Monday, July 12, 2010

Just a Little Something to Make You “Squirm”

Having a penchant for the genre of horror, I have encountered numerous fans of horror films. But even the most cool-headed fan, who can apparently handle anything -- carnivorous blobs, masked killers, slimy aliens -- will visibly shiver when having to deal with a tiny something that creeps and crawls and makes people go, “Ew...”

In Fly Creek, Georgia, an electric storm renders the small rural town with no power. City boy Mick (Don Scardino) is on his way to visit his lady friend, Geri (Patricia Pearcy). When the two go to see the town’s antiques dealer, they cannot find him and instead unc
over a skeleton in the backyard. An incredulous and stubborn sheriff leaves Mick and Geri with no other choice than to look into the apparent death themselves. Before long, they learn that the storm from the previous night not only knocked out the electricity, but also stirred up bloodworms, which have been burrowing their way above ground and attacking people. It seems that daylight is keeping the worms at bay, but soon the sun will be set, blanketing the town in darkness. With no power and the phone lines down, the townsfolk can only hope that the sound they hear is running water and not a batch of wiggling worms.

Jeff Lieberman’s Squirm (1976), at first glance, gives the impression of being an exploitative horror film. But it’s truly a subtle genre piece, displaying an undeniable talent from an innovative and intelligent writer/director. Lieberman opens the movie like a traditional, classic horror feature. Lightning flashes across a dark town, with heavy winds and rain. It’s the storm foreshadowing the impending evil. The next morning, with the sun shining, all seems fine, but as Geri’s mother says about last night’s storm, there is “something... evil about it.” In keeping with the conventions of the horror genre, Mick arrives on bus, but, when a blocked road forces the bus to turn around, he must make his way into town on foot through the gloomy, dense woods.

However, the conventional hor
ror story stops there. One standard of the horror genre is the “damsel in distress.” But the ladies of Squirm, while occasionally in distress, are anything but helpless. Geri’s sister, Alma (Fran Higgins) is introduced putting on her makeup. To contrast a stereotypical cinematic woman, Alma, while gingerly applying blush, mocks Geri for “yakking” about Mick. Moreover, she paints her toenails while smoking a joint and excitedly follows Mick through an open window wearing platform shoes. In a similar vein, Geri goes fishing on the lake with Mick and Roger (R.A. Dow). Mick cannot bait a hook, and even Roger, whose father runs a bait shop, refuses to touch the “disgusting” worms, leaving the petite Geri to expertly handle the task. Mick, although proficient and reliable, is hardly a typical “tough guy” protagonist. A city resident, he’s completely out of his element and looks silly as he barely exits the bus (carrying three pieces of luggage, a tennis racket, and a fishing rod, and bumping everyone along the way) and asks the driver if he knows where he can find a men’s room (while standing next to the woods, nature’s restroom). To further this, Mick wears glasses, which, especially back in the ‘70s, was a sure sign that he was a geek (or, if you will, a bookworm... see what I did there?).

There are plenty of grotesque shots of writhing worms and even closeups of bloodworms (with their parapodia -- fleshy, leg-like outgrowth -- and their teeth), but Lieberman still manages a great deal of subtly in Squirm. When Mick orders an egg cream (basically a chocolate soda) at a diner, he spills the drink when spotting a worm inside the glass. In a later scene, Geri pours a couple of glasses of milk for the two, and, due to the earlier sequence, it’s almost like the “glowing” glass of milk in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 film, Suspicion (i.e., with no explicit knowledge of a worm inside, the audience will fear either person drinking from the glass). The preceding scenes of worm attacks include numerous visual references: a twitching downed power line, kids enjoying licorice, someone eying a box of necklaces, the sheriff and his date eating spaghetti. Similarly, there’s a clear shot of a preoccupied Roger scratching the side of his neck, and later Mick vigorously scratches his leg (before being told that he has poison ivy). It’s all a very deliberate strategy from the director, a constant reminder of the worms underground, the same worms that will, quite literally, get under the skin. One of the most clever visual cues is the name of the baiting business, printed on the side of a truck: Willie’s Bait. Willie gives people the worms, and the worms give most people the “willies.”

Lieberman engineers the entire film around a simple concept: people’s basic fear of “creepy-crawlies.” The first shot of a worm is the one from Mick’s egg cream at the diner. That alone, a single worm contorting in the chocolate liquid, is enough to make most viewers cringe. From there, Lieberman lets the audience’s imagination do most of the work for him: the aformentioned scratching, Mick falling into a muddy ditch, candles at nightfall providing very little light, the sound of worms in motion, etc. The viewers don’t always have to see what the worms are doing or even the worms themselves. All they have to know is that the worms are out there, and if just one makes most people uncomfortable, an ostensibly limitless number of worms is nothing short of terrifying.

Squirm handles the low budget wonderfully, and the largely amateur cast is outstanding, particularly Scardino and Pearcy in the leads. Though this film is a focus for the Forgotten Favorites, Jeff Lieberman seems to be a forgotten director. Following Squirm, he helmed Blue Sunshine (1978), concerning people turning homicidal from a new type of LSD, and Just Before Dawn (1981), an above-average slasher involving campers evading twin murderers in the forest. In 1988, he directed the horror-comedy, Remote Control, but would not direct another feature film for nearly 20 years. That film, however, was a smashing comeback. Satan’s Little Helper (2004), about an impressionable young boy during Halloween playfully helping “Satan” (a masked man who, unbeknownst to the boy, is actually an escaped arsonist/serial killer), was also written by Lieberman, as were his earlier works (co-scripting Just Before Dawn). Actor Scardino went on to become a prolific TV producer and director. Makeup artist Rick Baker is one of the most well known artists in his field. He had the distinction of winning an Academy Award for Best Makeup the very first year that the category was awarded, for An American Werewolf in London at the 1982 ceremony. He has won the same award multiple times, including Harry and the Hendersons (1988) and Men in Black (1997).

is a profound, multifaceted film, but if a wall of gooey bloodworms makes you apprehensive or leaves you feeling nauseous, I would strongly recommend that you avoid this film. But it should be noted that Jeff Lieberman has made a movie which deserves respect. Sure, it’s a film about aggressive, flesh-eating worms, but it’s a savvy work of art from a filmmaker who successfully eludes the schlocky route. He reels you in, baits you, and leaves you feeling itchy for days. In short, he makes you squirm.


  1. Sark, SQUIRM .. sounds like a scary, fun, gross, film. When I need a good scare, I will pick it up. Next time I go fishing, you will have to bait my hook. I do not think I can look at another worm.. :P

  2. This is a good one, Sark! I remember seeing "Squirm" very well! Although you wouldn't normally think of a worm as that scary, thousands of them are a different thing. Isn't this the one where the lady is in the shower and looks up and sees worms wriggling out of the shower head, then screams, then we see a bathtub full of worms with her apparently under them? I have to admit I wondered what the hell was wrong with her, that she didn't just jump out of the shower and run? Worms don't move that fast. But I enjoyed this movie, and I did like the little mannerisms, the scratching, etc., that made you grit your teeth and wait for a worm to burst out of the guy's skin. I'm a HUGE sci-fi/horror fan, and I like some of the odd ones the best. Squirm was done well, and left me watching the sidewalk to make sure I didn't step on one and squish its disgusting guts all over my shoes!

  3. Sark, this sounds like a promising icky-yucky horror film that defies the typical horror conventions. In other words, I think it's right up my alley! I'm quite fond of the suspense technique you described where the viewer sees something bad (the worm in the chocolate soda) and then becomes tense when a similar object is presented later (the milk). Sadly, I used to confuse this film with William Castle's BUG, which was made around the same time. I suppose they share a creepy crawlie element, but otherwise fire-starting cockroaches have little in common with people-eating worms.

  4. Dawn, I couldn't bait your hook for you. I've only fished a few times and always with earthworms. I don't find them icky at all; in fact, they're kinda cute. But I just don't have that ability. It's harder than it looks. But bloodworms (which really are used for bait) are scary because they actually bite.

    Becky, you're thinking of the right film, because there's a great scene in SQUIRM of worms peeking out through a showerhead. However, there's not a scene with a tub full of worms. There is a WALL of worms, though!

    Rick, I can only imagine (fear?) what William Castle would have done for a gimmick with SQUIRM. Dropped worms on people in the theatre? Maybe just gummy worms at the concessions...

  5. Oh boy, would William Castle have made hay with Squirm. Gummy worms, great idea. Having worms on the theatre floor would be great, with people stepping and squishing and screaming. I love his stuff!

  6. Sark, it's just too gross for me!!! Your pictures were enough to tell me that this is not the film for me. I don't like horror movies for many reasons...mostly because I have a weak stomach. Interesting to read your take on this film and how it fits into the horror film genre, though.

  7. Sark, this was an informative and highly visual write-up of a movie I have zero desire to see. Great job but ewwww!

  8. This was made during the "nature strikes back" movie times I always thought. This was one of the best, much better than "Frogs" or "Grizzly."

  9. Beck, Ohmygosh!!! I want to party with you! Cowgirl!! :D

    Rick, Are you one of the little boys that used to chase little girls around with frogs? :D

  10. I saw a sign today advertising blood worms for sale and had to squirm.