“Worms, sir. Thousands of ‘em!”
If 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.
New Yorker Mick (Don Scardino) has made the trip to the Creek to meet up with his potential girlfriend, local sex-kitten Geri (Patricia Pearcey), but no sooner has he arrived than he has managed to antagonize almost everyone, including the disdainful Sheriff and especially the lumbering meathead Roger (R. A. Dow), who just happens to have the hots for Geri, himself. With people going missing, odd skeletons turning up and other strange occurrences taking place, it seems that Mick might be in for a rough time. But smelling something that clearly isn’t a rat, his tenacious attitude sees him uncovering just what is behind all the mysterious goings-on … just in time for a flesh-crawling last stand against a tidal wave of raging, hungry worms.
Lieberman is one of those directors who really should be more famous than he is. For a kick-off, his most famous films – although there haven’t been that many of them – have each become notorious cult classics that have pushed the boundaries of their own respective sub-genres with inspired screenplays, sharp direction and an avowed intention to shock. His drug-warning of Blue Sunshine, in which LSD-users become bald-headed homicidal maniacs, was a clever, pigeonhole-defying thriller that knuckled SF with Cronenbergian panache. And his survival-horror, Just Before Dawn, is an undisputed masterpiece of murderous inbred bumpkin barbarity that justifiably sits alongside Texas Chainsaw, Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes as a brutal reminder that city-folks really should steer well-clear of the countryside. Together with Squirm, which also posits the oft-observed conceit that urbanites and their cousins from off-the-beaten-track just don’t get along all that well, these three films have earned tremendous reputations despite receiving incredibly spotty and irresponsible distribution. Whereas the shockers from Tobe Hooper, John Boorman and Wes Craven have never lacked audiences and earned nothing but commercial and critical kudos since their initial unveiling, Lieberman’s films would become the very epitome of the maverick underground gem secured notoriety more by word-of-mouth than by sensation-goading reviews or critique. This said, most writers have been more than kind to his work and done their best to promote films that have, largely, gone unseen.
Like Larry Cohen or Don Coscarelli, low budgets would not hamper his creativity and his satirical sense of humour would shine through the quagmire (especially here in Squirm) of unashamed exploitation. But whereas Squirm would quite bravely tread that thin line between black comedy – we certainly see the rural denizens through the jaundiced eyes of the town’s unwelcome visitor, Mick – and manage its quota of shocks and barbed observations in equal measure, Blue Sunshine would elevate itself with a sophisticated concept that attempted to say something about the cultural ramifications of hallucinogens, and Just Before Dawn would use inspired character quips and laced in-jokes to far more devastating effect, Lieberman really learning his craft and honing his talents as he went along.
Nature running amok was all the rage during this period. Arguably Spielberg started the ball rolling when Bruce’s massive fin broke through the surface of the water in Jaws, but it is worth remembering that the atomic age had unleashed all manner of usually unassuming creatures in hugely amplified conditions in the likes of Them! and Tarantula. But the seventies had seen Grizzly come down from the mountains to chew up unwitting campers by the dozen, Frogs and all manner of swampland denizen turn on Ray Milland in the bayou, rabid bats cause havoc in Nightwing, rats go on the rampage inWillard and then its sequel Ben, mutated fish devour all in their path in Joe Dante’s classic Piranha, William Shatner would find himself trapped in the Kingdom of the Spiders, Bradford Dillman would enter into a complex game of psychological cat-and-mouse with fire-making cockroaches in Bug, and even deranged super-bunnies would go on a killing-spree in Night of the Lepus. Although Jeffrey Bloom would unleash a much more SF-tinged and monstrous variation on the theme in Blood Beach (which would, itself, be riffed-upon in Tremors), it was really only a matter of time before worms would get their bite of the big cinematic apple.
Although hardly the most awesome of monsters to be confronted by, there is no denying how immediate their stomach-flipping and ghastly effect is upon us. And, like the warning we are given about the Zulus in both Zulu and Zulu Dawn, their strength isn’t in just one of their kind coming at you … it lies in the fact that they come in their hundreds, and thousands, and millions, literally an engulfing tide of bloodcurdling death that can fill a house to the rafters in moments.
And Lieberman doesn’t skimp on his livestock either. There are gazillions of worms festooning the frame here. He utilizes some incredible close-up photography to reveal just how fascinatingly creepy and monstrous just one of these things can be – the macro-lensing giving us a taste of how filmmakers would probably have visualized this sort of story back in the atomic-super-sized fifties when they would have been swollen to the scale of torpedoes via radiation – but it is the sequences involving live-actors getting these things liberally dumped all over them that will have you recreating the film’s very apt title as your body involuntarily roils and recoils in sympathy with people buried literally up to their necks in the horrid little beasties. Many of these wrigglers were positioned over an electrically hooked-up grid that would then be fired in order to send them crazy right on camera. The production bought-up all the worms from the farms in the area, but even this wouldn’t be enough. So 250,000 fake versions were also created. But real or not, you wouldn’t want to go wading through a flood-tide of these things.
His human cast is uniformly good too, which is quite novel for such a low-rent genre offering. Oh, there’s nothing Oscar-winning about the performances, but everyone puts in a likeable and very serviceable account of themselves, and there is a finely offbeat, though naturalistic verve to their exchanges. Manhattan thesp Dan Scardino is wonderfully annoying at the New Yorker who really should have stayed at home. He means no harm, of course, but if you put yourself in the shoes of the locals, you can plainly see how much his presence is going to rankle. Lieberman’s screenplay is also witty enough to withstand the clichés that come with the territory.
The mismatched love-affair between Mick and Geri really doesn’t convince for a minute – they have nothing at all in common - but it more than delivers the necessary gravitas to add to the confrontational crux of the human drama. R.A. Dow is especially good as the hard-done-to and surprisingly sympathetic Roger. He may turn far nastier as the situation worsens and he gets his nose pushed even further out of joint (quite literally once it gets stuffed with worms), but we can certainly understand why this simpleton feels so aggrieved at the arrival and interventions of Mick, especially as he was just about plucking-up the courage to make a move on Geri. He looks like a cross between James Franco and Jeff Fahey … well, until he has worms sliding in and out of his face, that is. But it is Roger who will linger in the mind as the film’s most ominous presence.
The mismatched love-affair between Mick and Geri really doesn’t convince for a minute
Apparently Kim Basinger even screentested for the role of Geri, although she seems to keep quiet about that now. Lieberman suggests that she would have looked too glamorous for the part of a freckled country girl, but the fact is that Pearcey is probably a better actress anyway. She effortlessly convinces as an older teenager who knows the guts of her township and the grit and gravel of such a lifestyle, but also harbours notions of attainting something better, or at least something different than that which is expected of her. Red-headed Pearcey is very attractive too, but in a far more natural and convincing way than Basinger would have been. I like the way that she still cannot help but lead Roger on during one pivotal sequence, even though she knows it is clearly the wrong thing to do. She just can’t help herself from flirting.
As with Dawn, Lieberman’s fascination is with the conflict between two mentalities – the urban and the rural, the old and the new. What makes it work so well here is that we completely understand how both sides feel. The town has weathered storms before and the continually excitable assumptions made by a mouthy outsider are bound to cause ructions. Lieberman admits that he simply allowed the real locals to do and say what came naturally to them, and this definitely adds colour and authenticity to the mood.
Peter Mac Clean’s amorous Sheriff is straight out of every outsider-hating lawman textbook, but the script sees to it that Mac Clean understands this device as being actually quite realistic. He has a quiet life normally … and he’s got romantic thoughts on his mind just lately. He doesn’t need the distraction of dead bodies that never seem to be there when he goes for a look-see. Mick and his big scheming city-brain doesn’t belong there, and he has rubbed a few people up the wrong way, albeit inadvertently. The Sheriff is typically cynical and sarcastic because every out-of-towner he has come across has treated the hamlet with disdain and disrespect. It’s a quiet place and some antagonism with a stranger is precisely what he needs to brighten his day and to prove his worth to that buxom waitress at the diner. Of course, once things begin to turn grim and bloody, he has also has a convenient scapegoat upon which to pin the drama. It is all very formulaic but it also makes sense. Mick is an annoying brat in some ways and he is not above the exact sort of condescension that would get him strung-up and skinned in a certain farmhouse in Texas, but he is not to blame for the devouring of Fly Creek. He just has the misfortune of arriving there at the same time as the disaster that befalls it – rather like Tippy Hedren arriving in Bodega Bay in The Birds, or Jamie Lee Curtis’ hitcher in The Fog’s Antonio Bay. They are talismanic totems of ill-tidings, though their only crime is coincidence. And like Hedren’s character in The Birds, Mick could also be seen as the very savior of at least one meagre element of the town, his presence suggestive of outside intervention being the only possible avenue of escape for Geri. Like so many of these outsiders who find themselves wedged between a rock and hard place, Mick must act as the catalyst that leads the fight-back, although he will have his work cut out. Another typical figurehead of outside aid is Richard Dreyfus’ ichthyologist in Jaws - though perhaps against type, his efforts actually account for naught in the duel with the great shark. Roy Scheider’s water-fearing Brody, who is, quite cleverly, another outsider – though one who is much more accepted by the locals – is the one whose primitive blind luck actually saves the day. But
Mick is very definitely cut from the same arrogant pseudo-intellectual cloth as Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper. Wisely, he is not in the least bit heroic … except by absolute necessity. He is actually quite clumsy and a bit of a doofus. Again, this is a winning move on Leiberman’s part. He is playing conventions against themselves. Scardino portrays Mick as an amiable jerk and, to be fair, that is quite some feat to pull off with any conviction. You do like the guy, but you also know that you’d be irritated by him before long too. He even loses his glasses like Velma Dinkley in Scooby-Doo, further establishing the amateur-sleuthing connection.
Martin Sheen was apparently the original choice for Mick, but he had strong ideas to change the character, and Lieberman opted for the softer, ditzier approach of Scardino. And, perhaps even more interestingly, Sly Stallone lost out to Dow for the part of Roger, although I think that he would have been terrific as the oafish, lumbering, slow-witted farmhand who might not be as slack-jawed as he makes out. But Dow, slab-toothed and swatted with a perma-scowl is memorable as the beleaguered spear of small-town vengeance and heartbroken persecution. You really do feel for the guy when he realizes that he’s lost out to this grinning city-boy, Dow making the pain all the more tangible on Roger’s face. Part of me would love to have seen Stallone getting tunneled-into by worms though, but Rocky was just a bell-ring away and Sly was only killing time whilst awaiting the greenlight, so this was never going to happen. I love the way that Roger just blurts out his vaguely USS Indianapolis speech about his pa experimenting with new ways of getting worms out of the ground – an ominous foretaste of what we, the audience, already know has transpired on a much larger scale. He might be sympathetic but we know that he resents Mick and can’t resist hurling oddly delivered snipes his way. Roger is a great character and cleverly written and played. Most of the scares come from him, too, which is another reason why Squirm offers such an unusual take on the monster-movie.
Fran Higgins is good fun as Geri’s gangly pot-smoking sister Alma. Part comedy-value, part sleuth, she forms an intriguing facet of the lead triumvirate, helping to ensure that you are never quite sure just who is going to be involved in the next set-piece, or just who will make it out in one piece. And with Jean Sullivan as the slowly collapsing mother, the sense of Southern Gothic becomes even more pronounced. With a little more time spent on the screenplay, Lieberman could have fashioned a regally sinister lattice of subplots. The matriarch is clearly in need of a man, herself, and with two potential suiters – Mick and Roger – hanging around, there was another weird direction that the story could have gone in. It all adds flavour to the worm-filled pot.
As with most sagas dealing with nightmarish situations befalling cut-off communities, the narrative pitches various antagonistic characters at each others’ throats and sees to it that the scenario ends-up in an isolated and besieged setting – in this case, as with Night of the Living Dead and Straw Dogs, the farmhouse. Lieberman uses this battleground with flair and inventiveness. My own personal favourite of these insectoid tales of Man again Nature is Carl Stephenson’s terrifying short story Leiningen Versus The Ants, which was filmed with Charlton Heston in the lead role of the defiant plantation-owner standing against an unstoppable killer horde of flesh-stripping ants three-miles wide, as The Naked Jungle from Byron Haskin. But Squirm works as a great suspenser, with lots of little incidents building-up towards the inevitable climactic battle and some fine character beats that pitch the fish-out-of-water against the close-ranked yokels, adding class and personal animosity to the power-struggle. In many ways, this is quintessential seventies attitude. Think Quint’s resentment of Matt Hooper in Jaws, but with a more personal edge to it. Mick is not a working-stiff. He’s a college-boy with a bit more up-top than most of those in Fly Creek, yet he has the temerity to snoop-about … if only to prove that he is brighter than everyone else. The film has a Drive-In attitude to it that works surprisingly well too. On the one hand it is goofy pulp and proud of it, but on the other it thinks outside of the box simply by having such an oddball monster to contend with, and by creating such a skewed dynamic between the characters.
The subtext of small town eclipse was all the rage at this time of corporate domination. Only the likes of Amity could, ahem, stay afloat, because of its summer dollars. But almost every other little grove or township was being eaten-up by commercial bullyboys moving-in and taking over. The monsters tended to be metaphorical examples of what befalls such communities when apathy becomes a way of life. John Carpenter was quite adept at signifying both the infiltration and the defiance of small-town mentality. Haddonfield would suffer immeasurably, but it would endure. Conal Cochran’s factory town in Halloween III and the guilt-beset Antonio Bay in The Fog were great examples of the deceptive masquerade of greed. Another nature-running-riot picture, John Frankenheimer’s poorly received 1979 mutant bear flick, Prophecy, was totally committed to condemning money-grubbing companies for their reckless disregard for both the environment and small-town prosperity. Lieberman touches upon these issues, and one gets the impression that he was toying which direction was best to go in – Southern Gothic or social politics. In the end, he meanders down his own path. It’s a monster-worm-flick, when all said and done.
I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the early creations of makeup supremo Rick Baker recently in my review for The Incredible Melting Man, and here, once again, is the chance to chronicle his fledgling inventiveness with the literally skin-crawling FX for the worm-attacks in Squirm. Bordering on the body-horror excesses of David Cronenberg – the bug-movements witnessed taking place beneath victims’ skin is not unlike those of Shivers (aka They Came From Within), and although clearly quite primitive in design and execution they really are quite shuddersome. We all know that galvanizing spasm that occurs when a bug or an insect makes contact with your naked flesh, and the grotesque notion of a fanged-worm burrowing deep into your skin and literally chewing its way through you is certainly realized with wince-inducing aplomb here. The worm-face prosthetic is genuinely painful to behold, and offers up several “look away!” moments. Although he cut his teeth with gory effects, Baker was always more interested in creating the illusion of monstrousness, of fantastical characters rather than graphic evisceration. His bloody FX really reached their peak with An American Werewolf in London and Videodrome, but when you consider that the very next project he undertook after Squirm was Dino De Laurentiis’ production of King Kong, in which he wore that lamentable ape-suit in which we can plainly see the zips and the rips, it is a miracle that he didn’t go straight back to blood-gags and just stay with them. He did create the ape-mask for Kong, though … and that, at least, is fantastic.
To be honest though, the film is not quite as grisly as you might think. Certainly the images that were often revealed in those classic coffee-table horror movie tomes from yesteryear tended to give the impression that this was something of an out-and-out splatter-fest. In truth, the gore is actually fairly restrained, but this is not to imply that you won’t be squirming like mad during most of the attack sequences –because I’m pretty certain that you will be. Such is the power of the image of worms cavorting about upon or inside human flesh! Leiberman even has the tenacity and the skill to pull off his own answer to Hitchcock’s shower sequence from Psycho. You already know what are going to come pulsing out of that the little holes in the shower-head, but once they begin to slide their way out, and always cunningly when the lady beneath is looking the other way, you will still be suffering paroxysms of slithering displeasure. Cronenberg did go a step further with this, of course, when he had Barbara Steele bathe with a bug in Shivers – leaving us in no doubt as to the path the thing has taken beneath the soap-suds - but this is still a celebrated moment in shuddery bad taste, just the same. The sight of somebody totally consumed by them, the mountain of worms assuming their shape on the chair, is both gagging and amusing.
As far as I am concerned, Robert Prince’s score is a bit hit-and-miss. He brings in some synth to jostle against the more traditional, though small orchestral ensemble to create music that was clearly designed to be experimental and unusual. However, the final result is a little too stunted and not very dramatic. Things get a little bit more exciting once we witness a full-on attack, and the main siege is underway, with electronics literally attempting to sizzle with an intense burrowingsound, but the score has a distinctly TV feel about it.
There’s no debating which are scarier – spiders or worms. But there is something indescribably macabre about worms getting us before our time. We are all fodder for them at the end of our days, but we are supposed to be dead long before they come to dine on us. Lieberman’s story, as absurdly EC ripened as it is, hastens the inevitable but provides it with a deliriously dark and depraved spin. He has said that he was initially very inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and the story of an isolated, coastal township battened-down by secrets and deep desires and then assailed by millions of flesh-stripping worms – they could, in essence, all be the tentacles of some much larger Cthulhu-like beast that has been awoken from its cosmic slumber – is like some gratuitous offshoot of the author’s paranoid imagination. He always adhered to the idea that Man was but food for some elder form of heartless cruelty. Squirm may seem like just another slant on the creature-feature, but this Lovecraftian element is still there in abundance.
Lieberman allows his scares to grow gradually, giving us plenty of time to get to know the characters. A few little moments of freakishness spike the nerves when you least expect them – such as the sudden appearance of a superfast worm slithering across a wall – and this is definitely something that successfully keeps you on your guard. There are also lots of sudden worm-lurching shock cuts – literally walls of the things in some cases – though the most unsettling moments come courtesy of the determinedly demented Roger. But I will say that Lieberman makes a blunder with the movie’s momentum at the midway point, once Roger has been attacked. We’ve reached a crescendo and then, all of a sudden, there’s a hint ofScooby-Doo investigative work and the tension slackens-off. It is almost as though Lieberman, like his main characters, is attempting to pretend that nothing serious has happened. That we should all just carry on as normal. He also tries to maintain a sense of mystery perhaps a little bit too long. I mean, let’s face it, we all know what’s been happening and just what is behind all the killings. But he soon picks up the pace and the film then accelerates. Listen out for a great, though knowing conversation that combines worm-threat with the need to eat spaghetti, and you’ve got to admire the warped determination of some people to carry on as normal even though they know that something mighty strange is going on in the vicinity. The dinner sequence is brilliantly, dementedly odd. It has an almost Gilliam-esque quality to it. This is where Jean Sullivan shines in a performance that, in all honesty, Lieberman hadn’t planned on or expected. She seems to lapse deep within herself, the actress committed to finding a haunted quality of shock that sits just the right side of loopy. In other words, she's milking her part ... but considering the insanity that everyone else is attempting to ignore, this actually works just fine.
In more recent years, the Squirm ethic has been seen in Lake Placid and Slither, both of which would make terrific bookends to an icky triple-bill with Leiberman’s film.
Another cult gem from Arrow Video, folks.
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