Monday, September 10, 2018
Director Report Card: Jeff Lieberman (1976)
Jeff Lieberman, who directed four oddball horror mash-ups in the seventies and eighties, has a small following but is even fairly unknown within the horror fandom. I'm happy to say I'm a Lieberman fan so let's getting talking about his strange little movies.
Where did Jeff Lieberman come from? He was born in Brooklyn and pursued a film career at New York's School of Visual Art. After creating the short film “The Ringer,” a hilarious and pointed satire of marketing, he would break into the film industry by writing cop-chases-killer thriller “Blade.” He would make his feature debut with “Squirm.” The creature feature was supposedly inspired by a childhood incident where Jeff and his brother got earthworms to surface with electricity. Supposedly, when he told his wife about the premise, she declared it the worst idea for a movie she had ever heard. Whether or not she was right about the value of the film's premise is a matter of opinion. However, the public disagreed. American International Pictures would release “Squirm” on the drive-in circuit, where it would make a strong profit for the studio.
A powerful storm blows through the small southern town of Fly Creek, Georgia. The wind blows the power lines over, robbing the little town of all electricity. It has another effect that isn't perceived until the next night. The electricity irritates the local population of bloodworms, who are possibly already mutated by pollution. The worms become man eaters and begin to kill townsfolk. The first people to discover this are local girl Geraldine Sanders and Mick, her nerdy friend (and potential lover) from out of town. Naturally, they are ignored until it is too late. As night falls, squirming masses of murderous worms consume Fly Creek.
“Squirm” was inspired by “The Birds.” Like Hitchcock, Lieberman attempted to mine horror out of a commonplace animal. But there's a difference between a screeching, pecking bird and a simple worm. Worms – even bloodworms, which are capable of delivering painful bites – are not especially frightening. They are slow, literally brainless, and easily squished. “Squirm” has to jump through some very silly hoops to make its creatures a creditable threat. So the film features multiple close-ups of the biting worms, with a screaming sound effect added. The victims frequently somehow do not notice a huge advancing wall of worms until its right on top of them. As in many cheesy horror movies before it, nobody believes the kids. All this – combined with the presence of a goofy, bone white, costume shop skeleton – frequently makes “Squirm” seem like a horror film for children.
The bloodworms especially, with their fangs and bright red color, do resemble ambulatory intestines. When a ton of them are piled into one room together, it is a somewhat unnerving sight. The worms' ability to sneak into unwelcome places do make for an unpleasant thought. No, I would not want a worm in my egg cream. I would want them to ooze out of my shower head even less. Though the worms in “Squirm” frequently look fake, the filmmakers apparently used primarily real worms during production. Which certainly backs up the statement that a house full of worms is an unsettling sight.
While worms have a decent, if somewhat limited, power to horrify, “Squirm” is most effective when taking its threat in odd, creative directions. The film's most bizarre subplot revolves around Roger Grimes. The Faulknerian simpleton, and frequently abused son of the town's worm farmer, has an unrequited crush on Geri. While attempting to force himself on her, he lands face-first in a pile of killer worms. In an effectively grotesque sequence, the worms burrow under his skin and seemingly into his brain. He's now a worm-faced ghoul that blabbers incoherently, attacks without direction, and seemingly hears the worms talking to him. This is a truly strange and memorable horror villain. The gore effects in “Squirm,” provided by a young Rick Baker, are often effective. Such as when Geri's mom is reduced to a writhing, worm-covered corpse.
Roger is but one of several grotesque Southern fried weirdo that appear in the film. “Squirm” wins no points for portraying the American South in a flattering light. Many of the residents of Fly Creek ramble in incoherent Southern accents. Roger's dad, Roger himself, a bus driver, a electric line repair man: Their brogues are so hickish, they can barely be understood. The local population are weirdly obsessed with antiques. This extends to the town bartender, who tries to randomly sell Mick an old-time-y diving helmet. The local sheriff is a belligerent asshole and seems to enjoy abusing his power. Everything is sweaty and swampy. Fly Creek seems less like a real Georgian town and more like a surreal dreamland, made up of every negative stereotype people believe about the Deep South.
But let's talk about Mick a little. He's introduced wandering off a bus, carrying a ridiculously huge fishing kit. He enters a small town diner and asks for an egg cream, a beverage the waitress does not recognize. He's overly invested in antiques. Later, he's knocked unconscious with a small piece of plywood. Everyone in the town, with the exception of Geri and her sister, seem to hate him instinctively. This is ostensibly a city slicker, whose refined ways are strange to the backwoods residents of Fly Creek, an outsider disliked just for being outsider. I prefer to think it's because Mick's a total wienie, a dweebish busybody and know-it-all. Don Scardino does nothing to counteract this assumption, playing the character as an awkward nerd. I imagine Geri sees him less as an ideal boyfriend and more as a ticket out of her dead end home town.
Then again, maybe it's not that Jeff Lieberman is portraying the South badly. Maybe he just has a weird conception of characters in general. The Sanders family is pretty weird too. Patricia Pearcy's Geri is a decent enough heroine, who knows how to fish and drive a truck. However, Pearcy pitches the small-town-girl act up a little too high, creating a rather broad character. Fran Higgins plays Alma, Geri's sister. I think she's supposed to be younger, as implied by her love of pot and platform shoes, but Higgins looks considerably older than Pearcy. Her performance is strange and stilted too. As mom Naomi, Jean Sullivan adopts an over-the-top Southern accent, spends most of the movie knitting, and reacting to any event with melodramatic horror. They're all a bunch of weirdos.
Jeff Lieberman's direction is fairly inventive, considering the obvious low budget he had to work with. He adopts a worm's-eye-view several times, the camera roaming around near the ground in an atmospheric manner. The flame-lit last act is fittingly creepy. Lieberman even engineers a solid jump scare, when Roger's mutilated face leaps out of the attic. There's also a sequence where a tree falls on the Sanders' family house. This looks like a model but it was apparently one-hundred-percent real. They really dropped a tree on the house and how no idea if the shot would be usable or not. “Squirm” works up to the point that it does probably because Lieberman seems to know his limitations.
Adding to the film's mild creep factor is its soundtrack. During the opening scene, as the storm barrels through Fly Creek, a sinister children's song is heard on the soundtrack. That does a decent job of establishing the film's tone. Robert Prince's soundtrack uses the schoolyard style melody a few times throughout his score. When not focusing on ambient spookiness, Prince ramps up the tension with shrieking synth. The opening creepy kid chanting is certainly better than the misty love ballad that closes the film. Because isn't a killer worm movie that perfect place to debut a song called “A Million Ways to Love You?”
Weird Paul Petroskey wrote an entire album based on the movie in 1994. The film was featured in the last season of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” where it provided decent riffing material for Mike and the Bots. Taken on its own, there's definitely something lovably goofy about “Squirm,” a movie that can't exactly make killer worms scary but at least doesn't make you regret watching a movie about killer worms. [Grade: B-]