Written and Directed by: Jeff Lieberman
Starring: Don Scardino, Patricia Pearcy, and R.A. Dow
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"You gonna be da' worm face!"
Squirm—which is, yes, a killer worm movie—opens with a text crawl that ominously takes viewers back to the events of January 1975, when the rural community of Fly Creek, GA experienced an electrical storm that sent thousands of volts of energy into its muddy landscape. What followed, however, was “one of the most bizarre freaks of nature ever recorded,” or so says this opening card, which is presumably meant to echo The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Given the nature of the film’s threat, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Squirm for a spoof of some sort—I mean, just how grimly serious can a film about hyper-ravenous bloodworms be?
Well, the answer is obviously “not very much,” though first-time viewers may be surprised by just how thoughtfully Jeff Lieberman does treat this material. It’s not just a movie about killer worms—it’s also a about people. Common, ordinary, backwoods people like Geri (Patricia Peary), a freckle-faced gal waiting for big-city boyfriend Mick (Don Scardino) to pay a visit. A hapless nerd whose introduction finds him irritating all the yokels as he crams his way out of a bus, Mick is an immediate outsider, the type of guy who dares to come to a place like Fly Creek and order Yankee drinks like egg crèmes. His intrusion particularly rankles Roger (R.A. Dow), the local simpleton worm farmer with his own crush on Geri, thus forming a tense little love triangle that may prove to be more deadly than the revolting worms wreaking havoc on a typically peaceful town.
Lieberman’s approach is pretty crafty—Squirm is most certainly a killer worm movie, yet he allows it to gradually build and even play out as a mystery, with its creeping horrors graduating from Mick finding a worm in his egg crème to the two lovebirds stumbling upon some skeletal remains. Understandably, nobody puts two and two together when Roger’s worm stock disappears. Nobody expects the Electrified Worm Farm Massacre. Watching these bumpkins (and one wimpy city boy) uncover the bizarre truth is pretty charming thanks to Lieberman’s decision to shoot on location with actors who convincingly blend in with the southern-fried locales.
Squirm plucks its audience and drops them into the kind of thickly backwater surroundings one expects from regional filmmaking (it’s somewhat surprising to know that Lieberman is a Brooklyn native), which adds to the atmosphere and ambiance. Even before the worms crawl their way into the proceedings, Fly Creek is revealed to be an especially impenetrable hamlet shrouded by canopies of Spanish moss and caked in mud—it’s exactly the sort of creepy place you’d expect to be crawling with worms. Save for some brief excursions into town, most of the film occurs in the slimy, swampy back roads, where the only thing seedier than the surroundings are some of the people within, including the jerky town sheriff who gives Mick shit simply for being a big city dweller. I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but most southern folks don’t really take kindly to anyone hailing from anywhere with a population approaching five digits. Anyone who doesn’t willingly choose to live in the type of squalor capable of breeding mutant worms can’t be trusted.
But the worms are the draw, of course, and Lieberman serves them up well enough with a mix of actual, live worms and some fake stand-ins. He often zooms in on the former and overlays the footage with electronically distorted pig squeals to add an otherworldly menace to a creature that obviously needs it. Don’t get me wrong: worms are pretty gross and skin-crawling, but how threatening are they, really? Lieberman seems to agree and actually limits the gruesome worm feedings (and their gory accents, delivered courtesy of Rick Baker) to a handful of scenes; otherwise, he keys in on the sort of semi-plausible stuff really capable of inducing shudders, like the worm in the egg crème or a host of them threatening to emerge from a showerhead. The latter is actually teased out over the course of the movie, as Lieberman clearly wanted to do for showers what Psycho had already done, only with worms in place of a butcher knife.
Once the worms break through and begin to consume the film during the final act, Squirm becomes a real hoot, with Mick and Geri fending off a massive horde alongside the latter’s mother and sister. It’s ridiculous, of course, and even more so once a deranged Roger reemerges, covered and worms and ready to bite his old buddies (seriously, they went fishing together only a few hours earlier—maybe these things are capable of turning their prey into Wereworms). Roger is arguably the unsung hero of Squirm: here’s this poor old bastard who toils away doing menial labor for Geri’s family (when he’s not maintaining his day’s worm business), only to see some dweeb roll in on a Greyhound and turn him into a third wheel. You’d probably give yourself over to worm overlords, too.
As ridiculous as all this sounds, Squirm really doesn’t veer off into absolute camp—it’s the sort of movie that obviously invites mockery on the premise level but doesn’t actively wink at the audience to goad them into taking the piss out of it. Instead, Lieberman leads the audience right to the precipice and delivers exactly what’s to be expected from a killer worm movie: some grisly, squishy sequences meant to both amuse and disgust all at once. Whatever humorous commentary you want to add to it will fit, but it’s not required, which is probably why this is the rare MST3Ktarget that’s perfectly awesome on its own. That it was a mark isn’t surprising (after all, as Lieberman has said on the subject, “it’s a movie about worms”), but let’s just say that the Satellite of Love crew tackled worse.
As it is clearly the greatest movie about worms of all-time, Squirm has become enshrined in Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition line with a fine Blu-ray release slithering with extras. Headlining the supplements is a commentary with Lieberman, who also appears alongside Scardino and effects artist Bill Milling in a 30-minute making-of featurette and a tour of the film’s locations. A stills gallery, a trailer, TV ads, and radio spots fill out the rest of the disc, which is adorned by both newly commissioned artwork and the original poster thanks to a reversible cover. It should also be noted that this release features the original, uncut version released into theaters before AIP trimmed it for a PG-rated re-release. Really, the only thing more ridiculous than a killer-worm movie would be a killer-worm movie where you didn’t see the worms burrow all the way into a guy’s face, but that’s just my opinion on the matter. Buy it!
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