Jeff Lieberman’s 1970s eco-horror movie is better than many of its more acclaimed genre rivals of the time.
Released in 1976, Jeff Lieberman’s debut feature film Squirm is perhaps the closest we’ve come to a cinematic version of the ‘nature gone wild’ novels that clogged up the bookstores and newsagents during that decade. Like those amazing novels, the film is unapologetically pulpy, trashy no-nonsense fun, with the same sort of subversive social commentary that made the best of those novels so entertaining.
In common with the books it resembles, Squirm mixes an apocalyptic animal attack by normally harmless creatures – in this case, worms – with a more human threat, here channelling that other popular Seventies horror sub-genre, the redneck culture clash horror. The action takes place in the small Georgia town of Fly Creek, where you suspect inbreeding is rampant and where all strangers are viewed with suspicion. This is too bad for city boy Mick (Don Scardino), who arrives to visit his girlfriend Geri (Patricia Pearcy) and immediately gets off on the wrong foot by first of all ordering the most ridiculous drink a grown man can conceive of and then finding a worm in it. Naturally, the locals, including the most useless sheriff ever seen on film ((Peter MacLean), think he put the worm in his drink as a joke in order to ridicule the locals. Things go from bad to worse when, along with Geri, he stumbles upon a skeleton in a field, only for the bones to have vanished when the sheriff arrives. Before you can say Redneck County, Mick is facing the undisguised hostility of the sheriff and the threat of Very Bad Things happening to him.
But Fly Creek has bigger things to worry about than a smart-ass city boy. A storm has knocked the power lines down into the wet soil, and this surge of electricity has driven the local worm population to the surface. In most places, this might be a minor inconvenience, but the worms around here are different – “they bite”, as Geri points out. They start by biting Mick, who is then forced to leave Geri alone with the local handyman and town lech Roger Grimes (R.A. Dow), who immediately tries to assault her. Unfortunately for him, this results in a face full of worms that burrow into his flesh (an impressive early Rick Baker effect). This doesn’t kill him, but does seem to drive him over the edge of sanity – flesh-eating worms inside your head are bound to do that, I guess. Roger becomes the Worm Face character that appeared in promotional stills for this film and excited armies of young horror fans reading the likes of House of Hammer. More significantly to the film, he becomes an additional threat to deal with – bad enough that thousands, possibly millions of bloodthirsty worms are appearing just about everywhere without a deranged psycho on the loose too. In truth, he is no Leatherface and the character did not go on to star in numerous sequels and remakes (though never say never – Squirm has all the qualities to inspire a big-budget re-imaging, though James Gunn’s 2006 film Slither is effectively the same story with better special effects and more comedy). In terms of creepy 1970s psychos, he’s pretty impressive, his worm-infested face one of the most striking images of the decade. But again, he’s a deliberate distraction, because in the end, his threat is all talk and he is as much a victim as he is a monster.
Squirm cheerfully revels in genre convention and cliché, playing its horrors with tongue firmly in cheek. But thankfully, it avoids being overtly humorous – much like that other ‘nature gone wild’ film of the same period Piranha, it manages to stay admirably straight-faced for most of the story, instead allowing the absurdity of the situation to provide the humour. The horror, meanwhile, is more than adequately supplied.
Lieberman made a few horror films in the 1970s and early Eighties, and never quite seemed to find his stride – his LSD ‘crazies’ movie Blue Sunshine has iconic imagery and impressive moments but is never as good as it seems it should be, while Just Before Dawn is a solid enough but fairly underwhelming backwoods horror that plays on the same fear of rural communities that are explored here, but with less humour and impact. He always seemed to be one of those directors who was making genre films at the same time – and with the same frequency – as people like Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, yet like Bob Clark never quite had the same admiration or recognition from genre fans (Clark has been increasingly recognised as a genre great in recent years, so perhaps a Lieberman box set is just around the corner).
Squirm is probably his most consistent film, which is impressive given the material that he is working with. While a lot of people find them unpleasant, worms are not the easiest creatures to make scary, even the ones that can give you a nasty nip, but Lieberman smartly allows his story to build, creating an atmosphere of unease before unleashing the masses of slithering creatures at the end, where it’s the sheer weight of numbers as much as their flesh-eating that creates the threat. When you have a room that is chest-deep in worms, it really wouldn’t matter if they were entirely benign creatures – that’s still going to be a frightening situation for most people. In this sense, Squirm is closer to The Birds than its post-Jaws contemporaries like Grizzly or Tentacles.
You might also say that the film explores the same issues that George Romero’s Living Dead films did, where the slow-moving zombies become inescapable and where human bigotry is as big a threat as the monsters. While the Deliverance/Straw Dogs style threat of violence against the soft city dweller remains just that – a threat, rather than a reality – the tension that is built is impressive. Lieberman is deliberately playing with the expectations of audiences who have been accustomed to seeing these small towns as the homes of suspicious and dangerous inbreds – a belief that is as bigoted and narrow-minded as any held by the locals when you think about it – and he does it well. Even Geri’s own mother seems to view Mick with suspicion and you constantly feel that things are about to turn very bad at any time. It’s a neat bit of deliberate misdirection by the director.
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