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Squirm
(1976)

Director: Jeff Lieberman
Cast:
Don Scardino, Patricia Pearcy, R. A. Dow


I made a decision long ago that today I don't regret for the most part. And that decision was that when I was in a moment where I didn't have to do anything concerning maintaining my standing in society (family, work, etc.), I would devote to my interest in the motion picture industry. Though some of that interest is with things like reading about motion pictures in books or on the Internet, when it comes to motion pictures in my life, I devote most of that time to watching motion pictures. Over the years, it has certainly given me a lot of entertainment as well as a lot to think about afterwards, so to me, my devotion to this art form has been very rewarding. Yet despite my love of motion pictures up to this very day has remained strong, I have to admit that every so often something about a motion picture I sit down to watch really displeases me. Certainly, a lot of those times come with the fact that not every motion picture is a good one; I've certainly learned that they are a lot of stinkers out there, as many of the reviews on this web site prove. But there are other annoyances for me about the motion picture art form, and there is one I would like to talk about, one that probably isn't shared by more casual viewers of the motion picture art form. And that is seeing the same stuff over and over in multiple motion pictures. Since I have seen so many more motion pictures than the average person - I watch several motion pictures each and every week, not just the ones that I review for this web site - there are a number of things I have seen repeated over and over in multiple motion pictures. This has happened enough times that it's almost gotten me sick of watching motion pictures.

Let me give you an example, one thing I have seen in countless movies (I'm tired of typing out "motion pictures", and I'm going back to the layman's term.) Specifically, from the action genre. There is the oh-so-familiar shot of someone casually walking towards the camera while a big explosion goes off behind him, and the noise and heat don't make the walker react even slightly. Although I admit that I would like to find out the first movie that originated this movie cliché, I am in no hurry to see it on a screen again any time soon. Anyway, this movie cliché is one of many I have seen over and over in action movies, and all of these action movie clichés have made much of the genre drab for me. To me, it takes a truly exceptional action movie to move me, when the more casual movie fan might find the same action movie that bores me to be a lot more fun than I feel. But it's not just the action movie genre that at times has become weary for me. Another movie genre I'm starting to have problems with is the horror genre. One of the big problems I have with the horror genre is that the horror threats have become very familiar. A masked psycho bumping off young sex-obsessed youths one by one? I've seen it many times before. Blood-sucking vampires? To me, the vampire movie has been done to death. Flesh-eating zombies? Even George A. Romero in his last years seemed to have problems making such creatures compelling to this viewer. Werewolves? If I see one more werewolf movie where the transformation sequence is accomplished by dissolving from one shot to another, I think I will howl louder than any werewolf.

No mistake about it - horror films have managed to take just about any horror threat and run it to death multiple times. Actually, I sort of understand why this has happened. Some horror fans do like to see the same certain elements over and over. And I would admit that I would be on their side Squirmhad filmmakers at least managed to take the familiar elements and execute them with some original perspective. So knowing how I feel how horror has become tired, you might understand why I was pumped up to see Squirm. The horror threat in the movie was one I had never seen done before in another horror movie. Not only that, it was a horror threat that I could see could not be combated in a traditional manner; you couldn't simply shoot it with a gun or shove a stake into its heart. What kind of seemingly unstoppable threat does this movie boast? Well, before I get into that, I'll start by setting up the situation. The events of the movie take place in the small town of Fly Creek in the southern state of Georgia. To the small town comes a visitor from New York City, a young man named Mick (Scardino, Crusing). He has come to Fly Creek to reunite with a young woman named Geri (Pearcy, Cockfighter) he met during her recent vacation to New York City. It doesn't take long for Mick to realize that most of the residents of Fly Creek do not take kindly to this outsider, most prominent among them a young man named Roger (Dow) a neighbor of Geri's family who want to make Geri his girlfriend. But the hostile residents of Fly Creek eventually become the least of Mick's problems. The night before arriving in Fly Creek, there was a terrible storm that downed some power lines, sending thousands of volts of electricity into the wet ground. The electricity reached thousands of worms in the ground, driving them mad and homicidal towards mankind. As the body count starts to escalate, Mick and Geri eventually realize what is happening, but unsurprisingly have a tough time trying to convince the locals.

I imagine that some readers who have read the plot synopsis that I wrote in the above paragraph are thinking something along the lines of, "Well, while that does sound like a new kind of horror threat, it also sounds kind of stupid. Worms are small and slow-moving - you could easily raise a foot and stamp it down on one even if it was homicidal." There is some truth to that. I have to admit that thought entered my mind before watching the movie. But I have seen enough movies to know that with the right care, just about anything can come across as a serious threat in a movie, so I reminded myself to be open. Though even if I had approached Squirm with prejudice, I think I would have admitted the same as I do now, that the portrayal of the killer worms is very effective. Director Jeff Lieberman (Blue Sunshine) uses a number of techniques to make the worms a repulsive and dangerous threat. Some of these techniques are low cost yet effective, like showing the slimy creatures in extreme close up, or dubbing in noises like squealing pigs or boiling water on the soundtrack as they crawl around. Lieberman also includes some dialogue to identify these worms as a type that can bite, so it's easier to believe when they start burrowing their way into humans. When the worms start doing so, Lieberman uses additional techniques to portray them as a menace that any human would have a tough time fighting off. Mostly this is by having the worms attack en masse, and I really mean en masse, like when an unsuspecting person opens a door to a room, and instantly a mass of worms as high as the top of the door avalanches out. The feeling of a threat by these worms does build slowly, as I will explain further in the next paragraph, but by the end of the movie you are convinced that these particular worms are not to be taken lightly.

Naturally, some of the characters in Squirm facing such a massive enemy aren't going to make it alive at the end of the movie, so there are definite attempts at horror. How effective are they? There are some definite jolts, like when one victim attacked by worms has them burrowing just under his skin, so you can seem them moving around in his body. That's a very good special effect, but I feel that I should mention that apart from that victim, the movie doesn't do very much else in the way of gory special effects. Although the movie got an "R" rating at the time, by today's standards it's PG-13 level, maybe even PG. Many viewers watching the movie today will find that there are fewer scenes of monster horror than there are in most modern monster movies. In fact, it takes about half of the movie to pass by before the movie has its first bona fide horror sequence. But while it takes a while for the horror in Squirm to start (and subsequently reoccur), Lieberman does put a number of touches in the long spaces between horror to keep up the interest of the viewer. For starters, the movie has a great deal of atmosphere. With the film actually shot in the state of Georgia, the feel of the movie is extremely authentic. You can feel the dirt, grit, and wild feeling of the countryside, and the scenes that take place in the town of Fly Creek feel very old, weathered, and without the feeling of security a larger city might have to offer. That is not to say that the movie is constantly giving off a feeling of gloom and horror. Lieberman (who also wrote the screenplay) was careful enough to put in a good serving of humor throughout the movie. Wisely, it is not laugh-out-loud humor - that would have diminished the movie's various stabs at horror - but it is a gentle kind of humor that basically reminds the viewers not to take things too seriously, such as the scene where Mick and Geri try to convince the town sheriff about the killer worms while he and his dinner date are dining on plates of spaghetti.

Not everything about Lieberman's screenplay does work, however. There are some notable plot holes, such as when the protagonists deduce that the worms are frightened away from light, yet there are several scenes in the movie when the worms are doing their thing in bright conditions. Fortunately, plot holes like those are few in number, and Lieberman's screenplay in the end gets things done. One of the good things about Lieberman's screenplay is with the movie's characters, specifically with the two chief protagonists. Geri is no superwoman, but she isn't some dumb country bumpkin either. And Mick, while coming from the big city, does make a few stupid decisions along the way. They are flawed but likable people, who do eventually put two and two together and try their best to do something about it. Other characters in the movie are a pleasant surprise as well. Though Roger is a rival for Geri's affections, we do see a few angles of him that show he's not a totally bad guy. And you can almost understand the sheriff's displeasure and disbelief when outsider Mick starts telling wild tales of found skeletons and killer worms. As it turns out, the scenes with the sheriff are among the highlights of Squirm, thanks to actor Peter MacLean (The Friends Of Eddie Coyle), who plays the role with such relish that he's an absolute hoot, enough that I wished he played a larger role in the movie. However, the rest of the cast give strong and credible performances that sell their characters, whether they may be a lead or just a bit part. As you can see, while Squirm may not be filled from top to bottom with traditional horror elements like gore and killings, it more than compensates when it comes to its non-horror elements. If you are interested by the idea of a horror movie that tries as much to do other things than just jolt its audience, then it's likely that you'll be entertained by this effort.

(Posted March 31, 2019)

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See also: Bats: Human Harvest, Tarantuals: The Deadly Cargo, Ticks

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