SHOCK looks at the dawn of David Cronenberg’s career working for Canadian genre studio CINEPIX.
With news coming down the pike yesterday that AMERICAN MARY directors Jen and Sylvia Soska will be re-making maverick Canadian director David Cronenberg‘s second feature film, 1977’s RABID, SHOCK opted to take a brief look back at both early films Cronenberg made for fledgling Montreal-based genre film factory CINEPIX.
In the late 1960s, Quebec-based film enthusiast John Dunning teamed up with number cruncher Andre Link to form CINEPIX, a film distribution imprint designed to exhibit genre movies; edgier films that the notorious French Canadian censor (which was actually governed by the Catholic Church) refused to let the public see. CINEPIX was the first distributor to show Tod Browning’s long-banned 1932 classic FREAKS in La Belle Province and they went the distance, hiring real circus folk and sideshow staples in theater lobbies to “freak” people out. Controversy followed…so did cash.
CINEPIX also distributed other horror films from around the world and they were in fact the first entity in North America to screen any Bruce Lee films at all. But it was with erotica that they found their niche. After distributing various softcore nudie films successfully in Canada, Dunning and Link opted to produce their own “sex” film in VALIERIE, a 1969 picture that starred future DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (also co-financed by CINEPIX) star Danielle Ouimet as a sexually liberated young woman, riding motorcycles and reveling in her youth.
More sex films followed, with English Canada affectionately dubbing this wave of dirty movies ‘Maple Syrup Porn’.
Young David Cronenberg, who was making a quiet splash in his native Toronto as an underground filmmaker of some note with his experimental short films CRIMES OF THE FUTURE and STEREO, followed his friend and future Hollywood legend Ivan Reitman’s lead and ventured to Montreal to meet the CINEPIX boys (Reitman was working with Dunning and Link after they were impressed by his first feature, 1973’s CANNIBAL GIRLS). Cronenberg asked the duo if he could “make one of their porn films”. They asked to see his experimental pictures. Dunning was confused but intrigued.
“We think you have a kind of erotic sensibility,” Dunning told the young future icon.
“We’re just not sure what kind of sensibility it is!”
Dunning and Link paired Cronenberg up with Reitman to nurture a feature film project, the resulting screenplay would be Cronenberg’s BLOOD ORGY OF THE SEX PARASITES.
“I was just ready to go for it, just jump right in”, Cronenberg told me.
And he did.
With Reitman and another Toronto boy, Don Carmody, producing with Dunning and Link overseeing, BLOOD ORGY OF THE SEX PARASITES went into production in Montreal in 1974. It was filmed as THE PARASITE MURDERS but would later be re-titled SHIVERS and, in French Canada FRISSONS.
In the US, it was again re-titled, this time as THEY CAME FROM WITHIN.
SHIVERS stars former singer Paul Hampton as a young doctor whose practice lies within the state of the art Starliner Towers, a fully functional luxury condominium community, located just outside of downtown Montreal. Along with his pretty nurse/lover (the elfin Lynn Lowry) the doctor soon runs afoul of a sexual parasite, devised by Hampton’s mad mentor to reduce man to its Freudian ID. Said parasite (a Joe Blasco effect that looks like a phallic turd) is spread like an STD around the apartment, turning its hosts into sexual zombies. Rape, homosexuality, bestiality, pedophilia and plenty of murders ensue and Eurohorror Goddess Barbara Steele also shows up in an unforgettable role as an infected lesbian who passes on the monster via her pulsing throat.
SHIVERS was a landmark, not just in Canada but everywhere. Martin Scorsese was an early fan, stating that he was unsure if Cronenberg was even aware of just how dangerous and wonderfully deranged a picture SHIVERS was.
And with its bladder effects, oral transmissions and invaders that burn skin, there is plenty here that anticipates Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, which would release 4 years later.
When asked about the influence of the script, ALIEN’s co-writer Dan O’ Bannon said he was inspired by “the Canadian films”. He didn’t give credit to SHIVERS specifically however, something that even today, Cronenberg is still somewhat cranky about.
In Canada, the now defunct SATURDAY NIGHT magazine wrote a scathing article, citing how outrageous it was that Canadian tax dollars were being used to create such a vile entertainment. A scandal followed, with Dunning and Link trying to counter the damage by distributing pamphlets to the public, citing just how important horror films are to the film industry.
All of this simply served to secure Cronenberg’s role as horror’s new enfant terrible.
But dangerous reputation or not, the damage that the SATURDAY NIGHT article had done took its toll and it took CINEPIX two years to round up the financing for what would be his second film.
That film was called RAGE, later re-titled RABID, again produced by Reitman and Carmody for CINEPIX.
RABID was less ambitious but marginally more expensive, riffing on the same “outbreak” narrative thrust and again using sexuality as a tool to shock.
In it, now-deceased porn queen and “Ivory Snow” girl Marilyn Chambers stars as a woman who, after a motorcycle accident, undergoes an experimental skin graft and inexplicably grows a wound in her armpit that strongly resembles an anus. When Chambers is aroused, said orifice lubricates and a phallic probe jets out, pricking her victims and sucking their blood into her, like a mosquito’s needle.
The people she drains get infected with a kind of rabies, turning them into drooling, murderous ghouls who spread their disease around Montreal, while Chambers wanders around the city, unaware that she is in effect a modern “Typhoid Mary”.
RABID was a success, if not nearly as notorious as its predecessor, and technically it’s a superior film, with better performances and a much more controlled sense of cinema.
Still, both features are two sides of the same coin and both have that eerie, washed out look and haunting use of library scratch scores that identify them as distinctly Canadian films of the 1970’s. They feel real. Raw. Cheap and nightmarish. And they’re both bursting with energy and idea.
Watching SHIVERS and RABID back to back is a thrill. It’s like watching a birth and indeed it is a birth. It’s ground zero for one of the most consistently interesting, fertile and evolved sensibilities that horror genre has ever known and will likely ever know.
And both films are scary as shit.
Cronenberg left Cinepix after RABID and would go onto to become what he became. But he remained close to Dunning, his self-proclaimed “movie dad” until Dunning’s death from cancer in 2011.
Dunning and Link would go on to make tons of hugely successful films, including MEATBALLS, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME and MY BLOODY VALENTINE. Eventually, after many deals were done, CINEPIX would evolve into Lions Gate Entertainment.
Reitman would go on to do MEATBALLS for his mentors, then branch off and make STRIPES with his MEATBALLS star Bill Murray and then, of course, GHOSTBUSTERS. The rest is history.
Don Carmody would go on to become a successful producer, specializing in genre films (he is behind almost all of the RESIDENT EVIL pictures).
So here’s to that brief period in film history, when all of these talents collided and colluded to sow the seeds of what is now the stuff of horror cinema legend.