“Worms, sir. Thousands of ‘em!”
Squirm Blu-ray ReviewIf you thought that Italian genre-gnome Lucio Fulci had the market on flesh-crawling worms, what with the plethora of live wrigglers that he often had plastered all over his actors’ faces in his undead epics … then you’d best think again.
The maggoty-maestro of cult low-budget filmmaker Jeff (Just Before Dawn) Lieberman is the undisputed King of Worms, as he has proven with this vastly underrated seventies eco-chiller, Squirm, which he wrote and directed. Made during a decade that was to see practically everything that walked, crawled, swam or flew, or had fur, feathers or scales turn against an environment-gobbling Mankind, this worm-infested nerve-shredder lay siege to an isolated Georgia enclave after a savage storm dropped power-lines and pulsed several thousand volts into the mud which, as any horror-guru will turn you, is apt to transform your average wiggly-worm into a flesh-munching monster. Now, of course, just one of these hungry little critters is hardly going to be a problem. Hell, even a couple of bucket-loads of them aren’t going to pose much of a menace. They can hardly outrun you, and even a couple of baby-booties will make swift mincemeat of them. But when the earth spits out a Biblical plague of the tiddly toothy-terrors and utterly surrounds your town with them then you’ve got yourself some serious trouble.
Add the fact that the rural hamlet of Fly Creek is renowned for its peculiarly vicious and carnivorous variation and has a special farm developed purely to breed the things as fish-bait, and it would seem that Mother Nature may well have the upper hand. The worm has definitely turned upon these rednecks, and pretty soon their petty squabbles, lusting ways and in-fighting are going to be the least of their worries.
Squirm Blu-ray Picture Quality“Talk about New York! Two corpses in one day! Next time you visit me!”
Arrow present Squirm in its 1.85:1 aspect and encoded via AVC. It hails from a 35mm Interpositive and was transferred at Modern Videofilm in Glendale, California. The digital restoration has been approved by Jeff Lieberman. Technical Consultant for the project was James White and QC was undertaken by Michael Brooke and Ewan Cant.
I don’t know why reviewers – myself included – often remark upon our surprise at how good a film looks in its BD transfer considering the low-budget source it hails from. A film is a film and there is no real reason why, even considering its cheaper film stock, that it shouldn’t still look vivid, crisp and detailed in hi-definition. I guess that years of watching these films in fleapit cinemas and then on shoddy VHS and possible bootleg tapes have enforced a certain lowered expectation and sensibility in writers well-versed in a certain era of movie-viewing and appreciation.
Squirm, by virtue of its vintage and low-rent and humble heritage, would naturally lead one to suspect, then, that it will look fairly dour, soft and very rough round the edges. But this is not the case at all. The film looks colourful, bright, detailed and crisply rendered.
When it comes to teeming, heaving, festering rivers of worms, you may actually wish the image was a little less sharply defined. The frame is frequently filled with the critters, all writhing, wriggling, slithering and sliming about as worms do. Should you feel of an appropriately entomological bent, then you could surely admire their physiognomy in the plentiful close-up photography. Should you also choose to admire Rick Baker’s primitive FX work when it comes to the creatures burrowing their way into people’s faces, then you will have ample opportunity to inspect the latex tunnels and the distinctly unpleasant passage that the worms make beneath the skin. Facial detail is good and clear, and clothing reveals material nicks and tears, loose threads and texture. Landscape shots are of a varying degree of clarity, although they are mostly very good. The model work is actually pretty decently presented and doesn’t stand out as being considerably obvious and poor.
Contrast makes no errors. The darker elements look just fine without being inky, and the lighter portions of the image refuse to bloom. Shadow-play is good, and it works well with the siege scenes and the probing around darker areas, such as the murk in the back of the truck in which they find the skeleton. The film is reasonably colourful too. The setting and the photography enhance the hot and sweaty scenario and the vapid atmosphere of the Georgia enclave. Skin-tones are appropriately handled and look natural, with plenty of variance. Blood is suitably garish when called for, and the earthy squalor of the worm-infested ground and the hues and shades of the critters, themselves, certainly adds to the stomach-turning palette. Lots of pinks and purples all entwined together. Mick's red-checked shirt is another clear high-light in the image. With its close-cut pattern, it could have caused some glitches, but the transfer doesn't drop the ball.
I was also pleased with the levels of depth and dimensionality that the image possesses. Objectivity is keen and nicely resolved. Views across farmland and over towards barns and outhouses are full of natural spatiality, and the view down the bus, or around the diner, for instance, also have a realistic sense of distance. Look at the guy coming across the field towards the truck, or when Geri and Mick move from the kitchen to the table at the far edge of the frame, just past the cupboard on the right. The dolly-shot that follows the lovebirds as they stroll through the sunlit woods is another terrific moment that showcases great contrast, colour and dimensionality. Or Roger pulling away from the jetty in the little boat leaving Mick standing there in our direct foreground. These and many others shots could have remained flat and unremarkable, but they carry a sense of depth that is rewarding.
On the digital front, the image has its grain and this looks intact, faithful and consistent to me. Edges are not unduly sharpened, with only the slightest of ringing seen against some lighter backgrounds (and probably just down to the photography) and delineation appears smoothly dealt. I encountered no problems with aliaising or banding at all. The print looks clean, although there are some understandable smudges, nicks and pops here and there … though certainly nothing to get worked-up about.
I’ll be honest and say that, for some reason, I expected Squirm to look pretty naff, but considering how good Arrow’s material has been for quite some time now, this was a dumb assumption. Low budget be damned, Jeff Lieberman’s wormy shocker looks great on Blu. Should you actually want to count the wrigglers in any given frame, then I’m sure that if you’ve got the appropriate time on your hands, then you could do just that
Low budget be damned, Jeff Lieberman’s wormy shocker looks great on Blu
Squirm Blu-ray Sound Quality“You gonna be spoiled! You gonna be the Worm-Face!”
Squirm’s original uncompressed mono track comes via a PCM track transferred from a restored 35mm mono magnetic tape. It sounds appreciably clean, though this is not much of a dynamic source mix, the sound design up front and simplistic.
But even if there isn’t anything remarkable to report about it here, the track certainly doesn’t make any errors. It is old and a little unimaginative in terms of atmospheric effects and score, with the latter brittle with its primitive electronics. Dialogue is never an issue. There are plenty of genuine regional accents and half-chewed speech from the locals that Lieberman employed, but it all comes across well and intelligibly. Hubbub in the bar, the diner and the restaurant is pretty much negligible, so there really isn’t any sense of immersion or depth.
As I have already remarked Robert Prince’s score isn’t all that memorable, but there are a few electro-warbling highpoints and plenty of stingers to help proceedings suddenly gain some zap and intensity. Things like splintering wood, footsteps and even crashing timber make a little bit of an impact, though nothing spectacular. The sound fx for the walls of worms is pretty decent, however. When the farmhouse or the jail is overwhelmed by them, the mass murmuring and slithering they make is quite unnerving. A tree coming down, the zapping of high-voltage cables and the wobbling of a plywood board being hurled can all be discerned too. A creaking bough adds a little frisson of suspense, and we do get to hear something mighty unpleasant taking place beneath the shirt of a corpse. I don't think I'd be chancing a glance under there, myself.
The sound mix here is perfectly acceptable and should please … just don’t expect too much from it.
The sound mix here is perfectly acceptable and should please … just don’t expect too much from it.
Squirm Blu-ray ExtrasArrow present Squirm with a reversible sleeve and a terrific illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the film, as well as an interview with Jeff Lieberman by Calum Waddell. It also contains both BD and DVD copies of the film.
The disc carries a fine and detailed audio commentary from Lieberman that is a solo-affair and pretty decently fact-packed. We learn about the pilfered footage from Ocean’s Eleven and the pig-screaming sound effects from Carrie – and this is just the first couple of minutes. He discusses his cast, his use of locals, his shooting locations, the script and how and Don Scardino would improvise. He talks extensively across the movie and he certainly gives you your money’s worth about the story and how the film came together. There are lots of anecdotes and plenty of asides regarding the performances and the sense of mystery that Lieberman was hoping to instill. We hear about the worms, themselves, the macro-photography and the FX that Rick Baker came up with. It’s a good yack-track and the filmmaker offers a lot of material that adds to your enjoyment of possibly the greatest worm-thriller ever made.
We also have a Q&A Session with Lieberman and star Don Scardino from New York’s Anthology Film Archives 2012. This starts with an amusing text scrawl that, like the film, portents that everything you are about to see and hear is true. This lasts for 24 minutes and is full of good-natured banter and amusing tales from the production. Nicely entertaining. There is some repetition from the commentary, but this is an enjoyable little piece that reveals that worms do actually bite for real. Plus, we hear about the eerie theme song that Lieberman wrote – revealing that there is nothing creepier than an English choirboy.
Kim Newman gets 16 minutes to speak on Jeff Lieberman and Squirm in The Esoteric Auteur. Regular readers will know that I love listening to Newman, and this is a fine little overview on a true maverick filmmaker. He obviously has a great opinion on the three main features from Lieberman, and his take on it is quite fresh and interesting. Especially amusing is his discussion on the original novelization of the movie, written by Richard Curtis (no, not that one), which I still have (with its great worm-face cover-art). He makes copious reference to Blue Sunshine and makes some pertinent points about how he fares against his contemporary genre-creators. He agrees with me that the filmmaker Lieberman most resembles is Larry Cohen, with his unique and quirky sense of humour and conservative leanings … well, comparatively speaking. As usual, this is terrific value.
The film’s Original Trailer also puts in an appearance.
Is Squirm Blu-ray Worth Buying
An all-too-often neglected gem from the Nature Strikes Back category of exploitation, Jeff Lieberman’s Squirm is a terrific skin-crawling delight of low budget and high ambition. An interesting cast and some yucky set-pieces make this an enjoyably schlocky blast of super-wriggly nerve-jangling excess. The class conflict angle is nicely worked-into the character-play, and there is an agreeably hokey Scooby-Doo-style sense of mystery to the first half of the movie … even if we all already know what’s behind all the weirdness.
Arrow work wonders with the transfer, allowing the bug-infested image to teem with writhing detail and the face-burrowing FX work of a young Rick Baker to shine with inspired nastiness. The extras are good fun too, making this a cult-gem that has been respectfully treated and well worth picking up. The genre of eco-horror is frequently an acquired taste – going from The Birds and Jaws to Bug and The Bay - and Squirm requires a stronger constitution than most, simply due to its deluge of flesh-nibbling antagonists, but even if this isn’t quite your typical slice of rural rampage it is well told, often quite humorous and benefits from an interesting welter of character conflict that only adds to the suspense.
So, the film looks and sounds good and has some tasty specials on offer. Its cult status is assured and Lieberman’s name has excellent genre credentials. What we really need is his awesome survival-horror Just Before Dawn now!
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