SQUIRM - Dual DVD and Blu-Ray Edition / Review

This month Arrow unleashes Squirm (1976), Jeff Lieberman's fondly regarded contribution to the 1970s exploitation 'revenge-of-nature' cycle of films.  

Apocalyptic destruction was manifested on screen in very diverse forms during that decade. Star-studded epics like The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974) and Earthquake (1974) all seemed to be saying something about the destabilisation of American society and economic power, as projections of a psychological despair brought about by the failed Vietnam War, the oil crisis and the political corruption manifested in Watergate.

Simultaneously, nature's revenge in the form of Willard (1971), Night of the Lepus (1972), Ben (1972), Frogs (1972) and Bug (1975), taking their inspiration from the 'giant monster mutated by radiation' genre of the 1950s, all tapped into anxieties about the environment, reflecting the ascendency of the ecology movement and even the advent of vegetarianism.

They were a popular cultural acknowledgement of mankind's irresponsible treatment of other species and the exploitation of the planet through corporate greed. Squirm occupied the same territory and, of itself, also provided inspiration for the 'ecology strikes back' themed The Food of the Gods (1976), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) and Empire of the Ants (1977) which followed.

'the wages of environmental imperialism'
Some of these traits merged in Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) - an amalgam of 1950s creature feature and chase narrative which offered both a commentary on community and social cohesion and a parable about modern man and nature. Squirm followed in its wake but, as Lieberman has indicated, is more indebted to The Birds (1961) and The Blob (1958), to define it within the 'threat and disaster' genre. Yet it also offers interesting allusions to the Southern Gothic of Deliverance (1972) and its own examination of class, social mobility and North/South difference in pre-Reaganite America.

All these films seemed to chart a 'post-Watergate depression, a national inferiority complex after the Vietnam debacle, or even a 'bread and circuses' attitude caused by 'the erosion of democracy and the Western materialist way of living' [and] give clear indications of how a cultural industry reacts to a period of economic and political crisis in capitalist society.' (1)

At the same time, Western societies were confronted with 'the wages of environmental imperialism' and an environmental crisis created by the damage done to the air, the soil and water supply that 'added guilt, shame and fear to the mixed bag of emotions connected to changing ideas about the relationship between humans, Earth and the universe.' (2)

The Brooklyn-born Lieberman claimed his 'demented ideas' were nurtured in Valley Stream, a suburb of Queens where he grew up. He attended the School of Visual Arts in New York because, as he told Diabolique magazine this year, 'I went to art school for cartooning. I had a natural ability to draw that I didn’t really learn; it was just one of those talents.'

As a child Lieberman loved the classic science fiction and horror films of the late 1950s and 1960s but with his ability to draw at art school he initially struggled to define a career for himself. 'So it took me all the way to school and up until after my first year, I had no interest in film whatsoever - even seeing movies, except for when I was a kid.' (3) He cites Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) as the film which suggested new possibilities to him and he enrolled for a BFA in Film at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Veteran director Ernest Pintoff, Oscar nominated for the animated short The Violinist and winner for 1963's The Critic and director of many episodes of Hawaii Five-O (CBS, 1968-1980), Kojak (CBS, 1973-1978) and The Six Million Dollar Man (ABC, 1974-1978), took Lieberman under his wing, encouraging the young director to write. Lieberman’s first film credit was co-writing the script with Pintoff, who also directed, for the homicide thriller Blade (1973). Success with commercials and documentaries followed and Lieberman also made the anti-drug public information film The Ringer, shown in American high schools. (4)

Lieberman's feature films resonated with a subversive view of the America emerging from the 1960s into the 1970s, something he shared with his peers Wes Craven and George Romero. As he told Rue Morgue's pod cast , 'I was in the drug culture of the 60s and I saw everything first hand. I was at Woodstock. I did acid. Marched against the war in Vietnam. Saw Easy Rider. I was immersed in all that in New York. I was kind of at the right place at the right time, at the vanguard of all that stuff. However, I have an innate cynicism so I don’t ever really buy into anything.' (5) He discovered, like his contemporaries, the horror genre was a perfect vehicle to articulate his view about the decay of American society and culture.
... a troupe of boy scouts underneath a false floor making worms jump up and down
Lieberman was working to support his young family and the script for Squirm was completed in an intense six week period and quickly sold to producers Edgar Lansbury (Angela's younger brother) and Joseph Beruh who were looking to capitalise on their Broadway theatre success by moving into film production. Budgeted at $420,000, Lieberman was offered the job of directing and assembled his cast and crew for a 25 day shoot.

Originally he intended to shoot the film in the North East but eventually used a small town, Port Wentworth, in Georgia, and also used an infamous local 'haunted house' as a location. He roped in many of the locals to provide the film and its setting of Fly Creek with an appropriate authenticity in dialogue and characterful ad-libbing.

His script's use of rampaging worms agitated into action by fallen power lines, reflected in the monologue given to Roger Grimes, was also inspired by childhood experiences he related to Devin Farraci: 'My brother was a little older than me, and we both read the science magazines... and one of the issues of Popular Science had an article how to get worms out of the ground using electricity.

You take your train transformer - which we had, Lionel electric trains - and you took the poles and copper wire and stick them in the wet ground at night and you zap it and the worms would come up... When we turned the pool lights on we could see the worms but they reacted to the lights and went back underground' (6) 

This methodology would also come in handy during the film's climactic attack from thousands of worms where they were electrocuted into action with copper wires on a rheostat set into the floor of the sets. He also had a troupe of boy scouts underneath a false floor of the set making worms seemingly writhe and jump up and down.

For some of the more gruesome effects, special effects legend Rick Baker created a series of prosthetics for the actors to show worms biting and burrowing into flesh. Preparing the effects for the notorious 'worm-face' sequence from a face cast of the actor necessitated the early casting of R.A Dow in the role of Roger Grimes, the son of Fly Creek's worm farmer Willie Grimes. Dow was a method actor who was so determined to deliver a credible performance he moved to Port Wentworth and lived there for several weeks before the shoot began.

Other initial casting included Martin Sheen for the part of Mick, a role eventually taken by Don Scardino whom producers Lansbury and Beruh recommended to Lieberman after he had appeared in their production of Godspell. Similarly a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone eagerly petitioned Lieberman for the role of Roger and the director briefly considered Kim Basinger for Geri Sanders before casting Patricia Pearcy as a more authentically Southern actor.

The 'nature versus man' trope and the theme of man's impact on the environment are prominent in Squirm. The opening roll text and titles establish and pre-empt the disaster about to hit backwoods town Fly Creek. Power lines are downed in a storm and thousands of volts of electricity surge into the wet ground in a large-scale replay of Jeff Lieberman's childhood memory.

Lieberman then intercuts this with scenes of Fly Creek itself, battered by the storm, and briefly we see a sign declaring 'Live Worms', underlining the impact of man's technology on the creatures beneath our feet. Squirm's animated worms also provide a comment on the post-war industrialisation of what was known as the Sun Belt and the developing tensions between urban and rural traditions.

The worms are kept to brief but memorable glimpses as Mick (Don Scardino), an antiques dealer, arrives on a bus which can only travel so far in the flooded vicinity of the town. Having to walk the rest of the journey, he finds himself assaulted by heat, mosquitoes and swamps. The savant New Yorker suddenly discovers that life in Georgia is already fairly hostile towards him even before worms start issuing from the ground.

There are also sections of dialogue in the film which mention the impact that tourists are having on the ecology of the river and the forests. Mick is essentially another tourist and, rather similar to the Melanie Daniels character in The Birds, is an 'outsider' viewed with suspicion by the eccentric locals, a harbinger of the worm attacks which engulf the town.  

Squirm is also definitely in the anti-pastoral tradition of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and positions the Georgia backwoods as other worldly, dominated by traditions and beliefs alien to the character of Mick. The cutting off of the electricity also serves to contextualise the urban and rural differences the film showcases.

Mick is brought to Fly Creek as it recovers post-storm and he quickly becomes the knowledgeable figure who sets out to investigate and rationalise the mysterious attacks. The climax of the film sees Mick not only triumph over the hostile worms and rescue his girlfriend Geri (Patricia Pearcy) but also defuse the anxieties and repressions the worms symbolise. The worms are not only a symbol of perverted nature, animated by man-made disaster, but they are literally the emotions, often of a sexual nature, boiling and churning beneath the surface of Fly Creek. Many of its inhabitants repress and refuse to release their pent-up anxieties about society and community and it takes the worm attacks to release these and normalise the situation.

For example, we have Geri's mother Naomi struggling to come to terms with bringing up two daughters without a husband, slowly fracturing under the burden of loss, loneliness and ageing. Lieberman notes on the commentary that Jean Sullivan, who played Naomi, puts in a rather exaggerated performance but she does perfectly emphasise the Southern Gothic flavour of Squirm. She may well have thought what was required was a riff on Tennessee Williams but it does help her create a damaged soul, a rather distant woman, unable to get a grasp on the faster pace of modern life that Mick represents, feeling trapped by the ensuing primordial terrors.
... queasy closeups of pasta being sucked into mouths
There is also the love triangle of the film too - Mick must fight Roger, the unfortunate and doomed worm farmer, for the attentions of Geri - which heats up the repressed sexuality in the film. The worms, in all their seething, phallic glory, underline this crisis and Roger's desires are certainly exacerbated by his union with them. Roger cuts a rather sympathetic character to begin with because he's undermined by his father and then feels he must compete with Mick for Geri's affections. Lieberman switches our empathy for him half way through the film.

This changes during the scene where Geri, Mick and Roger go on a fishing trip. Not only is this one of the earliest glimpses we get of the predatory worms, when one bites Mick in the arm as he tries to hook it for bait, but we also get the film's horrific pièce de résistance as Roger, attempting to kiss Geri, falls head first into the bait. He is then revealed with a face full of burrowing worms, courtesy of some early effects work from Rick Baker, and then spends the final act of the film, disfigured and perhaps under the influence of the worms, kidnapping Geri and attacking Mick.

The spectre of class also informs this triangle too and it impacts on the relationship between Mick and Geri's sister Alma (Fran Higgins), the toothsome Sheriff Boston (played by Peter MacLean, he's a stereotype Lieberman acknowledges and then allows us and Mick to wittily undermine) and the locals, such as bar tender Quigley, and those at the lunch counter. Mick wishes to experience Fly Creek because he and Geri met at an antiques trade show and developed a relationship but he's also there to acquire precious antiques, many of which are located in the 'haunted house' of Mr Beardsley.

He's a capitalist Yankee ransacking the remains of the South and the film, while amusing, tends to both celebrate and demonise the inhabitants of Fly Creek, placing conservative and right-wing figures such as Sheriff Boston in direct conflict with Mick and in contrast to the liberal, pot-smoking Alma, who latches on to Mick's desire to solve the mystery. There is also the contrast between Roger's white, working-class masculinity and Mick's somewhat nerdy, preppy New York appearance, a middle-class boy who has to 'man up' in order to engage with Fly Creek's environment, the Sheriff and, of course, the worms.

The clash between masculinities, the development of the three key female figures of Geri, Alma and Naomi (liberated, ostracised and melodramatic figures respectively) and the urban New Yorker Mick's encounter with small town repressions and out-of control nature are elements that Lieberman focuses on until the final act.

Until then, he delights in building the suspense and offering glimpses of the worms, often wittily at Mick's expense. The worm in his 'egg creme' drink served to him at the lunch counter, full of Fly Creek's 'good ole boys' reminiscing about previous storms, is highly symbolic of this clash of cultures and typical of Lieberman's humour here.

An homage to Hitchcock is offered in a very different kind of shower scene and Lieberman's wicked sense of humour is also put to use in a terrific scene in a restaurant where the panicked Geri and Mick attempt to raise the matter of worm attacks with the Sheriff as he and his lady friend chew on bowls of spaghetti. Lieberman can't resist some queasy closeups of pasta being sucked into mouths.

Lieberman ensures that the already uncomfortable feeling the audience has about thousands of slimy, slithering worms, abject horror as the epitome of chaos, uncertainly and disorder, is augmented by close ups of Glycera worms, opening and closing their fanged mouths over which Lieberman's sound editor Dan Sable dubbed the sound of slaughtered pigs, an effect he had recorded for de Palma's Carrie (1976). These insert shots are still very disturbing.

He also uses plenty of 'worm-eye view' shots, getting his tracking camera very close to the ground to suggest the approach of the creatures and the final act, where thousands of worms pour out of doorways and flood rooms, is still eerily effective. Robert Prince's minimal electronic soundtrack also splendidly escalates the suspense and horror.

Squirm is a knowing, loving homage to the creature features of the 1950s and, considering the limitations of the shoot and budget, Lieberman manages to achieve this while developing interesting sub-texts and specific socio-cultural signatures which would be further highlighted in his later films. As the fate of Sheriff Boston demonstrates, he also employs a perverse and subversive humour within the horror. A enjoyable B movie delight.

(1) Nick Roddick, 'Only the Stars Survive: Disaster Movies in the Seventies' in Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film and Television, 1800-1976
(2) Bridget Brown, They Know Us Better Than We Know Ourselves
(3) Lacy Paige, Interview: Jeff Lieberman talks 'Just Before Dawn', Diabolique, July 2013
(4) Jon Towlson, Lost Souls profile of Jeff Lieberman in Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies
(5) Jeff Lieberman Rue Morgue podcast, June 2011
(6) Devin Farraci, 'Why The Director Of Squirm Was Furious About The MST3K Version Of His Movie', Badass Digest, August 2013.

About the transfer
A blemish free, clean 1080p transfer in 1.85:1 that offers good detail and colour, particularly in the forests and wooded areas of the location shoot. Appropriate grain is retained throughout and the transfer seems to cope well with the gloom of the film's climax where lighting is very subdued and supplemented by candlelight. A solid visual presentation overall. The uncompressed mono audio is crisp and clear and dialogue, score and sound effects are well represented. The heavy Southern accents in Geri and Naomi's dialogue might take a little time to understand and you'll need the subtitles to understand half of what the power company man tells Mick and Geri at the end of the film.

Special features
Audio commentary with director Jeff Lieberman
A good chat track with Lieberman providing plenty of details about the production, particularly his working methods with actors and the Savannah locals, the original casting, Rick Baker's effects and using thousands of live worms. He happily points out the film's flaws and inconsistencies. The hero's everlasting burning shirt is a particular source of his incredulity.
Q&A session with Jeff Lieberman and star Don Scardino (24:03)
As part of a retrospective screening of Squirm at New York’s Anthology Film Archive in August 2012, this session with the director and lead actor Scardino reflects on the 'team effort' that brought the film to the screen. A convivial chat with plenty of anecdotes about wrangling 250,000 worms, set building, creating fake worms, Rick Baker's make-up effects and working with the locals in Georgia. Listen out for the great anecdote about Martin Sheen's casting as Mick.
Jeff Lieberman The Esoteric Auteur (16:09)
Kim Newman offers an astute critical retrospective of Lieberman's work, taking in Squirm, Blue Sunshine and Just Before Dawn, as seen in contrast to his peers like John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper. He summarises, quite rightly, Squirm as 'a perfect Saturday night out in the 1970s film' and places it in the tradition of The Birds and what followed in that genre with the likes of Jaws, Prophecy, Kingdom of the Spiders et al.
Original Trailer (1:55)
Unrestored US trailer. 'Things weren't normal' booms the voice over. 
Reversible sleeve
Featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin.
Collector’s booklet 
Featuring new writing on the film by Lee Gambin, author of Massacred by Mother Nature and an interview with Jeff Lieberman by Calum Waddell, illustrated with original archive stills and posters.

American International Pictures / Squirm Company
Cert: 15
Arrow Films / Catalogue Number: FCD783 / Released 23 September 2013 / Region B Blu-ray / Region 2 DVD / Feature aspect ratio: 1.85:1 / Uncut high definition digital transfer of the film in 1080p on Blu-ray and standard definition DVD, approved by writer-director Jeff Lieberman / Colour / Original Uncompressed Mono PCM Audio / Optional English SDH subtitles / Feature Running Time:

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