Welcome to Fly Creek, Georgia. You’re more likely to come across a mass of screaming (!), electrified, and hungry earthworms than you are any flies. At least that’s the case with Squirm (1976), Jeff Lieberman’s feature film debut that will have you lamenting the depressive state of small town life, all while cheering for the worms to wipe out the less than desirables from the sleepy burg.
Released at the end of July stateside, Squirm received some decent reviews and did well enough at the box office, but the lost acclaim for Lieberman’s work starts here. His films were always noticed by critics, but rarely connected with mainstream audiences. To be fair, Squirm has a low key charm that doesn’t announce itself, but rather works (notice I didn’t say ‘worms’) its way through the narrative, giving it an insidious, grubby vibe. If you put enough of anything together, it will convey an unstoppable force – no matter how ridiculous it may appear.
And how could it not, right? They’re worms, not pythons, afterall. But there is something to be said for the undulating wave of bloodworms as it works its way through the town, decimating those stupid enough to stick around: a little bit Darwin, a little bit Mother Nature.
She certainly is a busy gal, Mama Nature; what with her causing a massive storm resulting in fallen power lines running a whole lot of juice through the muddy Georgia swamp, and trapping the residents of Fly Creek in a deadly fifth grade science experiment. Oh well. Such is horror!
So Squirm fits comfortably in The Animal Killdom Sweepstakes of the ‘70s, even if it doesn’t offer an ecological warning like many of its brethren; ‘electricity is dangerous’ hasn’t the punch necessary to draw folks in, so you have to have something be affected by it. Worms hadn’t yet been tapped, so why not? It turns out they fit perfectly well with the story.
Mick (Don Scardino - He Knows You’re Alone) is a New York college student on his way to Fly Creek to meet his girlfriend Geri’s (Patricia Pearcy - The Goodbye Girl) family; he arrives the night after the storm so the town is at a standstill without power. That doesn’t stop folks from their normal routines of course: hanging out at the diner, and worm farming. Geri lives with her mom Naomi (Jean Sullivan - Escape in the Desert) and sister Alma (Fran Higgins) on the outskirts of town, with little else but dim handyman Roger (R.A. Dow) to entertain them.
When city slicker Mick arrives, no one in the town is happy to see him; not Sheriff Reston (Peter Maclean - The Friends of Eddie Coyle), and certainly not Roger, who sees Mick as a challenge to his own lifelong obsession with Geri. As nightfall approaches and the worms close in, the question must be asked: will Mick adapt to country living, or will he end up as just another pile of fish bait?
Squirm starts off with our Storm Und Worm predicament, so we’re sailing familiar waters - at least to begin with. The film veers off shortly after Mick’s arrival; once some amusing fish out of water moments occur (Mick clearly being the surrogate for Lieberman and the viewers), Mick and Geri are off to find this person, and then that one, and yet another one. Now, the average viewer may even infer that the middle of the film is loitering due to this particular activity; but I assure you it’s not - this is simply a Jeff Lieberman film.
And what you get with a Lieberman - especially here - is a reliance on the characters rather than the action to drive the story through. The film doesn’t have a high body count - wipe out the cast, wipe out the town, pretty much - nor does it need it; Lieberman invests in the characters, so the viewer does too, even if it’s just following the lovebirds around on their quest for answers. His films always focus more on the people than the plot - which makes sense to me, as they’re our guides for 90 minutes.
So how does Lieberman make Squirm scary? By playing on people’s fear of them, of course. Is there a worm in that sandwich, or maybe one in your drink? He preys on these fears with either simple closeups or reaction shots, and nothing too hectic, with the exception of the closeups of the little critters screeching their war cry, which is frankly adorable as opposed to terrifying. But worms do disgust some people, Lieberman knows it, and he shows it.
As for those deaths, they aren’t plentiful, but FX legend Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London) contributes a set piece for the ages: poor Roger gets a mugful of worms burrowing in and through his face during an attempted boat rape of Geri, and get this - he and his aerated visage are in the rest of the picture, chasing Mick and Geri around the swamp. This Melted Max Cady is a pure example of Lieberman’s humor.
The same goes for the casting of Scardino as the heroic - shirtless and carrying a torch to amplify the machismo - Mick, wise of concrete and street smarts. Now, he is no one’s idea of a matinee idol, yet is sold that way by Lieberman partly because Scardino is very charismatic, and it’s a pip to see him play tough and brave.
Squirm offers up a big finale, too; Lieberman, while offbeat to some, never sacrifices entertainment over mood, and always swings for the fence. I don’t know of any other film that gives you a “living room turned into an amorphous worm swimming pool” ending. Then again, I don’t know of any other filmmakers quite like Jeff Lieberman.
Squirm is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: RITUALS (1977)