Wednesday, October 04, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Squirm (1976)

Squirm is a fun, fairly typical Revenge of Nature flick, from back in the ‘70s when the genre was in its heyday. Killer Animal flicks generally fall into one of two categories, the Single Killer Animal as exemplified by Jaws, and Multiple Killer Animals, ala The Birds. Insect and arachnid movies unsurprisingly tend to fall into the latter category, and Squirm is no exception.

This is a pretty standard ‘70s independent horror movie, which is not intended as an insult. Like most such, it was actually shot on film, makes good use of a distinctive setting, and is written, directed and acted better than most of the equally low-ball fare made today. There’s a reason Roger Corman’s reputation rests as much on his glory days as a producer as his salad days as a director.

The ’70s was also an era, being just past the worst of the Civil Rights struggle, when the South was viewed as a viper’s nest of not only racism but evil cops, xenophobia and inbred hillbillies. There is a little of that here, although only the asshole town sheriff, a Charles Napier-type, is really exaggerated much.

We open with some title cards indicating (falsely, of course) that this is Based on a True Story. Georgia gal—who perhaps slavers on the Southern accent a bit too much—Geri is eagerly awaiting the arrival of big city quasi-nebbish Mick, her prospective new boyfriend.

Meanwhile, her small, insulated town of Fly Creek is pounded by hurricane-level storms. These topple an electrical tower*, and the downed power lines start dumping thousands of volts of juice into the wet ground. As everyone knows, electricity will drive worms up from the ground (true), while all turning them into screeching carnivores (maybe not so true).

[*The tower falling over is clearly a stock shot from another movie, and in the commentary track, director Jeff Lieberman notes that it was from the original Ocean’s Eleven.)

Mick arrives, and is greeted warmly by Geri, with interest by Geri’s pot-smoking kid sister Alma, with polite trepidation by Geri’s emotionally unstable widow mother Naomi (who as played perhaps strays a little too much into Tennessee Williams territory), and with growing hostility by their neighbor Roger. Roger is the film’s most interesting character, the half-witted but hard working son of an abusive worm farmer.

Presumably in love with Geri since an early age, he obviously sees her as the one bright thing that can make his life better. (He hopes to marry her and help with her antiques selling business, rather than take over his father’s hated worm farm.) His resentment of Mick is certainly understandable, and although Geri obviously pines for better things, it’s also clear that given time Roger would have a real shot at marrying her. The problem, of course, if that this would represent a perhaps dreary compromise for Geri at the same time it would be a best case scenario for him.

Mick’s obvious, er, city-ness also quickly draws the suspicions of the townsfolk, and he has soon run afoul of the aforementioned town sheriff. Even so, Mick’s attention is soon drawn to the human skeleton (stripped of connective tissue but still articulated, needless to say) that pops up and disappears. In the face of the sheriff’s hostility and indifference, he attempts to solve the mystery himself. The cause, needless to say, is a gigantic number of now man-eating worms. They hate the light, but night is quickly approaching…

This is no classic, but it’s solid stuff, and like many films from that period is surprisingly naturalistic. The characterizations are also, per the era, more nuanced than normal. Geri is clearly excited by the relative sophistication Mick represents, but she still likes Roger even as she grows increasingly wary of his obvious interest in her. At the same time, she takes advantage of the poor guy, and even flirts a bit with him at one juncture.

Mick is the smart city slicker, and generally a pretty solid protagonist. However, it’s notable that once he gets caught up in the mystery, he casually abandons an obviously unwilling Geri, leaving her alone with Roger so that the latter will be distracted while Mick searches the worm farm.

As noted, Roger, who can indeed be thuggish and frightening, at the same time never completely loses our sympathy. His life sucks, and his desperate clutching at of Geri remains understandable throughout. Maybe he would have turned violent in any case, but as portrayed he only does so after he goes through quite a lot, including a nasty worm attack.

Hell, even the stereotypical sheriff is mostly a blowhard dick rather than a menace.

The budget obviously allowed for only so much (although they do drop a real tree on a wing of the heroine’s house—the commentary confirms that the addition so destroyed was, as I assumed, fabricated for the movie). We only get period small worm incidents until the big finale, when the massed, flesh-eating mounds of worms roll through town like the Blob. The massed worms are represented by not entirely convincing mountains of rubber ones, although a few brief nasty encounters earlier on are aided immensely by the special effects artistry of a young Rick Baker.

In the end, this is a pretty good movie somewhat hampered by budgetary considerations. It would be interesting to see it remade with a bit more cash (the hinted-at eradication of Fly Creek could certainly be portrayed more epically), although the inevitable heavy use of CGI effects does temper one’s enthusiasm somewhat.

As noted, director Lieberman provides an often entertaining and informative commentary. Lieberman at one point made a bit of a name for himself, with genre fare like this, Blue Sunshine (also 1976) and Just Before Dawn, but he hasn’t done much since the latter’s release in 1981.

If Lieberman sounds a bit shrill about the film’s apparent (I guess) lambasting on Mystery Science Theater 3000, it’s at least understandable. Despite it’s flaws, Squirm is entirely too good of a movie to warrant such a thing. He also spends a lot of time pondering what might have been, since (according to him, anyway), the main three parts were quite nearly played by Kim Basinger (Geri), Martin Sheen (Mick) and Sly Stallone (Roger [!]).

I also liked his story about how a TV station once mistakenly played the movie in black and white, and he actually liked the film’s climax better than way. Per his urging, I turned off the color on my TV for the film’s final fifteen minutes, and you know what? He’s entirely correct.

[Side note: Try watching The Nightmare Before Christmas in B&W sometime. It's neat!]

9 Comments:

At 11:47 AM, Blogger Henry Brennan said...

I've seen this movie a few times. You're right - it's pretty solid fare from that period. Having been exiled to the South, I can attest that we don't really have a major issue with flesh-eating worms (at least not in Mississippi). The sheriffs are OK, too. It's the catfish you have to watch out for.

 
At 11:59 AM, Anonymous the rev. d.d. said...

I remember seeing this years before it was on MST3K, on TBS one night, and enjoying it for what it was. I recall thinking the characters were suprisingly multi-layered and interesting for a horror film of that time, and despite the obvious ridiculousness of giant, fanged worms in the South, I found myself creeped out a few times (one character's fate in particular stuck with me...I think because it looked like they were still moving or twitching under the worms).
Anyway, I remember being surprised they thought it was MST-worthy. Maybe they just needed a film, any film, and decided they could do some good stuff with it.

 
At 12:27 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

I don't think they picked the films, but rather took what was assigned to them. This was certainly true by the Sci Fi Channel days, when other decent flicks like Return of the Creature became MST3K fodder.

I haven't seen that episode, but I can imagine they had plenty of opportunities to work it over. There are lots of dialogue pauses and such (hey, people talk slower in the South), allowing zillions of opportunities for comments by Mike and the 'Bots. The question for anything in this business, though--whether MST3K or Jabootu--is whether we're picking on films unfairly. Grouping pictures like Squirm in with Pod People or Space Mutiny certainly seems a bit unjust.

Looking at a list of their subjects, other films I think they would not have done in a better world include The Black Scorpion (!), Danger Diabolik, I Was a Teenage Werewolf (actually a pretty good movie), Phase IV (really?!), The Crawling Eye and The Undead.

I'm not saying the shows weren't funny, just that those films didn't deserve being so handled.

 
At 7:31 PM, Anonymous fs said...

In fairness, they did Phase IV when they were still on local UHF station KTMA, and pretty much had to take whatever movie the station had laying around.

 
At 7:59 AM, Anonymous the rev. d.d. said...

I suppose that could have been true by the time they were at Sci-Fi. I remember reading in the MST3K Amazing Colossal Episode Guide about a couple of times they chose a movie simply because it was the least worst of the batch they had, but things could have changed by the last few seasons, where they were indeed assigned movies.
I'd agree with your short list there, for the most part. I think The Undead was a good choice, though. Despite the interesting concept and the hotness of Allison Hayes, it's got plenty of overblown acting, goofy dialogue, shaky stone walls, recycled props and sets, and other cheesy goodness. I think it's great fun, but I don't think I could put it in the same company as The Crawling Eye and Teenage Werewolf, or even Diabolik.
Now that I think about it, I don't remember a lot of jokes made at the expense of Squirm itself (although there were quite a few digs at Southerners.) Not at all like Hobgoblins or Space Mutiny. Maybe they knew it was a better film, too.

 
At 9:03 AM, Blogger Marty McKee said...

Yeah, you definitely did not want to have your car break down in the South during the '70s, especially if you were a woman. Chances are that you would have ended up on one of those NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY/CHARLIE'S ANGELS prison work farms. Still, these shows and movies gave Clifton James and David Huddleston a lot of work...

 
At 9:05 AM, Blogger Zack Handlen said...

Well, MST3K also did Diabolik as their last ep, which is fairly well regarded (and not very sci-fi-y to boot). I've only ever seen Squirm Mistied, but it's a decent episode; the protagonist gets riffed on a lot, as does goofiness of the premise. I doubt it's a movie I'd ever have sought out on its own, as the concept of "Killer earth worms" doesn't really sell me.

 
At 11:55 AM, Blogger BeckoningChasm said...

I always thought Lieberman had more talent than he was given credit for. He did another odd movie, "Remote Control" not too long ago. It's worth a rental just for the weird 50's sci-fi film within a film.

 
At 8:29 AM, Anonymous the rev. d.d. said...

Is that the one with the aliens trying to brainwash humans into mindless killing machines with a 50s-looking sci-fi/slasher film? I actually remember seeing that one a couple of times on cable, back in the early 90s! I recall the clip of the movie they kept showing featuring a women in "futuristic" clothes stabbing someone with a big pair of scissors. It was a pretty nifty idea, and not a bad film, but I remember it kind of bogging down after a while. Once the heroes discovered what was going on, it became a series of "track down the tape, fight past crazies, destroy the tape, wash, rinse, repeat" setpieces. And naturally it had a kicker ending. It should definitely be better remembered than it is, though.

 

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