Thursday, January 10, 2013

Squirm (1976) dir. Jeff Lieberman

Logline: Zap! A burst of elelectricity hits the ground and soon the small town of Fly Creek, Georgia is being overrun by slop buckets full of carnivorous worms who are simply itching to sink their fangs into some soft hillbilly flesh. 

Animal of Choice: Roaring Glycera worms of all shapes and sizes, most with gaping jaws in closeup.

Thinking Ecologically: Squirm is confused about whether or not its wormy terror has been spurred along by natural or man-made activity. Was it the raging thunderstorm that brought them to the surface and sent them on their nibbly way? Was it the downed power line we see, dangling and sparking above a patch of dirt? Was it "Roger's old man fooling around with electricity" again? Assuredly, electricity is the culprit, but we're never informed exactly how or why. Are the jolts mutating the worms? Forcing them to invade human territory en masse? Simply making them angry? Shrug. Apparently, baiting worms by rigging up low-level electricity to shoot into the ground is an actual thing that people do. That being the cruel and unusual case, I'm on Team Worm. Squirm 'em all.

Thinking About Animals: Despite the film's best efforts, the worms of Squirm are about as threatening as a living room full of pasta. In fact, on several occasions that is precisely what this animal terror resembles. The problem, one supposes, is that a single earthworm really isn't all that intimidating on its own, even if it can bite. A very large earthworm would maybe suffice, but the film's insistence on using all real worms (a touch of authenticity that is much appreciated) restricts them on this front. So, instead, director Jeff Lieberman and his crew throw tidal waves of worms at the actors, allowing them to spill out in mounds as doors open and push through grates and windows in hordes. These moments, which are probably too few and far between, are quite good on the level of practical filmmaking, but they still fail to imbue any sort of characteristic-- worm, human, or otherwise-- onto these creepy crawlies. Of course, it's not very responsible to totally anthropomorphize every animal when turning it into the villain (after all, how the heck could we presume to know what a worm is thinking or to be able to distinguish its personality?), yet the film's inability to have them do much other than (ahem) squirm leaves them to produce little effect other than the visual. This makes them non-entities in a film that features them as the main attraction. I'll not lie, it's a bit disappointing. A final showdown with the worms would be tough to pull off visually and dramatically (not to mention the ethical dangers of destroying thousands upon thousands of real worms in the process), so the film settles for having Roger (R.A. Dow), the local dimwitted oaf, possessed by worms (yup) and then chasing down our protagonists, issuing the ominous threat, "You're gonna be the worm face!"

Evaluation in Brief: Pretty soon after making Squirm, Jeff Lieberman would direct the cult favorites Blue Sunshine (1978) and Just Before Dawn (1981). Both of those are relatively accomplished films and have earned their reputations. Squirm is a little sketchier. It's far from the standard ecologically minded Nature Strikes Back horror flicks of the post-Jaws era, making it impossible to engage with on any sort of intellectual level. A preposterous story, inane acting, and stilted pacing add some cheap, campy late-night TV exploitation appeal, but also make it a hard sell for casual audiences. Again, I was particularly impressed with the on-set worm wrangling and other physical aspects of the production, but is that enough to recommend? For some. At the very least, it made a great episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

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