Jeff Lieberman's 1976 debut is one of the great underrated Horror movies of the 70's, a film which should have a place among the classic drive-in flicks of the decade but instead feels doomed to live out it's existence with the likes of Bug (1975) and Empire of the Ants (1977). In 1999 the film was given the Mystery Science Theatre treatment, an odd choice along side the usual MST3K schlock - yes this film is about a town under siege from carnivorous earth worms but Squirm is made with such style and confidence that it seems a breed apart from most of the other creepy-crawly films of the era.
Nature blows a fuse in the small rural town of Fly Creek when a storm topples electrical lines sending thousands of volts into the moist earth turning the local worm population into ferocious flesh eaters. New York interloper Mick and his flame-haired girlfriend Geri investigate the strange goings on and uncover some locals devoured clean to the bone, but worse is to come as darkness descends on the town and the worms prepare for supper... On the face of it Squirm is a nature vs mankind film in the tradition of The Birds, but dig deeper and the film reveals a sly subversive strain, the paranoia and repressed emotions of an insular community bubbling to the surface in the form of irrational violence. Aside from one spectacularly gruesome Rick Baker effect, the film was originally awarded a PG rating, but Lieberman fills his film with disquieting images which play on our inherent distaste for all things slimy and slithering - a large fat worm is seen spilling out of a chocolate soda, or the famous shot of worms emerging from the perforations of a shower head. There's some striking macro photographic images as well with the worms seen in extreme close-up, Lieberman's nod to the giant bug movies of the 50's perhaps, but a clever device nonetheless emphasizing just how alien these creatures are.
Squirm begins with an introductory scroll reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and while it seems the similarities end there story wise, stylistically both films share some common ground, with Lieberman reigning in the splatter, with the emphasis on mood and atmosphere. No doubt American International expected some drive-in fodder when the studio allotted Lieberman just twenty-something days to shoot the film, but the first time director managed to circumvent the budget limitations with some impressive exterior photography, the wild Georgia locations looking damp, off season even sinister, and there's some audacious camerawork employing a huge wide angle lens to depict the worms' point of view. As with the director's subsequent films Blue Sunshine and Just Before Dawn, Squirm has an eerie, subtle musical score, as well as a very effective sound design which perfectly compliments the visceral images.
Performances in general are better than typically seen in this type of film, helped in no small part by Lieberman’s writing which breathes life into his characters, giving his cast various bits of business to work with – the pot-smoking tomboy younger sister, the mother with the frazzled nerves, the greasy womanising sheriff, and the dim-witted and disgruntled bait boy under the yoke of his father. One suspects that lead actor Don Scardino is a stand-in for the Brooklyn-born director and his fish-out-of-the-water routine is often very funny. It’s a shame Scardino didn’t appear before the camera more often, but he can be seen in He Knows You’re Alone and Cruising, later going on to produce and direct big TV shows like The Cosbys, Law and Order and 30 Rock
MGM’s 2003 R1 DVD (still denied an official release in the UK for no good reason) looks fantastic and is simply the best looking Squirm to date. The 1.85 anamorphic image looks terrific, colors are vibrant, black levels are solid and the picture is pleasingly sharp restoring much detail obliterated on the old Vestron and Orion tapes. The mono sound is fine too. Extras include the theatrical trailer, a TV spot and best of all an excellent and very worthwhile commentary by Jeff Lieberman who discusses every aspect of the production, including what big name stars almost ended up in the cast, and explains how the whole worm infestation was caused by the movie Ocean’s 11 – to find out more, be sure to catch it.
To read more about Squirm and the films of Jeff Lieberman, head over to Jon's excellent and comprehensive career retrospective at the The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies