“You gonna be da worm face!”
From the heights of The Birds (sorry) last week, we’re taking a direct line to another animal attack film, at a steep, downward angle.
Squirm is a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s not really a good movie – it looks cheap, the acting is… earnest, I guess is the best you can say for it. The monster is, well, it’s worms. Not really high on the ‘scare the crap out of you’ meter – somewhere above slugs and bunny rabbits, though, and I’ve watched (if not enjoyed) films with those as the monsters. The hero is the most nebishy nebish who ever ordered an egg cream, the ‘hothouse flower’ love interest is more ‘backyard flower garden’ and the sheriff is slimier than the worms.
No, I can’t really recommend Squirm, and yet I always look forward to watching it again. I think I like the way the cast plays things straight, despite the subject matter and general cheap feel. In some films that dogged seriousness can be a detriment, weighing things down and leaving you unable to even enjoy making fun of it (sorry, Night of the Lepus). In other films it seems to add to the fun and makes you feel like “it’s not the best, but I think it was the best they could do.” They’re taking the work seriously, but not themselves. Not to say there isn’t humor – there’s plenty, of a particularly dark variety. Mick’s quip about not knowing if a skeleton is the same one as earlier because “they all look alike to me” is pretty representative, as is a scene with two characters eating a spaghetti dinner while talking about worms. (I kept hoping a worm would show up in a forkful of pasta, but alas…)
As a 1970’s animal attack film, Squirm checks a good number of those theme boxes I talked about in last weeks The Birds review. It features “normal” animals, attacking human beings in numbers, for a “reason” (in this case, it’s downed electrical lines), and even has the obligatory obstructionist authorities in the form of a sleazy sheriff. While the ecological angle is a little buried (sorry), it’s still an aspect, as human activity is what allows for the worms to engage in their frenzied attacks. The film also ends with the usual ambivalence – while the electrical wires are fixed, removing the cause of the current attack, there’s no change in human behavior, meaning it could easily happen again.
Squirm 2, anyone?
Squirm is currently available on Tubi and Popcornflix (with ads). It doesn’t appear to be on any of the other services at the moment, not even for rent or purchase. The quality was decent, though not high-def.
A Blu-ray of Squirm was released in 2014 by Shout Factory, but it’s out of print and good luck getting it at a decent price. For those of you in Region B, the Arrow release… is also out of print. You can find DVD releases pretty easily, but my memory is that they’re all uniformly terrible.
Somewhere along the coast of Georgia an intense storm causes power outages all over the town of Fly Creek. The high voltage power lines lying on the ground cause the local worm population to begin crawling out of the ground. Meanwhile, a love triangle develops between local girl Geri (Patricia Pearcy), her neighbor (and apprentice worm farmer) Roger (R. A. Dow), and city-boy Mick (Don Scardino). Soon Mick and Geri are finding skeletons in backyards, worms in egg creams and possible sexual tension (though it may just be the heat). The electricity is making the worms crazy, you see, and these worms have teeth! Well, a few of them, anyway.
The worms are way more disturbing than the invertebrates in Slugs – and the way bloodworms eject their mouths in order to bite is reminiscent of the creatures in the underrated Deep Rising. Unfortunately, these are normal sized worms and, while disgusting, it’s hard to take them seriously as a menace. At least in limited numbers. Writer/Director Jeff Leiberman (Blue Sunshine, Just Before Dawn) does the best he can with his minuscule budget, but sometimes that means a troop of Boy Scouts under a tarp shoving a pile of rubber worms up and down. The best effect is that of worms attacking Roger’s face, burrowing under his skin, and that was created by Rick Baker (somehow managing this film in the same year that he was playing the title ape in the remake of King Kong).
Geri and Mick try and figure out what’s going on – Mick even enlists Geri’s younger sister Alma (Fran Higgins) in a little B&E at the local dentist to try and identify a skull – but darned if the worms (and their victims) seem to keep disappearing just as the local sheriff shows up. The sleazy law man (always on the make) takes an instant dislike to Mick and would do more than threaten – if he had any ambition, energy, charisma or modicum of talent.
At some point Geri, Roger and Mick all go fishing for some reason – I really can’t remember why Mick set it up – and Mick is bitten by a worm. When he leaves to get patched up (and commit that felony I mentioned earlier) Roger takes advantage of the alone time with Geri to get all rape-y. However, Geri manages to shove him off and he gets a face full of worms before running off. (He later manages to knock out Mick along the way – using a gently tossed sheet of plywood, which would be a significant portion of the budget these days.)
All this is leading to nightfall, when the enraged worms finally start an all-out attack. The downed electrical wires do double duty, causing the worms to become frenetic and also keeping the town in darkness. (The worms avoid the light, which is the convenient reason they disappear from all the previous attack scenes.) The town itself – with a bar scene and the sheriff and a paramour in one of the cells – doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but there’s some screaming in candlelight and closeups of real worms and the occasional sequence of large, rubber worms falling into the shot.
Yes – the masses of roiling, pink tubes look like what they probably are – rubber worms – but in vast numbers it has an unsettling, Blob-like quality. The last 15-20 minutes are the best of the film as Roger attacks along with the worms and the sheriff gets his comeuppance. One memorable sequence includes worms coming out of a shower head – leading to a “too-full closet” moment as a veritable wall of squirming pink comes falling out of an open door. That sequence seems to be a pretty direct reference to one of Leiberman’s inspirations – The Birds – as Alma ascends the stairs because of odd noises before opening the door to the onslaught of the worms. It echoes the scene with Melanie and the birds in the upstairs bedroom, though sadly Squirm doesn’t follow through with a graphic attack sequence.
Despite some intensive infrastructure being destroyed – including a giant steel tower – one guy manages to get the electricity on the next day, presumably saving the rest of the town and – dare I say it – the rest of the country.
Squirm tries to have its cake and eat it to, in that it’s both silly and graphic in equal measure. The faux-Southern accents and almost excruciatingly slow Tennesee Williams-esque dialogue is juxtaposed against some pretty graphic (if low budget) violence, like Roger’s worm-face or the scene in which his father’s corpse is revealed to be riddled with carnivorous worms. I think this ham-handed mashup of small-town romance, black comedy and low budget horror leads to some people bouncing off of the film pretty hard. It just happens to be the kind of thing that tickles me, though.
The Bottom Line
Yes it’s cheap. Yes it’s cheezy. Yes it spends way too much time trying to make Don Scardino into a heroic figure. (Martin Sheen was originally cast as Mick – and I can’t stop thinking what that might have looked like!) Still, Squirm has got a low-budget charm that reminds me of similar films, like Frogs or Day of the Animals. And Roger’s ‘worm-face’ makeup is actually pretty good. So if you watch it and don’t like it – well, I told you it was bad. If you watch it and you DO like it – I promise I won’t tell anybody.
As an aside, the number of worms used in the production of Squirm was so great that they actually caused a problem for fishermen in Maine that year!