The Film: 4/5
As the small town of Fly Creek, Georgia recovers from a damaging storm that has left the residents without electricity, New Yorker Mick (Don Scardino) arrives to spend his vacation with his girlfriend Geri Sanders (Patricia Pearcey), a furniture mover who leaves with her sister Alma (Fran Higgins) and mother Naomi (Jean Sullivan). Mick's presence - not to mention his taste for egg creams - doesn't help endear himself to the townsfolk, particularly hard case Sheriff Reston (Peter MacLean), but Fly Creek is about to have an even bigger problem. The storm caused several of the town's electrical lines to fall to the ground, sending thousands of volts of power into the soil and supercharging every worm who dwells beneath the earth into a carnivorous frenzy. These little suckers have been given a serious hunger for human flesh and they only come out in force at night. Night is falling and every living soul in Fly Creek is on their menu. Once the worms have had their fill of the people in town they set their sights on the Sanders house.
Let's face facts: we human beings are a cowardly lot when it comes to bugs. Most of the time when we're not cowering in fear of them we lash violently at them with opened palms or the closest sole of a steel-toed boot. If you want to make a monster movie where bugs are the vicious beasts braying for our blood enlarging them to titanic proportions isn't really necessary. Just make sure you have plenty of the slimy critters on hand and that will be more than sufficient to induce fainting and vomiting spells from the average moviegoer. Jeff Lieberman tapped into our collective fear of both insects and the idea that they might one day turn against and deployed it to gleefully chilling effect in his 1976 feature directorial debut. With a cast of relative unknowns and a large enough budget to put an army of worms on the production payroll, Lieberman - who directed his own screenplay - journeyed to a Georgian backwater to bring his Hitchcock-inspired vision of nature run amuck to spectacular fruition. In the 1970's theaters seem to be getting new killer bug horror and sci-fi flicks shipped to their doors in bulk. Highly respected titles designer Saul Bass sat in the director's chair on a feature only once and it was for the thought-provoking thriller Phase IV about sentient ants that threaten mankind. The Swarm assembled one of the largest casts of beloved Hollywood legends ever for a single film, but Irwin Allen's grand-scale killer bee disaster epic has been regarded since its release as one of the worst movies ever made. William Shatner battled deadly tarantulas in John "Bud" Carlos' drive-in classic Kingdom of the Spiders. Damnation Alley had radioactive cockroaches. The Giant Spider Invasion and Empire of the Ants attempted to amp up the terror quotient by having their insect monstrosities grow to menacing heights, but the results were usually derision and laughter from audiences. The list goes on and on.
Since most of the killer bug movies resorted to hysteria and camp theatrics to create the impression of terror, Lieberman's entry in the genre seems minimalist by comparison. He spends the first hour of Squirm's 93-minute length establishing the characters and carefully allowing an atmosphere of mounting dread to consume the proceedings. This movie takes its time to get to the good stuff, but when it happens you realize that it was all worth the wait. Rick Baker provided the special effects in the finale in one of the earliest showcases for the talents that would confirm his status as a legend in the industry, and they are literally skin-crawling. Lieberman never goes overboard with the blood and grue because he needs very little to convince his characters and the audience of the threat posed by the electrified worms. In fact, between the gratuitously hard-assed sheriff and R.A. Dow's simple-minded good ol' boy with as much murderous capability as the crawlers the human beasts of Fly Creek are almost as dangerous as the insect ones. Since we don't spend much time in the actual town the other citizens are given the faintest of screen time to Fly Creek as weirdly hostile to outsiders as the backwoods community of Deliverance with a healthy dash of Twin Peaks for good measure.
Don Scardino plays Mick as a hapless, lovelorn nerd who can be resourceful when the occasion calls for it and doesn't come off as annoying even as the people of Fly Creek regard him with incredulity. Patricia Pearcy is a lovely presence as Geri and thankfully is only relegated to damsel in distress mode in the final moments of the movie. Peter MacLean is crankily amusing as the dickish Sheriff Reston, while Fran Higgins provides some unexpected notes of character-based laughs in the role of Geri's curious sister. Little-known actress Jean Sullivan only managed a meager handful of screen credits, including a supporting role in Michael Curtiz's 1945 drama Roughly Speaking, and ended her career in film with a performance as Geri and Alma's mother that is both quietly amusing and disturbing since it becomes apparent later in the movie that we are essentially watching this woman's mind go to pieces. Character actor William Newman (Stephen King's Silver Bullet) pops up in his film debut in a bit part as a local bartender.
Lieberman knows why we go to movies like Squirm and he squanders his effects and worm budget in the final half-hour with a full-on assault on Fly Creek by the creepy crawlers. Worms come pouring out of closets and ceilings by the thousands, inch their way through shower heads (interrupting a display of side boob from Pearcy), burrow into human faces like blood-starved leeches, devour a person's innards, and completely consume their victims until only skulls and bones are left. Sometimes the worms look like they were dumped out of strategically-positioned buckets on cue and their numbers appear to have been enhanced by more than a few rubber doubles (and did I see some painted Gummi Worms in there?), but the pace of the film is kept moving through the sharp editing by Brian Smedley-Aston (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's cult classic Performance) and photographed with unblemished clarity by Joseph Mangine (The Sword and the Sorcerer). The suitably tense score was composed by Robert Prince (J.D.'s Revenge) and incorporates the unnerving worm sounds with wonderfully nasty success.
In cooperation with current rights holder MGM (which first released it on Region 1 DVD in August 2003), Arrow Video's shiny new transfer for Squirm was sourced from a 35mm Interpositive print and digitally restored in 1080p high-definition. Presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the movie looks better than it has in decades. Previous VHS and DVD editions of the title can now be promptly kicked to the curb. The details have been cleared up and sharpened, the colors are effervescent and flourishing, and the rural locations appear appropriately desolate and haunting. The English 2.0 PCM mono audio track was transferred from a restored 35mm mono mag and features cleaned-up dialogue and music tracks and an wonderfully creepy effects mix with skin-crawling worm sounds. English subtitles have also been provided.
Director Lieberman contributes a dry, anecdotal audio commentary that makes for an interesting primer on low-budget indie horror filmmaking despite the occasional dead air. He has plenty of juicy stories to share about the production, including a few revelations about his original casting choices that could have resulted in a much different movie and likely earned it a reputation as a cinematic curio rather than allowing it to be seen as an effective chiller. He's not particularly fond of Squirm getting the MST3K treatment though. This commentary originally appeared on the 2003 Region 1 DVD from MGM.
Lieberman also appears on camera with leading man Scardino for a Q&A session (24 minutes) filmed at New York's Anthology Film Archives on August 17, 2012 following a rare screening of a 35mm print of Squirm. Both men coincidentally wore the same T-shirt with the film's original promotional poster art on the front. The session is rich with great stories and warm remembrances of the Squirm shoot and its cult following.
British film journalist and horror author Kim Newman offers his thoughts on Lieberman's career as a director and much praise for Squirm in "The Esoteric Auteur" (16 minutes). The original theatrical trailer closes out the extras on the Blu-ray. A standard-definition DVD copy of the film with accompanying supplements is also included.
Arrow has put together an in-depth booklet about Squirm on the inside of the case. The contents feature a great new essay about the movie called "The Worms Have Turned!" written by author and Fangoria writer Lee Gambin and an interview with Lieberman conducted by Calum Waddell. Film stills and poster art are provided for illustration and the booklet ends with a page of information about the Blu-ray transfer including production credits. Finally, the cover for this combo pack is reversible, with the original theatrical poster art on one side and a newly-commissioned image by Gary Pullin on the other.
Entertaining drive-in horror fun and occasionally gruesome and disturbing, Squirm has been resurrected and given new life on home video thanks once again to Arrow Video with a great new audio and video restoration and enlightening supplements. Fans of creepy indie fright flicks from one of the golden ages of modern horror cinema shouldn't miss this one.