Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #518
Number of Views: One
Release Date: July 30, 1976
Sub-Genre: Creature Feature
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 93 minutes
Director: Jeff Lieberman
Producer: George Manas
Screenplay: Jeff Lieberman
Special Effects: Rick Baker
Cinematography: Joseph Mangine
Score: Robert Prince
Editing: Brian Smedley-Aston
Studios: American International Pictures (AIP), Squirm Company
Distributor: American International Pictures
Stars: Don Scardino, Patricia Pearcy, R.A. Dow, Jean Sullivan, Peter MacLean, Fran Higgins, William Newman, Barbara Quinn
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 Harley Poe “The Hearse Song”
 Robert Prince “Shadows”
Worms always seemed a little pointless to me. Of all of God’s little creatures, few are quite as unremarkable as these faceless earth crawlers, as attested by the fact that it is difficult to decipher one end from the other. However pathetic they may appear, they still have the same right to populate our planet as any other and hardly deserve the harsh treatment they often receive. Snot-nosed little brats the world over take great pleasure in dissecting them and stuffing their remains into mud pies for their own sick amusement, while airborne predators swoop down to pluck them from the top soil without so much as a “sorry old chap”. I would imagine it would suck to be a worm.
Mother nature has a funny way of getting her own back and, sooner or later, it is inevitable that these burrowing invertebrates will decide that enough is enough. While on their own, they may pose little to no threat, in large enough quantities and with a fair few thousand volts of electricity channeled directly into their underground hangouts, it’s an altogether different story. With virtually every last insignificant insect imaginable gifted its chance to wreak merry havoc courtesy of the increasing trend for B-grade creature features, it was only a matter of time until they too decided to revolt and, in 1976, the worm finally turned.
The decade proved a veritable breeding ground for nature-strikes-back flicks and this hyper-productive period saw the likes of Frogs, Dogs, Empire of the Ants, Day of the Animals, Food of The Gods, Kingdom of The Spiders, Grizzly and, my own personal favorite, John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy, all looking to cash in on the current trend. Inspired by a childhood experiment whereby he hooked a train transformer up to wet soil to drive hundreds of worms to the surface, Brooklyn-born director Jeff Lieberman’s first full-length feature Squirm arrived at the ideal time to take full advantage and allowed him to cut his teeth before moving on to more significant work.
Never what you would call the most prolific filmmaker on the circuit, Lieberman’s few credits include 1978’s Blue Sunshine and 1981’s Just Before Dawn, the latter of which is now regarded as one of the most distinguished eighties slashers and quite rightly so. Alas, he struggled to build on this early momentum, dropping almost entirely off our radars for the next two decades. Despite a brief resurgence in 2004 with the above average Satan’s Little Helper, it appears as though we may long since have seen the last of him.
Squirm introduces us to the sleepy town of Fly Creek, Georgia, in the aftermath of a freak electrical storm. Violent winds have caused a number of high-voltage power lines to drop to the ground and the resulting surge, coupled with the additional conductor of wet soil, has encouraged hordes of sand worms to make a collective dash to the surface, hell-bent on making life extremely uncomfortable for the locals. With folk still counting the cost of the aftermath, their problems are about to get a whole lot worse as the wayward volts have sent said wrigglers into a man-eating frenzy.
Unfortunately for city boy Mick (Don Scardino), he has chosen the least advisable time to pay his new girlfriend Geri (Patricia Pearcy) a visit. The residents are somewhat set in their ways and don’t take kindly to out-of-towners, as proven by Sheriff Jim Reston (Peter MacLean) who wastes no time in issuing a stern warning to Mick that his kind aren’t welcome in Fly Creek. To make matters worse, dimwitted local worm farmer Roger (R.A. Dow) is less than thrilled by his arrival as he too has designs on Geri and won’t give her up without a fight. Thankfully for Mick, her pot-smoking younger sister Alma (Fran Higgins) takes a shine to him, while her mildly loopy mother Naomi (Jean Sullivan) is just glad to have a man about the house for a change.
Lieberman opts for a slow-burn approach and relies on steady building tension as opposed to frequent incident and this is where Squirm struggles to make its mark. There is precious little suspenseful about a cluster of enraged sand worms and it isn’t until well into the second act that we feel any real sense of creeping dread. Instead we have to make do with good old Southern hospitality and, while Mick and Geri make for affable enough leads, they have their work cut out keeping us invested through numerous spells of inactivity. Interestingly, Kim Basinger was turned down for the role of Geri although, to Pearcy’s credit, she has just the right kind of girl next door appeal to justify Lieberman’s decision.
The final act picks up the pace considerably and it is here that our persistence is finally rewarded. The showdown, if you can call it that, takes place in the Sanders family home and it is jam-packed from floorboards to rafters with enough worms to feed Big Bird for life. Speaking of which, the unruly invertebrates in question emit high-pitched screeches which are all the more eerie given that the director used actual recordings of slaughterhouse hogs preparing to be cut into pork rinds. They certainly make their presence felt come the conclusion, it’s just a shame it took so long to get us to that point.
Like all of Lieberman’s works, Squirm has never enjoyed a particularly high-profile and Arrow Video’s recent Blu-Ray restoration sadly doesn’t look like turning the tide in its favor any time soon. Unfortunately, it’s just a little too slight, too well-mannered, and lacking the necessary oomph to help it stand out from the crowd. By no means is it a bad film and there are worse ways to spend 93 minutes than hanging out with thousands upon thousands of flesh-eating earthworms but there’s also little reason to pay it a second thought once the end credits have rolled. Nevertheless, it is what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than B-grade fodder. And it may be the best movie about murderous worms ever made.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: It’s decidedly slim pickings on the grue front I’m afraid although there are a few moments to savor and, with a fresh-faced Rick Baker applying the latex, what little SFX there is looks more than up to snuff. If nothing else, Squirm taught me never to let an invertebrate anywhere near my face. I’d love to report that Lieberman is more forthcoming on the female flesh front but I’d be blatantly lying if I did. One blink and you’ll miss them glimpse of Geri’s perky pellets is all we get, although we are spared the horror of her less sightly sister taking a shower at around the midway mark so I suppose we should be grateful.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
© Copyright: Rivers of Grue™ Shadow Spark Publishing™