Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Squirm (1976): When things that can't kill you, can.


...and then suddenly, there were worms, everywhere! Wait, where was I, what was I saying? Sorry, sometimes a movie is just too close to my heart, and I don't know how to start these blog entries. Tonight's movie is about WORMS, and lots of them. As a child, I once owned a super-8 film projector, and I remember choosing a few movies out of a mail order catalog--yeah, this was in the late 70s, before VHS players were in every home, and way before movies like "Squirm" appeared on videocassette. But you could purchase films for your home projector, and much to my disappointment, the small Super-8 reels did not contain entire movies. Some of them were silent, and some were black and white even if the movie was originally in color. Fortunately, my super-8 reel of "Squirm" not only had sound, it was in full color, too. I can't remember if I read about it in "Famous Monsters" magazine first, or if I just picked it because of the title, but the blurb said it was about killer worms, and that was weird enough for 9 year old me. What I got when "Squirm" unreeled in the projector was a 15 minute highlight reel of what I was sure was the most revolting movie ever made. I remember making everybody I knew watch the movie, and I once terrorized a sleepover of girl scouts by being invited to show them cartoons and instead subjecting them to a movie where worms consumed human flesh before their very eyes. Lucky for them, it only ran about 15 minutes. Lucky for me, nobody beat my ass for it.

"Squirm" is an AIP International picture, directed by Jeff Lieberman ("Just Before Dawn", "Blue Sunshine"), where New York city boy Mick (Don Scardino) journeys by bus to the tiny hamlet of Fly Creek, Georgia, to visit a girl named Geri Sanders (Patricia Pearcy). Geri lives with her wannabe-hippie sister Alma (Fran Higgins) and their freaked out mother Naomi (Jean Sullivan). His arrival is preceded by a violent electrical storm--a solemn text crawl opens the film by telling us that 'scientists' recorded a bizarre freak of nature in Fly Creek--and the collapse of an electrical tower renders the town dark and sends the voltage "surging into the muddy ground".

Mick immediately draws attention to himself in Fly Creek by mouthing off to a local diner waitress when he orders an egg cream (some fancy hipster drink she's never heard of) and then finds a large sandworm in it. Instead of apologizing, the waitress acts all offended, and the sheriff (Peter MacLean) gets in Mick's face and practically tells him to leave town. You know, just like any small town sheriff wants to do, right?

Geri's an aspiring antique dealer (we're to believe she met Mick at some kind of flea market or swap meet), and she drags Mick to meet another local salesman, but instead they find his place abandoned and a human skeleton lying near his shed. What they don't know is that he was eaten by worms. I mean, the audience already knows, because they bought a ticket to a movie called "Squirm" that has been advertised as a movie about worms eating people, so naturally you understand the man was killed by worms, but Fly Creek is a place where the worms look like this:
Yes, they have teeth, and they bite. They also make screaming noises, which the movie never explains, but it's the bitey parts we're afraid of. So we want to see these damn things BITE somebody. The first time they do, it's a pretty big moment. Geri winds up in a rowboat with Roger (R.A. Dow), a somewhat ominous lunkhead who is CEO of the Geri Sanders Fan Club. But Geri only has eyes for this new fella Mick, some city wimp, so Roger feels threatened. When Mick conspires to leave the two of them alone so he can go check the dental records of the skeleton, Roger puts the moves on Geri and tries to kiss her. When she knocks him over backwards (which is a bad idea when you're in a rowboat with somebody, but never mind), he falls directly onto a pile of slithering worms they've been using for bait. The worms attack him and in the film's most notorious scene, they burrow directly into his face, crawling underneath his skin in gory detail. It's the stuff of nightmares!
Poor Roger just ain't the same after this experience. He runs off into the woods screaming, leaving Geri to find her own damn way back home. Mick and Alma deduce that the skeleton belongs to Geri's antiques dealer friend, and Mick discovers Roger's father, Willie (Carl Dagenhart), dead with a ribcage full of worms. Through the miracle of standard plot developments, they can't get the sheriff to believe them about the fact that worms are attacking people, and they're on their own to figure out what the hell you do when worms come after you. Mick pieces together the remaining element to this mystery they're working on: the worms can't stand the light. It's an important rule in the "Squirm" universe: light = no worms. Darkness = more worms than you would care to imagine.
A little of what Mick's having makes this movie even more enjoyable.
Meanwhile, at the Sanders home, things start to get wormshit crazy: worms have apparently invaded the local plumbing, and when Alma turns on the water in the shower, nothing comes out. Well, nothing except for worms, that is...when she turns around and leaves, worms begin pouring out of the showerhead and filling up the tub, then the entire room. When a tree collapses and compromises the security of the house, Mick runs off into the woods to get some plywood and is attacked by Roger, who incapacitates him by knocking him unconscious and leaving him for worms to eat. Roger then goes back to Geri's house to do some serious lurking, which is what you do when you've got worms for brains. He ties Geri up and somehow ushers her into the attic. Alma has already discovered the bathroom filled to the ceiling with worms, which pour out in a flood when she unwittingly opens the bathroom door. It is at this point in the film we assume Alma has checked out after her worm shower.

"Oh great, now the worm bill is really going to be out of control this month..."
Mick returns to the house, using a convenient branch to light his conveniently flammable shirt and make a convenient torch, which causes the hordes of worms to retreat in the light it gives. He finds Mrs. Sanders to be a writhing pile of worms, and is then attacked by Roger, who chases him back downstairs. The entire lower floor of the house is now a literal sea of worms, which Mick manages to throw Roger into, presumably solving the Roger problem for good. But when Mick and Geri try to climb out the window into a nearby tree, Roger comes crawling out of the worms for one last attack, at which point he seems to have become a worm himself.
Never let a man like this near your worm, never.
After beating Roger to death with a flashlight, Mick holes up with Geri in the tree all night. The next morning, the worms are all gone, and a telephone repairman wakes them up by yelling up to them that the phones are working again. Apparently in these parts, seeing a couple asleep in a tree isn't unusual enough to make a man think something's wrong. In a happy happy ending, we discover that Alma has saved her own life by hiding in a large trunk, which was apparently not only empty, but worm-proof, too. Now if only Mrs. Sanders wasn't a writhing pile of worms, everything would be truly alright.

Lieberman shows us a number of upsetting things in the film, and that wormface gag isn't the only one. The sheer volume of worms used in the movie had to be astronomical, and seeing the sets inundated with worms is disturbing. One moment has the sheriff and his girlfriend screwing in an empty jail cell and being attacked by worms, which pour in through the windows. Another standout moment has the local dive bar, Quigley's, swamped with worms, which people immediately leap off of their bar stools into. One far out Fly Creek chick plays it smart and climbs up onto the bar, where she does a sort of scream-dance. It's wild!

There is more to it than just the shock sequences, though, including a very strong Southern gothic feel to the film. Jean Sullivan channels Jessica Tandy's performance in "The Birds" as a mother figure on the verge of losing her grip, and she adds her own twist to the characterization. She's a little spacier than Tandy was, a little more disconnected, and by the time she's a pile of worms, she seems to have completely lost touch with reality, continuing to work on her knitting while worms drop from the ceiling into her living room. The character actors all do a great job in communicating the atmosphere of a small Southern town, and in fact many of the secondary characters were locals in the town where the movie was actually shot (Port Wentworth, Georgia). The scene where Mick goes into a local drug store and is eyed suspiciously by the locals is one of the film's highlights, especially the lunch counter waitress who loses her patience with him when he spills a drink on her counter.

But the best thing about "Squirm"--other than the fact that it's about A FREAKIN OCEAN OF MAN EATING WORMS--is how ultra 70s it is. Not only are there wacky bell-bottoms galore, but there's a doomy love ballad in the film, a strange custom that I can't relate to but I love just the same. It also has the cartoonish sense of humor of a 1950s monster movie, something that seems to have been overlooked when it was featured on Mystery Science Theater--no really, we think these goofy things in the movie are intentional, guys.

Watching the full length film is surreal for me, because the scenes that were contained into that original Super-8 edited version are forever burned into my brain. That edited version illustrates the only thing "Squirm" is really guilty of, which is a runtime just a little too long for its subject matter; its first and second acts are slowly paced, and we watch the main characters unravel a mystery about a secret we already know. However, that worm attack in the boat is more than enough to make up for that, not to mention the various worm agonies inflicted on R.A. Dow's character throughout the rest of the movie. I doubt I could ever forget those images of him being sucked underneath a sea of writhing worms and the effect they first had on me. Also, somewhere there's a dispersed group of former girl scouts who all grew up to be pathologically afraid of worms.
"...anyway, there we were watching cartoons, and all of a sudden this thing with WORMS comes on..."









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