skin, accompanied by feelings of unease. As the disease progresses, the critters’ hosts become bolder, venturing out of their now-boring bedrooms into the building’s common areas to find new partners, expelling heat-seeking, penis-like slugs along the way. Rape is explicitly on the agenda, as are incest and pedophilia, which are suggested in brief, unsettling vignettes. You could ask: is sexual abuse still abuse if the victim has been biologically altered to enjoy it? Well, as a tool designed specifically to strip people of their agency, the Shivers monster is immoral.
Cronenberg doesn’t dwell at any length on these concerns, though. Shivers unfolds in a series of abruptly alternating standalone episodes, the purpose of toggling between them partly just to propel the film forward during some slow patches. So we cut away, repeatedly, from Dr. Hobbes (Fred Doederlein) strangling, stripping, and scalpel-ing Annabelle (Cathy Graham) to watch Nicholas Tudor (Alan Migicovsky) clean his teeth and see the property manager (Ronald Mlodzik) introduce a young couple to the building’s amenities. Even the big centerpiece sequence in which a parasite sneaks into the tub where Betts (genre legend Barbara Steele) is bathing and swims up, singlemindedly, into the space between her thighs, is broken up: We see her start the water for her bath before Cronenberg cuts away, not returning to her tub for more than four full minutes. It all makes Shivers a bit of a disorienting experience; the fragmented assembly is a little hard to get a grip on in one viewing.
Cronenberg dramatizes most of it in the affectless manner that would become a defining (and enabling, on a budgetary level) style of his early work. The performances are mostly stiff and restrained, which could be blamed on mediocre acting, but I think they must be at least somewhat directed that way. While I love the early films, emotional depth wasn’t really a Cronenberg specialty until he started working with actors of the calibre of Christopher Walken (on The Dead Zone), Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis (both on The Fly), and Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers). The accelerated shooting schedule didn’t allow time to shoot much coverage, so the action was captured with a minimum of set-ups, and the lighting and camerawork are plain. Sound is important, despite Cronenberg’s use of library music for the film’s score. The sonic backdrop here includes classic horror-movie stings, with strings and percussion and kerplink-kerplunk keyboard atonality, but also a growling drone that increases in volume along with the intensity of the action, augmented by some successfully sickening foley effects. The overall effect is alienating; Shivers does feel almost like the parasites themselves could have directed it.
But Shivers has a sense of humor. As evidenced by Cronenberg’s jovial claim that it has a happy ending if you’re rooting for the parasites, it is self-consciously aware of the type of movie it is. It’s not camp, exactly, but when an older resident (Nora Johnson) lunges from her apartment to drag a passerby into her fantasy, she declares, “I’m hungry…hungry for love” in a knowing riff on a Boris Karloff monster-grunt and/or a George Romero zombie that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Waters film. I love the scene where Dr. Hobbes’s associate, the pickle-munching Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver, in a performance straight out of a 1970s TV police procedural), rings up Dr. St. Luc (Paul Hampton) to explain what Hobbes was up to and, more crucially, what his philosophy was. Cronenberg dares the viewer to pay attention to his exposition dump, given that the screen is full of an annoyed-looking Lynn Lowry, who is the nurse undressing in a bid to distract the doctor from his call.
Lowry is something special, by the way. Steele may be the genre pro in residence, but Lowry has a unique, otherworldly look that makes it hard to take your eyes off her. Cronenberg gives her character, Forsythe, a crucial, creepy monologue near the end of the film in which she describes her dream of making love with a dying man, who tells her that “everything is sexual, that disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other.” She becomes convinced in her dream that “even dying is an act of eroticism,” maybe a recasting of Georges Bataille’s Nietzscheanist line that “eroticism is assenting to life even in death.” She leans closer and closer to the doctor, her fervor increasing until she attempts to pass a parasite from her mouth to his, and he slugs her. This, too, is funny, in its way–his very physical rejoinder shuts down her philosophical assertion, and his next act is to cover her mouth with a piece of tape, as if to keep her quiet, although of course he is trying to ensure that more parasites won’t spill out of her.
Nurse Forsythe eventually gets the last laugh. As another Cronenberg character would later put it, she has become dangerous because she now has something Dr. St. Luc does not: a philosophy. That’s another way to look at Shivers. As the building’s tenants are turned, one by one, they don’t behave like victims. Instead, they seem to become emboldened and empowered–newly confident and assertive. They present to some degree as self-styled visionaries, eager to recruit true believers. And that’s where the line blurs: Shivers is a science-fiction horror movie about a disease spread by a parasitic monster, but it sometimes feels like it’s about cultists in the same way that some vampire movies feel like they’re about cultists. Nobody wants to be attacked in the dead of night and have their blood drained by a grim creeper with a Hungarian accent, though once bitten, the victims mostly agree that it’s cool to be a vampire.
Then again, Cronenberg might have come close to giving away the game in a 2000 Critical Quarterly interview with Adam Simon. He compares the film’s climactic moment–in which Nurse Forsythe finally presses her open mouth against the doctor’s face, allowing the parasite to enter him–to “the concept of losing one’s virginity, that you are no longer innocent, the Catholic view.” Maybe Starliner Towers, in all its grey repressiveness, is Cronenberg’s peculiar inversion of the Edenic ideal, with Dr. St. Luc filling the role of a boring-as-hell Adam who has to be wrestled by Eve into accepting the so-very-delicious apple she plans to shove down his throat. This Biblical reading of Shivers subverts scripture one last time: Adam and Eve were ashamed as they were cast from the garden, but the infected pour out of the Starliner Towers parking garage in a long line of cars, driving towards the city and looking for a good time. Just as God tempted innocence with abandon and saw innocence lose the fight, Shivers pits the squares against the party people, and the party people come out on top. There’s something genuinely transgressive, even by Cronenberg’s standards, about that image: all those horny monsters in human skin lighting out for the city, the cheesy, unpretentious grins on their faces signaling a celebration of their new flesh.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Shivers made its Blu-ray debut on a 2014 Region B release from Arrow Video. The new disc in Lionsgate’s Vestron Video Collector’s Series seems to have used the same video master, albeit with the compression cranked way up. Arrow’s transfer had an average bitrate of around 35 Mbps, which Vestron slashes to just 26 Mbps. The difference is most evident in the grain structure, often looser and muddier on the Vestron release. (It’s not clear why Vestron got so stingy with the bits when there is plenty of space left on the BD-50 platter.) The first pressing of Arrow Video’s disc, taken from a recently-minted Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) restoration, included a censored version of the film, an embarrassing error that was corrected in subsequent editions; Vestron’s disc contains the correct, unedited version. Anyway, the TIFF color grade appears to be identical across both versions, except where the comparative smoothness of the grain on the Vestron release shifts the perceived color ever so slightly. It’s a pretty finely detailed grade, pushing the overall palette towards a queasy yellow-green pallor while keeping skin tones mostly accurate and realistic, but dynamics have been limited, with a lot of detail that was clearly visible on the 1998 Image Entertainment DVD crushed into inky black shadows. There is a bit of flicker in the darkness of a few scenes, too.
While this is presumably Cronenberg’s preferred look, since he’s said to have supervised and approved the 2013 TIFF remaster, on the new audio commentary featured herein he claims not to have watched Shivers in “decades,” so who knows? At any rate, Vestron’s monaural 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is notably superior to the Arrow version, whose loud and muffled sound is probably due to attempts to use low-pass filters and dialogue normalization to reduce the audibility of background noise. Vestron’s track sports lots of varying ambient room sound from the original dialogue tracks, which I suppose can be distracting, especially if you’re listening closely with headphones. Still, the overall quality is brighter, with broader dynamics, and the music cues, especially, play out on the Vestron disc with substantially more detail and definition. A voucher for a digital copy is slipped into the box, so you can have Shivers with you any time.
Chief among the special features are two new audio commentaries moderated by writer-filmmaker (and former Fangoria editor) Chris Alexander, one with Cronenberg and the other with co-producer and production manager Don Carmody. The Cronenberg yakker will be of special interest to fans, naturally, and newbies to Cronenberg and/or Shivers should find it particularly informative. Cronenberg talks about landing his first job directing a commercial project and, in the process, recounts some of the history of the Cinépix production company founded by his mentor, John Dunning, and André Link, which got its start selling softcore sex films into European markets. (Fun fact: in 1998, Cinépix changed hands and was renamed “Lions Gate Films.”) Among the less well-trod paths Alexander leads him down are a discussion of his experiences acting in other people’s films and an ode to les Fournier Frères, the old-school stuntmen who oversaw the automobile action that takes place in the garage underneath Starliner Towers. I was a little surprised to hear that Cronenberg apparently still has a grudge against the late Dan O’Bannon, whom he has accused repeatedly of stealing the reproductive parasite concept from Shivers for use in Alien. He’s fairly good-humored about it, but it’s an axe he’s been grinding for decades. “The evidence is circumstantial, but it’s evidence,” he says. Alexander’s conversation with Carmody covers too much of the same ground, although he delivers some amusing anecdotes. Explaining how smoke was generated on set in scenes where a Shivers slug was supposedly eating into a human body, he remembers pouring titanium tetrachloride directly on Joe Silver’s skin. “It was a terrible idea,” Carmody says. Then, he adds, “We pulled that same trick in Rabid on an actor. He ended up suing us.”
HD video featurettes include “Mind Over Matter with Writer/Director David Cronenberg” (12 mins.), in which the director again tells the story of how he hooked up with Cinépix, and we see glimpses of a shooting draft of the Shivers script. Cronenberg remembers the Canadian government taking grief for partially financing the project when a writer for Saturday Night attacked the film under the headline “You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is: You Paid for It,” but notes that Shivers made more than enough money to return the government’s investment. In the engaging “Outside and Within with Special Make-Up and Creature Effects Creator Joe Blasco” (13 mins.), Blasco says he agreed to work with the then-unknown Cronenberg solely on the strength of Barbara Steele’s name on the cast list. He insisted on doing her make-up as well as the effects work, fulfilling a long-standing dream: “All this other stuff was gingerbread, as far as I was concerned.” Blasco does make the eye-opening claim that he directed the special-effects scenes himself, explaining that Cronenberg “was welcoming any help he could get.” Near the end of the segment, he pulls out one of the actual creatures used on the film and muses, “I think it looks more like a penis than a turd.”
“Celebrating Cinépix: The Legacy of John Dunning” (10 mins.) is a loving encomium to the studio’s co-founder, built entirely around an interview with his son Greg. The younger Dunning says his father probably could have retired from the business on the earnings from their 1969 hit export Valérie, but instead pumped his profits back into film production. Among the special interests of Cinépix were movies with female protagonists, Dunning says, citing Ilsa, the notorious “she-wolf of the SS,” as an example. He also reveals that his father, disappointed by the quality level of the kills in the 2009 My Bloody Valentine remake, had been hoping to produce a sequel to that film when he died in 2011. John Dunning himself speaks in a vintage audio interview that plays alongside the disc’s Still Gallery (9 mins.), discussing his career during the early years of Cinépix. “If I pioneered anything,” he says, “It was to break the censorship in Québéc.” And he, too, remembers the Ilsa series fondly: “She sold around the world. She became an icon.” The gallery itself features a so-so array of production stills highlighted by a nifty collection of international key art and video boxes.
The last major extra is an archival Cronenberg interview from 1998 (21 mins., upconverted from SD to 1080p), a holdover from the Image DVD. It’s a slightly different perspective on Shivers from a somewhat younger Cronenberg, touching on everything from pre-production to the film’s release and legacy, but it generally repeats stories already conveyed elsewhere on this disc. He does add some detail to Carmody’s titanium tetrachloride anecdote, remembering his phone call to producer Ivan Reitman: “Ivan, the actor is vomiting in the hall…. No, it’s not part of the scene. I think he might have to go to the hospital. I’m not sure.” In the end, Silver did not go to the hospital. He finished vomiting, Cronenberg says, and then shot the scene. Two versions of the same 90-second theatrical trailer (a poor-quality, overly noise-reduced HD transfer promoting the film as Shivers and a much nicer version selling it under the alternate title They Came from Within), a single one-minute TV spot for They Came from Within, and a series of three radio spots complete this edition.