What Debt Does Alien Owe David Cronenberg’s Shivers?

Alien may be a sci-fi horror classic, but what about the movies that inspired it - including David Cronenberg’s debut, Shivers?

This article originally ran on Den of Geek UK.

At first, they might look as different as night and day. One is the directorial debut from a maverick Canadian director, the other is a Hollywood movie funded by 20th Century Fox. One is set in deep space, the other in a luxury apartment block on terra firma. One had a decent amount of money to throw at the construction of sets and special effects, the other was made for a few thousand dollars.

Yet Alien, released in 1979 and triggering a franchise that is still growing and mutating today, has more in common with Shivers than at first meets the eye. Cronenberg made Shivers for approximately $130,000 in 1975. Could it be that this low-budget shocker inspired what is still considered to be the ultimate space horror movie? Let’s take a look at the evidence.

They came from within

By the 1980s, David Cronenberg had become famous (or infamous) as the king of body horror. He didn’t necessarily invent the sub-genre, but he certainly made it his own; his uniquely fleshy, button-pushing style of filmmaking seemed fully formed even from his earliest short films such as Stereo and From The Drain.

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Once he made Shivers, Cronenberg already seemed to have a kind of laser focus on the stories he wanted to tell: intimate, warts-and-all investigations into the foibles, frailties and fears of ordinary humans. Confined to a single building, Shivers is like one of those chests of drawers butterfly collectors keep their specimens in. Cronenberg keeps opening the drawers each in turn, revealing some new, strange and sordid drama going on within.

The story’s trigger is that reliable genre staple, a mad scientist and his foul creation. In this instance, the scientist has engineered a new kind of creature – part parasite, part venereal disease. The scientist – brilliantly named Emil Hobbes – tests his experiment on his young lover, who promptly sleeps with half of the men in the apartment block.

Too late, Hobbes tries to staunch the spread of his creation by killing his mistress and then himself. But gradually, the dun-colored, leech-like parasites spread throughout the building, turning its inhabitants – young, old, male and female alike – into drooling, screaming sex maniacs. Can a fine, upstanding doctor, St Luc (Paul Hampton) find a way to stop the epidemic before it takes over Montreal? You can probably guess the answer to that question.

Throughout Shivers, you can readily sense at Cronenberg’s glee at tearing down the decadent structure he’s built up. The irony of his grotesque parasites is that they don’t make anyone do anything they haven’t at least fantasised about already – the critters just give them licence to throw away their inhibitions.

In this respect, Shivers is an entirely different film from Alien, in the sense that the creature in Ridley Scott’s 1979 film is an object of pure psycho-sexual fear; Cronenberg makes no secret that the disease in Shivers is in large part a liberation. Nevertheless, the similarities between Alien and Shivers are easy to see. Shivers’ parasites enter through a human’s orifices (usually the mouth, but creepily, through more intimate places, too) and breed in the stomach – very much like the facehugger in Alien. Another similarity worth noting: the parasites in Shivers also seem to eject some kind of mild acid from their mouths, since we see in at least one scene a victim recoiling in pain from the burn marks left in the loathsome creatures’ wake.

So what does Cronenberg make of the apparent similarities between Shivers and Alien? Well, the director’s talked about the subject several times in interviews over the past 35 or so years. On one DVD release for Shivers, he recalls a moment at a ’80s German film festival where an audience member stood up during a Q&A session, demanding to know why Cronenberg had copied Alien. Cronenberg recalls that he gently corrected the gentleman in the audience by stating that Shivers came out four years before Alien was released.

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“Ah!” The audience member said. “Now we know who the thief is!”

The amazing crocodile suit

Elsewhere, Cronenberg has often argued that Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shussett – the writers who came up with Aliens concept – must have seen Shivers at some point.  Here’s Cronenbeg talking to The Film Experience in 2011:

“…you can either say [filmmakers are] influenced by you or ripping you off. It’s the same basic thing.  Even with Alien. My movie Shivers I have a parasite that lives in you and burns its way out of your body and jumps on your face and and jumps on your face and goes down your throat. I know Dan O’Bannon knew my movie. In a case like that you wouldn’t mind a little credit for it. But beyond that, if you are influential – and I’ve had many young filmmakers say that I was a big influence and sometimes their movies do remind me of my old movies – you take it as a compliment.”

Cronenberg’s sentiments have been broadly the same whenever the subject of Shivers and Alien have shown up, though back in 1979, when Alien had just come out, the director was quite vocal about his disappointment with the film during an interview with Fangoria. Alien, he said, “has no metaphysics, no philosophy.”

“The creature winds up as a man in a crocodile suit who chases a bunch of people around a room. I think that my own films do a lot more in touching a deep seated nerve, more than the simple reaction that you don’t want a crocodile to eat you. Alien was just a $300,000 B-movie with a $10 million budget.”

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For their part, Ronald Shussett and Dan O’Bannon have long insisted that Alien wasn’t based on Shivers, since they hadn’t even seen it at the time. Cronenberg counters that John Landis had been around O’Bannon when he’d talked about Cronenberg’s “Canadian films.”

“Dan O’Bannon later denied that he had ever seen those movies [Shivers and Cronenberg’s second feature, Rabid]”, the director said, “but John Landis swears he talked about them all the time and knew them very well.”

(You can read similar quotes from Cronenberg on this subject at the website Strange Shapes, which is a superb resource for Alien scholars.)

So what are we to make of all this? Is Alien simply Shivers in space, or is there something more complex going on?

Fear, loathing and free love

It’s worth mentioning that, although Alien and Shivers are two very different films made in two entirely separate countries, they’re united by the climate in which they were born. Alien and Shivers were fostered in a period of considerable change – the 1960s sexual revolution had occurred only a few years before, and reforms to old film censorship codes meant that movies could be more violent and explicit than ever. The 1970s was also the era of the women’s liberation movement, the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal.

The 1950s and 60s explosion of pop psychology and self-help books, which lingered well into the 1970s, also meant that society was at least growing used to thinking about their own neuroses, fears and desires. (It’s no coincidence that one of the major characters in the 1978 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers remake is a self-help writer played by Leonard Nimoy in leather driving gloves.)

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Shivers and Alien were the products of a new age of sexual frankness, and each reflected and distorted the mores of the 1970s in their own unique ways. Whether Shussett and O’Bannon saw Shivers before they wrote Alien or not, it’s certainly the case that Shivers itself owes a debt to other great horror movies – most specifically George A Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968) and The Crazies (1973). Both of those films see their lead characters menaced by raving hordes of different kinds; The Crazies and Shivers even share an actor, Lynn Lowry.

Shivers offers its own sexual revolution – one that is meant to be grotesque and disturbing but at the same blackly comic. “If ‘free love’ really existed,” Cronenberg seems to say, “Isn’t this what it would actually look like?”

“I admire its purity”

Given Aliens context as a major film released at the same time of year as Star Wars – the 25th May, Alan Ladd Jr’s lucky day – it’s perhaps surprising just how near the surface its own sexual themes are. Shivers could just about get away with its extraordinarily graphic moments because it was a low budget independent movie, but Alien was made as a mainstream horror movie for a relatively broad audience. Nevertheless, Ridley Scott’s movie positively drips with Freudian menace – such that entire dissertations have been written about its sexual undertones.

Put aside the obvious parasitic nature of the creature in Alien again, and its difference between the xenomorph and the slithering things in Shivers becomes more clear. Cronenberg’s film is a blackly-comic takedown of bourgeois hypocrisy and values – it positively revels in the sight of supposedly respectable people indulging their subconscious desires.

Alien, on the other hand, is a pure nightmare about physical violation. Cronenberg may have been dismissive about the “crocodile in a suit” antics of the film’s later stages, but its imagery remains unnervingly insistent throughout. The alien gets onto the ship by forcibly impregnating a man and bursting violently from his stomach, a concept that is intellectually repulsive as well as hideous on a visual level. Thereafter, the alien’s motivations are disturbingly ambiguous; the way it stalks and kills its victims is chillingly sexual, right down to the way it’s shown curling its tail suggestively around the leg of Lambert (Veronica Cartwright). In the theatrical cut of Alien at least, we’re never quite sure what the creature thinks or wants; it certainly doesn’t seem to be your typical blood sucker of B-movies from the 1950s.

Even the actions of Ash, the traitor synthetic human in the film’s midst, tie into the overarching theme. The robot’s choice of weapon when it tries to kill Ripley appears to be a rolled-up porno magazine – a pointed reference to the disgusting appendage forced into Kane’s lips by the facehugger. In Alien, the fear of impregnation seems to loom up everywhere, like a gargoyle. 

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Alien also differs from Shivers in another important respect: Shivers is the singular vision of one maverick, gifted director. Alien, although undeniably shepherded by Ridley Scott’s unwavering eye for a talented collaborator and a beautiful image, is the result of a stew of different minds. O’Bannon may have been openly resentful about producer-writers David Giler and Walter Hill rewriting his script, but they did more than just change his odd sci-fi names like Melkonis and Broussard to things like Parker and Dallas. They came up with the natural-sounding dialogue where workers grumble over bonuses and low pay. They came up with the notion of the duplicitous corporation willing to sacrifice the entire crew to get hold of the alien. They came up with the idea of Ash, the ship’s scientist and closet android.

Then there was HR Giger, whose iconic alien designs haunted the movie from beginning to end; Jerry Goldsmith, whose piping music sounded like something beamed in from another world; Ron Cobb’s remarkable interior designs for the Nostromo. They, together with the perfectly-chosen cast and other designers, set-builders and crewmembers, went on to make a movie that is more than the sum of its parts.

And make no mistake, Alien really is a Frankenstein’s monster of disparate parts. Ridley Scott cited The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as a direct influence when it came to Alien’s grubby realism. Dan O’Bannon cites Dark Star, the 1974 film he made with John Carpenter, as his inspiration to make a movie about an alien on a space ship. Novelist AE Van Vogt sued 20th Century Fox because of Alien’s similarities to a portion of his book, Voyage Of The Space Beagle (the matter was reportedly settled out of court). Alien also owes a debt to such 50s movies as Planet Of The Vampires and It! The Terror From Beyond Space, which were both about space explorers meeting hostile aliens. Going back further still, and there are clear echoes of HP Lovecraft’s novella At The Mountains Of Madness in Alien.

As O’Bannon once put it, “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole Alien from everybody!”

Two ’70s classics

Whether Alien borrowed from Shivers or not, I’d argue that both stand up as two key genre films of the 1970s. Both synthesise the raw materials around them – current events, other movies – and use them to explore the darker continents of our psyches. Cronenberg once said, in his typically eloquent way, that an artist worth their salt is always receptive to changes on the horizon. “My antennae were sensitive and I was picking up stuff,” was how he described the process of making his prescient horror-thriller, Videodrome.

In Shivers, Cronenberg managed to tap into a growing appetite for modern horror that stepped away from the vampires and castles of the past and said something about the human condition. Alien, in a more simple, mainstream way, reinvented the haunted house movie for a new, more fearful, more body-conscious era.