Nature and the horror film have been fast friends over the years, finding many different ways to punish man for his violation of the planet and the creatures that live upon it. While we have been subjected to killer forces of nature like tornadoes, hurricanes and volcanoes as well as killer animals like sharks, dogs and rats, maybe the most silent and deadly of the killers is the worm!
From the mind of Writer and Director Jeff Lieberman (BLUE SUNSHINE (1977), JUST BEFORE DAWN (1981), SATAN’S LITTLE HELPER (2004)), SQUIRM (1976) is a unique approach to the nature-run-amok film that manages to make your skin crawl and yet makes you cheer for the blood-thirsty burrowing invertebrates as they dominate the town of Fly Creek, GA.
“In Fly Creek, a storm knocks down the power lines, transforming worms into mutant creatures. Mick travels from New York to meet his girlfriend Geri Sanders and stays at her home with her mother Naomi Sanders and her sister Alma Sanders. On the arrival, Mick has a friction with Sheriff Jim Reston and with Geri’s neighbor Roger Grimes that woos her. Soon they find that Fly Creek is infested with carnivorous worms that are devouring the inhabitants, but Sheriff Reston believes it is a prank of Mick.”
Going fishing and crawling through the mud will never be the same to you again…
One of the key factors that makes Lieberman’s film stand out from most of the nature vs. man horror flicks is that it is not a nuclear or chemical accident, nor is it due to the fact that man was experimenting with genetics or things he was not meant to know. A simple electrical storm knocks down the power lines and sends millions of volts into the ground, causing a frenzy with an animal that no-one would ever think would rise to eradicate us: the worm.
Most of these films use a larger threat to us like a man eating bear or a gentically engineered shark – something that would be easy to project emotion from – but Lieberman finds a way to give the worms a personality that is unique to them and makes them more like a swarm of zombies where the threat is in the sheer numbers involved. Combine this with a solid script that gives you just enough character development and you have a story that is unique, not only in its threat, but it also manages to give you a look back at simple southern life with characters that make sense and do not seem out of place. There is a warmth to the town that is overtaken later, but it looks like the kind of place where you would go to get away from it all…
Before things seem to get too fuzzy and warm, remember the fact that we are witnessing an ecological attack never before seen. While we initially see corpses that have been devoured to the bone (including the infamous ‘bury the actor in dirt’ trick), we are left in the dark as to what could be causing all of the chaos. We get teased with a worm bite here and there, but it is not until Roger falls out of the boat that we see just how horrific and savage the worms are. In an incredible FX scene by a young Rick Baker(!), the blood-thirsty creatures burrow into his face with fervor, driving him mad as he runs off screaming. The sheriff and his girlfriend also meet a gruesome fate as the worms devour them after a round of sex and let us not forget the poor bar patrons that are swallowed alive by waves of the creatures. One of the amazing facts about the film is that they ordered over 250,000 Glycera worms at a time for the scenes where they were needed, wiping out the supply in New England that year! The sheer numbers alone are mind boggling, but the determination of the cast and crew was stunning and the worm wranglers certainly earned their money on set…
As I mentioned, the writer of Lieberman really helps to set this one apart from most, and in order to do that, he had to find the right cast. With Don Scardino (HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE (1980), “30 Rock” (2010-2012), “2 Broke Girls” (2012-2016)), Patricia Pearcy (THE GOODBYE GIRL (1977), DELUSION (1981), TATTOON MASTER (1996)), R.A. Dow (his only film), Peter MacLean (MIDNIGHT OFFERINGS (1981), BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (1979), BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY (1980)), Barbara Quinn (BLUE SUNSHINE (1977), HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE (1980), JAWS 3-D (1983), JITTERS (1989)), William Newman (SILVER BULLET (1985), THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988), MONKEY SHINES (1988), LEPRECHAUN (1993)) and a host of locals that blend in perfectly, he manages to do that quite well. In addition, with Rick Baker (IT’S ALIVE (1974), AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), VIDEODROME (1983)) serving as the Make-Up Designer for the film, the FX work comes off as realistic and pretty damned eerie…
The film is certainly considered a cult classic, but there was a fair amount of controversy when it aired on an episode of MSTK 3000. In a fantastic interview conducted by Brandon C. Sites*, Lieberman addressed the quality of the film and its legacy: “SQUIRM got praise from very mainstream sources when it first came out in theaters. In fact, the NBC affiliate in Chicago put it on their ten best list of ‘76 along with ROCKY etc., a very good year for movies. It also made it into decade retro books like ‘American Cinema of the ’70s’ that chose only ten films to look at. It actually played in one movie theater in the center of London for a full year! The point is, this was all way before the internet and only professional critics, like Maltin, and writers gave their opinions about movies to the public. But MST3K totally changed the perception of SQUIRM to a new generation of viewers. I got very angry when I heard that the movie was sold to them, and explained why in my DVD commentary. But such a huge portion of that same generation ignored me and instead stuck to what they wanted to think, that I was pissed because it ‘made fun of’ or ‘goofed on’ my movie and that I had no sense of humor. That’s because they don’t have the slightest idea of how the business works so they make up their own fantasy and call it reality.”
In the same interview, he continues: “SQUIRM sold in every TV market in syndication and continued to do so up until that sale. That means it played well on its own with just commerical breaks. If stations weren’t buying it anymore, as was the case with all the other crap that MST3K licensed, then the sale to MST3K would have made sense and I wouldn’t have given it a moment of thought – but probably wouldn’t have watched it only ’cause I thought the show itself sucked– just another attempt to copy what the great Zacherly did and then Elvira did (but with tits). So it was all about money- I own 12 percent of the movie- and I KNEW that once it’s on that show, thousands will form their opinion of it just based on that, it can’t be any good it it’s on that show and needs to be laughed at. That’s when all the negativity occurred, like pod puppets, people repeated what MST3K told them to think and hence all the ‘worst movie’ stuff and it has impacted sales. But it all came from just people posting, or chatting with each other or on the thousands of horror related websites that sprout up every day, but when the pros reviewed it IN ITS TIME, it got amazing reviews- LA TIMES, NY DAILY NEWS… on and on. So maybe there’s hope for the NEXT generation who will never have seen MST3K and can watch Squirm on its own merits of a low budget film of 1976 and that’s all. BTW, it still does sell and play in its entirety around the country and I actually just saw it on MGM channel in real high def!” I love the passion and love he shows this film after all of these years. A true class act and a great cult classic!
FUN FACT #1: The inspiration for the film came from a childhood experiment between director Jeff Lieberman and his brother. One evening, the two hooked up a train transformer to wet soil and used the electricity to drive hundreds of worms out of the ground. Young Lieberman noticed that the worms tried to get away from the glare of the flashlight that the boys were using to see by because worms are light-sensitive. It became the scientific basis behind this film and the story of the experiment is re-told by the character of Roger Grimes. (IMDB and SCREAM FACTORY Behind the Scenes)
FUN FACT # 2: Once in the 1980s, WPIX-TV in New York accidentally showed the film in black-and-white. Instead of complaining, Jeff Lieberman called the station and mentioned how much he loved the way the film looked. In fact, Lieberman prefers people to watch the film in black-and-white even though a black-and-white version is not available. Instead, you should turn the color down all the way on your television set. (IMDB and SCREAM FACTORY Behind the Scenes)
“Because I am the Dedman, and you are not!”
Michael “Dedman” Jones