man vs beast horror
Trivia There's a famous MST3K version of Squirm that Lieberman even comments on on the DVD commentary. It's a good episode, but late in the series and so suffers from some terrible host segmenting.
Also, Squirm was only released in the UK in 1981 direct to video as part of the major rental boom. The cover (girl under shower head with worms crawling out - not in the movie) was in every video shop ever.
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9th Sep 04
A fearsome storm brings power lines crashing down around the small town of Fly Creek, pumping hundreds of thousands of volts into the ground and turning the usually docile locale worm population into a horde of flesh-eating monsters.
The mid-seventies saw a huge horror boom. The rise of the slasher flick is well documented as are the gut munching cannibal and Italian zombie movie sub-genres, but not a lot of time has been dedicated to the ecological monster horror concept. After a brief emergence in the 50s with classics like Them! and Creature From the Black Lagoon (both 1954), the genre lay dormant for 20 years until a certain film school brat had the idea of doing a movie about a giant man-eating killer shark and sure enough the flood gates opened. Frogs, Bug, Grizzly, Piranha, Orca, Day of the Animals and Food of the Gods were all environmental horrors and they all rode the waves of the Jaws phenomena to one degree or anther. The basic premise was that the human race had, through some action or possibly inaction, caused an ecological anomaly or mutation that had turned some other often harmless species into our obsessed mortal enemies. We had monster flicks about bears, insects, fish, rats, you name it and they all had big teeth and wanted to kill us, or at least gross us out in the comfort of our nice warm cars at the Saturday night drive-in. "See the hapless teenagers run for their lives from the rampaging hordes of flesh-eating killer..." and then you placed the movieís protagonist species on the end. In the case of Squirm, itís worms.
The movie starts with a neat telecaster prologue which scrolls slowly and ominously up the screen in a way not dissimilar from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Apparently, a sudden electrical storm has ravaged the rural sea coast area of Georgia late one evening of September back in 1975. Power lines, damaged by the storm, have been sent toppling over sending hundreds of thousands of volts surging into the ground, simultaneously frying the local mud swamps and disrupting the power supply to the small backwater town of Fly Creek. In the aftermath of the storm the local citizens experienced "...what scientists believe to be one of the most bizarre freaks of nature ever recorded." No prizes at this stage for guessing what theyíre talking about.
And this is where the film begins. Geri, the slightly too skinny red-haired female lead, lives in a small farm house on the outskirts of the unlucky Fly Creek. She lives with her embarrassingly slutty, but quite ugly teenage sister, Alma and their overly traditional but slightly twisted mother. Mick, the similarly red headed geek out-of-towner hero (and hero is used dubiously here), is Geriís boyfriend who has traveled down from New York for a few days to visit, much to the annoyance of her mother and their worm farming neighbor Roger Grimes. Roger it seems is quite smitten by Geri and has been for a while now. Geriís meddling mother, being a very stereotypical southern momma and therefore fearful of outsiders, is always trying to push Geri and Roger together despite Geriís obvious disinterest. As you'd expect, though, Geri is prepared to milk that attention when necessary. When she finds out that Mick is stranded on the other side of the swamp because the bus couldn't get past the downed power lines, she asks Roger if he'll lend her his dad's truck to go get him and Roger agrees. He's obviously not too happy about it though and to make matters worse when Geri returns the truck, Roger is horrified to discover that his whole harvest of worms, several thousand or so, have mysteriously gone missing. Now where could they be?
Squirm is, at the end of the day, a low budget cheese ball mid 70s monster movie about worms that bite but one which slightly outshines itís contemporaries by having a strangely likeable cast of characters and some pretty entertaining worm special effects. Don Scardino turns in a reasonably plausible performance as Mick, the city boy in a southern trailer trash town. But the same canít be said for Patricia Pearcyís totally wooden Geri, whose southern drawl is almost as scary as the worms themselves. Jean Sullivan revels in her role as the mother, especially as her character seems to inexplicably become more and more deranged as the running time pads out. Shades of Jessica Tandy in The Birds? Perhaps, but itís nice to see a 40s starlet on the big screen again in any form, even if this really doesnít compare to being in Errol Flynn movies.
There are also a few more characters of note. The sheriff is convinced he is Doug McClure but in actual fact is a little known TV movie bit part actor named Peter MacLean. He's never helpful, always arrogant and is much more interested in cheap sex than upholding the law. So in other words, everything youíd expect from a small town southern sheriff. Look out for the scene where he offhandedly dismisses Mickís killer worm theories while tucking into a plate of spaghetti. Thatís a little cringe worthy irony thrown in for you more observant types. Meanwhile R. A. Dow, mysteriously never to be seen in front of the camera again ever, doesnít do too bad as the doomed Roger, although I wonder how hard it is to play a backwater inbred meat-head worm farmer who talks at an even slower pace than the plot moves. Special mention here also has to go to the on-screen charisma of the local antiques dealer, one Mr. Beardsley. He casually steals almost every frame he's in, although he is outshone by a hand full of stunt worms in one of their later scenes.
Speaking of those wiggly critters, have you ever seen a worm scream? Well, after youíve watched Squirm you will have. The storm that the opening credits roll over is inter-cut with some quite disgusting close-ups of worms screaming and is accompanied by the creepiest evil little kid music since A Nightmare on Elm Street. Itís all quite eerie, especially when you discover that they pulled off those shots by frying a bunch of harmless blood worms on electric hot plates. While that is in no way up there with the levels of animal cruelty involved in a string of cannibal films I could mention, it is still pretty gross and makes you pull that face, you know the one I mean.
Never the less, a lot of the worm effects in this movie are pretty fun, although things do take a while to get going. After the stormy introduction, the plot moves painfully slow with very little worm action to speak of in the first half except for one lucky wiggler's cameo in Mick's egg cream. The worm count does, however, really pick up further down the line. Squirm is the kind of movie which throws a million plastic worms at its actors and asks you to believe that they can't outrun them. In fact the whole concept of the film is based around that premise. Hard to stomach I know, but then you are watching a cheesy 70s monster movie about killer worms, so what did you expect? Still, even though the effects are obviously done on the cheap, they are pretty creepy, especially if the thought of being covered in worms grosses you out as much as it does me. It's a good that the worm effects are so entertaining because apart from that, Squirm is sadly lacking any decent gore, or nudity for that matter. All we get is a handful of worm induced deaths, a quick flash of breast in the well known shower scene and the sharing of one joint. Thatís as controversial as it gets. That said, I advise you avoid the butchered PG television version at all costs.
All in all this is a small low-budget first time effort from the writer/director brain of Jeff Lieberman. A guy who went on to make the cult affair Blue Sunshine and the much rarer Just Before Dawn. Squirm is a lot of fun when it finally gets going and I honestly donít think youíll ever see as many worms on screen at once, again in your entire life. But if thatís your thing then this is definitely for you. Otherwise, I certainly recommend a viewing if youíve not seen it, but this might not be one youíll come back too that often. Unless that is you remember Squirm from the 70s drive-in boom in which case pure nostalgia may be enough justification for a purchase.
Versions Available on US DVD which is supposedly uncut, and various pre-cert editions knocking around ebay.