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..."

Friday, September 21, 2012

Silent Scream (1980)

Note the little drippy things, readers...those are...NO!!...they can't be!!...YES, I think they're...BLOOD drops...! EEEEEE....

A young vulnerable college student, dressed only in her robe and a pair of slippers, goes into a dark basement where trouble lurks. She finds an opening in the wall that looks like it doesn't belong there, and before you know it, she's climbing a staircase with a serious cobweb problem. She goes all the way up into the attic, where a secret room awaits her, and before you know it, hands grab her and pull her inside, screaming, leaving the viewer with a single burning question:

What the hell was she thinking?

This scene was depicted in the brilliant trailers for the notorious drive-in spectacle "Silent Scream", and it lured carloads of ticket buyers into a movie that turned out to be one of the more timid slasher movies of the decade. Although the timing of the film was clearly supposed to capitalize on the success of "Friday the 13th" and "Halloween", it was actually filmed in 1977 (before the big slasher craze). It has more in common with "Psycho" than anything else, especially the gloomy mansion where the film takes place. In fact, the mansion is one of the film's only settings, aside from a few brief moments set elsewhere.
Oh, the foolish sort-of-young people thought they were SO safe! How wrong they were..... 
"Scotty" (Rebecca Balding) is a college student of the 'perky' variety, and the film opens as she discovers that the university she is attending has absolutely no room in its dormitory for her. You might wonder why Scotty wouldn't have already known where she was going to live before her first day of classes, but never mind that, we are operating on slasher-logic, so it makes total sense. She runs down a few places only to find that most of the off-campus housing seems to be taken as well. It sure pays to rent rooms in that college town, lemme tell ya. She finally finds an opportunity at a large foreboding mansion (there goes the "Psycho" similarity buzzer!), which is overseen by an awkward young man (there it goes again!!) with a strange, elusive mother (the buzzer has now become a never-ending klaxon warning of plagiarism).
...and who knew that one day, he would front the band Marilyn Manson...

Things start out well when Mason Engels (Brad Rearden), the gawky teen boy, rents Scotty a room, and she discovers three other renters living there: Doris (Juli Andelman), Jack (Steve Doubet), and Peter (John Widelock). Also living there is Mrs. Engels (Yvonne DeCarlo), who lurks around the attic and is way too conspicuous for her own good. It seems as if the Engels want to make some rent money off these college kids, but they're not quite at ease with the whole thing, either. Could they be, oh I dunno, HIDING something?

Yes, life in this huge mansion on the hill overlooking the beach is turning out to be a big college party, until  Peter gets knifed to death on the beach and buried under an elaborate sand castle. Somebody seems to be working through some issues by using a butcher knife, and since "leaving" seems to be the last thing any of these young folks would do, the next thing to do would be to hang around, wait for someone else to get murdered, then go exploring the basement in your robe and fuzzy slippers. Right? Right.
Scotty, buying her cobwebbed stairway to heaven...
Most horror movie plots have all been done many times over, or so I've been told. That's still no excuse for "Silent Scream" to steal so much from "Psycho". There's a knife-wielding maniac, screeching violins during the murder scenes, a nerdy boy with mother issues who dresses up in costumes (this time just a military uniform), and a spooky house that sits way up on a hill. "Silent Scream" ought to be ashamed of itself.
"Pretty pretty?"
But you know what "Silent Scream" has that "Psycho" didn't? Barbara Steele. You know I could not discuss "Silent Scream" without talking about Barbara Steele, even though the introduction of her character provides a major twist in the film by exposing her as the killer. OK, so I spoiled it for you, just deal with it. You'd have figured it out anyway. Much like Betsy Palmer in "Friday the 13th", if you saw Barbara Steele's name in the credits, you were probably wondering when she was going to appear in the damn movie, and when it wasn't in the first two thirds, you just knew she was the butcher knife artist. She's Victoria Engels, whose teenage pregnancy crisis resulted in a series of tragic events: after attacking her boyfriend with a butcher knife (her maiden voyage, so to speak), she attempted to commit suicide by hanging herself. It didn't work, but apparently it messed up her brain even worse, and a lobotomy was the only answer. After three years in a padded cell in an asylum, Mrs. Engels brought her home and ensconced her in the attic, where she's been living ever since, playing with her hair and listening to the same 45 over and over again.

The climax finds Scotty climbing that spooky stairway of doom, being dragged into Victoria's bedroom and attacked. Doris is dead already, stabbed to death in the basement and somehow dragged all the way up that tiny staircase by little ole Victoria (if you knew Doris, you'd understand how unlikely this scenario is, since Doris is a big girl who could have kicked Victoria's crazy ass with one meaty arm tied behind her back). The Engels arrive in time to stop Victoria from killing her, but they tie Scotty up to keep her from running away and blabbing to everyone about their dysfunctional home life. That's when the Engels family drama plays out like a Dr. Phil show: all these years, Mason thought Victoria was his SISTER and that Mrs. Engels was his MOTHER.  But Victoria's really his mother, and the father he thought he had never really existed (it was his grandfather, who was already two years dead by the time Mason was born).

This makes Mason spaz out and start shooting a gun all over the room, until Mrs. Engels is dead, Victoria is "horror movie villain" dead, and Mason shoots himself in the head.  Whew, Scotty's safe now, right? Well, remember when I said Victoria was "horror movie villain" dead? Yeah, that means, she's not dead at all. That is, not until Jack arrives to save the day, and distracts Victoria long enough so Scotty can...PUSH her to death. She falls on the knife and dies. Did you know "Silent Scream" can also mean what happens when you fall asleep and your mouth unconsciously drops open?

OK, so it's not the most exciting slasher climax ever. At age 10, I found "Silent Scream" to be deadly boring. Even though it came out in 1980, slashers were already all about the body count, and the main murderer in "Silent Scream" claims a mere TWO victims. But time has been kind to "Silent Scream", mostly because they just don't make movies like this anymore. There's some decent suspense in this movie, and a lot of atmosphere. Barbara Steele's performance is memorable, one of the reasons being she plays the part completely mute (Victoria has no lines). It's all about the crazy eyes. Victoria seems to inhabit her own dream world, always staring off into space, and there's one moment where she drifts off, then slowly starts to focus in on the helpless Scotty until she's giving her the death stare and coming at her with a very sharp knife.
And now, an acting class with Rebecca Balding. Today's topic: playing "perky".
I should also mention that Avery Schreiber and genre superstar Cameron Mitchell are in this movie as detectives, but their parts are loose ends; they're simply the film's attempt to add some glimmer of realism and suggest that someone really does care about a dead body found knifed to the death on the beach. Otherwise, they're not really much use in the story, as they arrive after the show's all over.
"I'll just keep reminding myself what films like this did for Joan Crawford's career...there, I feel better already." 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Who Can Kill A Child? (1976)

Stop trying to consult babelfish...this totally means "Who Can Kill A Child?" in Spanish, trust me.
"Who Can Kill A Child?" opens with a disturbing sequence of actual newsreels showing the suffering associated with various wars and disasters, with emphasis on skeletal children, often maimed in some horrible way. I never quite got over the shock of seeing those newsreels, although if the director's intention was to immediately plunge the viewer into feeling creepy, it sure worked for me. The actual narrative of the film starts  with a way-too-happy English couple, Tom and Evelyn, enjoying a wild Spanish festival full of fireworks, strange costumes, and lots of shots that emphasize how lucky they are to be alive. Never a good sign at the start of a horror movie, if you ask me.
"Darling, I sense danger, possibly even MUR...."
"Just ignore it, and please don't mention it again, mmkay? Thanks!"
Tom and Evelyn are actually making their way to a small island off the Spanish coast called Almanzora, because Tom once visited the island years before. Even before they leave the mainland, there is a rash of corpses washing up on the beach, and just in case you didn't get the point, Tom mentions to Evelyn that the current sometimes brings debris from Almanzora to the mainland. Despite all these red flags, the happy, annoyingly oblivious couple are dropped off at Almanzora, where they are greeted by several children near the shore. Although the kids help them ashore, they behave strangely once the boatman leaves.

Of course, Evelyn and Tom ignore the hell out of all of it, just like they ignore the fact that they can't find a damn person on the island who has reached voting age. There's nobody minding the ice cream cart they find abandoned (an island ruled by kids has an ice cream cart that hasn't been ransacked yet???).  There's nobody running the hotel they check into, either. In the movie's most alarming moment of dumbfuckery, Tom witnesses the children beat an old man to death and use his dangling dead body as a pinata, yet returns to Evelyn and lies to her about everything he's seen. Truth be told, I was wondering why they hadn't just bolted for the nearest boat the minute they couldn't find anybody on the island other than children grinning at them in an evil way.

Soon they find themselves in the middle of an outbreak of unexplained madness among the children. A lone adult survivor tells them that one night, the kids in town all woke up screaming at the same time and massed together, murdering adults from one house to the next. Nobody fought back, because nobody could bring themselves to actually murder any of the kids themselves, even in self defense. Worst of all, the children all seemed to understand this, and it empowers them to commit widespread mayhem.

By now you have probably been thinking about corn, and more importantly of the children who belong to the corn, if you know what I mean. I'm not saying anything, especially not that Stephen King might have seen this movie and came up with his own ideas about kids who get to murderin'. Actually, "Who Can Kill A Child?" is a zombie movie at heart, in the same vein as "The Crazies". At one point, it's established that the evil kids can 'infect' normal kids just by staring at them, so it's more like a supernatural plague that affects only kids.
"I have this strange feeling I'm being watched, like fifty pairs of eyes burning into the back of my head, I can't understand it..."
The violence in "Who Can Kill A Child?" is shocking, but there's nothing all that horrifying about the blood, it's the more subtle moments in the movie that stick with you. In one scene, Tom discovers a group of young boys undressing a female victim's dead body in a lascivious way--inside a church, no less. The suspense in the film is also very well done, with a great moment where Tom and Evelyn are trapped in a small room with only a large wooden door separating them from the horde of murderous children; the kids repeatedly leap up like wild animals to a tiny window in the door, with flashes of their hands and eyes moving quickly up and down in the small opening.

Although it's not a perfect movie, and suffers a few problems with the pacing and logical motivation of the characters, director Narciso Ibanez Serrador captures a very real sense of dread and terror that mounts effectively to a strange climax. The film was once obscure, having made the rounds briefly in the US in 1978 as "Island of the Damned", where it undoubtedly played grindhouses and drive-ins before vanishing. Now that home video has made it more accessible, "Who Can Kill A Child?" is one of those rare time capsule films, genre movies made in the 1970s that languished in obscurity for so long that they seem more fresh when viewed today, decades after they were made.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Night 2 at the Riverside Drive-In!

The 2012 Super Drive-In Monsterrama has come and gone, and what a tombstone-cold blast it was.  (That's my best Forrest J. Ackerman impression.)  The lineup for the second night was just as strong as the first, featuring two classic Hammer flicks I've never actually seen until now.

"Twins of Evil", the third film in Hammer's "Karnstein" trilogy, unspooled first, and they had me at "Peter Cushing". Cushing plays a pious witch hunter who likes to accuse innocent girls of being in league with the devil, burning them alive, yet somehow lacks the courage to confront Count Karnstein, the obvious vampire living in the spooky old castle on the hill.  Maria and Freida are orphaned twin sisters who find themselves threatened by the Count; when Freida falls victim to the dark side and is discovered to be a vampire, she and Karnstein try to trick the "witch hunters" into burning Maria instead by having her swap places with Freida.

"Countess Dracula" was my surprise favorite of the evening. As a kid, I was never lucky enough to catch it running on TV, and when I read in the monster mags that she wasn't really a vampire in it, I guess I kind of wrote it off and felt like my childhood was ruined. But it's actually a compelling story of a Countess who discovers that when she gets a young virgin chambermaid's blood on her skin, she starts to look young again. We never really know why this is happening, or if it would happen to anybody who touched some virgin's blood, but pretty soon she's killing young girls and bathing in their blood. With the help of her longtime lover, she sets up a steady blood supply and schemes to take the place of her own daughter, winning the love of a much younger man and arousing the jealousy of her own lover.  I thought it was great seeing how the Countess becomes more and more obsessed with the idea of remaining young, so much that she doesn't even care that someone else has to die in order for her to do it.
...and what exactly would that be, I wonder?

"Raw Meat" was the third feature, and the print we saw carried the original title "Death Line".  If you haven't seen this one, it's a somewhat erratic 1973 British thriller starring Donald Pleasance as an inspector on the case several disappearances in a particular area of the London subway.  What it takes him the whole movie to find out is that there is a homicidal maniac loose, the last descendant of a group of workers who were trapped in the tunnels after a cave-in occurred during the construction. The builders of the subway left them for dead and abandoned that section of the tunnels, forcing the survivors to resort to cannibalism in order to stay alive. The last deranged survivor has managed to find an opening through which he can emerge to claim more "food". While the movie is grisly enough in theory, and there are numerous rotting corpses on display in his bizarre underground lair, the pacing of the film is a little sparse and "Raw Meat" was a good time to make a few trips to the concession stand.

The main event for me was "Psychomania", showing here under the original title "The Death Wheelers".  This insane feature was always on cable TV when I was a kid, usually showing late at night when I should have been in bed.  "Psychomania" is about an obnoxious motorcycle gang called "The Living Dead" that seems to be comprised of snotty English rich kids who do badass tough things like physically assault young mothers and babies.  The gang's leader, Tom, just happens to come from a family involved in Satan worship; his mother is a medium who happens to understand the secret of surviving death. Apparently, all you have to do is believe you'll come back from the dead, and you will. Tom commits suicide, the rest of the gang burying him upright while he's still sitting on the back of his bike, and later he comes roaring out of the grave, good as new. The rest of the gang starts to do it, too, and pretty soon they're all dead and loving it, except for Tom's girlfriend Abby. Being the lone holdout, the movie wants us to care what happens to her, even though she is in love with a man who runs babies over with his motorcycle. Eventually Tom's mother decides enough babies have been harmed, so she revokes her deal with the devil and suddenly Tom and the other really-dead Living Dead members are finally really dead, immediately being covered with dirt and turning into dirt hills.  Wowzers!

I have to admit, if there was a drive-in festival like this every month, I'd probably attend. I love going to the drive-in, I just usually hate movies that were made anytime in the last 25 years. Who wants to go to the drive-in to see "Transformers 6"? No, drive-ins were destined to show movies like these, and as long as the Super Drive-In Monsterrama keeps rolling, I'll be on board. See ya next year, Riverside Drive-In!