Jeff Lieberman is one of the great directors of 1970s low-budget American filmmaking. His films radiate wit, style and confidence to an extent which puts him, for my money, on the same level as George Romero, Larry Cohen and John Carpenter who were all ploughing a similar furrow at the same time. His first film was a short called The Ringer, a witty attack on advertising which anticipates his later Blue Sunshine, and it indicates the sardonic and intelligent tone which characterises his work. He also made the greatest of all backwoods “slasher” films, Just Before Dawn, and has more recently produced some fine documentary work including a fantastic documentary called But Seriously, about stand-up comedy, and insightful pieces about Sonny Liston and Clark Gable. But the film of his which I like best is Squirm, a delicious revenge of nature film which has a great concept and is executed with an unusual attention to character and setting.
The film immediately brings to mind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a tongue-in-cheek crawl explaining how the film is based on real events and indeed the general sense of the urban encountering the horrors of the rural is very reminiscent of Hooper’s film. If we’re not exactly in the backwoods, we are at the very least in the Deep South, and the audience is very much put into the position of Don Scardino’s Mick, an intelligent man baffled not only by an outbreak of killer worms, but also the sheer peculiarity of the town of Fly Creek.
But the film isn’t an unsubtle attack on the unsophisticated hicks. Patricia Pearcy’s heroine, Geri, is a bright, resourceful woman and her family and acquaintances are given layers of character which you wouldn’t necessarily expect. In particular, Pearcy’s sister Alma, played by Fran Higgins, is a very amusing character – a weed smoking teenager with a killer sense of humour. It’s only when we get to the sherrif, played rather broadly by Peter MacLean, that we find the “we don’t like city folk round here” stereotype and even then there’s a sense that the cliché is being guyed. Overall, however, the performances are spot-on. Scardino is a likeable hero, Pearcy is lovely and R. A. Dow is fine in a difficult part as the ill-fated Roger.
Jeff Lieberman’s direction is beautifully judged from beginning to end. The pacing is deliberate and a little leisurely but this pays dividends when we get to the climaxes which provide good value for anyone who likes icky special effects. He’s obviously learned a lesson from Hitchcock, Hooper and, perhaps, Spielberg in taking plenty of time to build character before launching into the scares. The first half of the film is largely played for atmosphere and character comedy as Scardino – simply a nice bloke visiting his girlfriend – encounters the perils of the South. There’s a lot of intriguing detail tossed into the mix, particularly in elements like the worm farm, which perhaps shouldn’t seem as odd as it does, and the relationship between the father and son of the Grimes Family who own the farm. The sense of impending doom is palpable and keeps you on edge even when you’re laughing.
When we get to the horror, after some foreshadowing and amusing teases, it’s with a fantastic set-piece set on a boat which contains a brilliant example of cheap but smashingly effective Rick Baker make-up work. Lieberman gets the tone of these sequences just right – if you see what I mean, they’re gross but not gross-out. Once you’ve seen the worms coming out of the shower head, you’ll never forget it. But Lieberman has got taste, a rare quality in this genre. As the worm menace grows – including some excellent close-up inserts and the use of a sound effect of pigs screaming which was created for Carrie - the tone darkens and the tension mounts until the exciting house-under-siege climax. The small cast of characters helps here, with a closely observed set of interrelationships and believable interactions. As elsewhere in the film, the viewer is reminded of The Birds and it’s a considerable compliment to say that, occasionally dodgy effects aside, Squirm doesn’t come out too badly from the comparison. Indeed, in terms of revenge of nature films, this is one of the best and would make a good double-bill partner with Hitchcock’s film or George McCowan’s somewhat similar Frogs.
I'm pretty certain that Squirm has never looked better thanks to the miracles wrought by MGM and Arrow Video. This 1.85:1 presentation is exceptional throughout, especially in comparison to the muddy and poorly coloured Region 1 DVD release from 2003. The transfer does seem rather dark, but that’s characteristic of every presentation of the film that I’ve ever seen, and it’s certainly got more than enough detail to keep anyone happy. There is a lovely layer of film grain which provides a natural appearance and the colours, particularly the flesh tones, are beautiful. The lossless mono soundtrack is also excellent – clean, crystal clear and making the most of the atmospheric score.
The director’s commentary is as drily amusing as you could hope for as he explains how he managed to miss out on casting Sylvester Stallone and Kim Basinger. He talks throughout the film without any awkward gaps and keeps your interest with anecdotes about the people in the film, many of whom were locals, and about his lack of experience in making features. He says at one point, “If I entertain myself, I assume I’m entertaining the audience,” and while he acknowledges the potential pitfall of this approach, it seems as good an approach as any for this kind of material.
Also included is an interesting 15 minute piece to camera from Kim Newman which is as knowledgeable and insightful as you would expect and places the film both within Lieberman’s career and the 1970s revenge of nature sub-genre. Along with the trailer, we also get a 24 minute Q&A filmed in New York which features a chat with the director and Don Scardino. This is wonderfully good natured and funny and I was reminded by his sheer presence that Scardino is now a highly respected theatre actor.
Squirm is another excellent disc from Arrow, consolidating their strong position as one of the top Blu-Ray producers in the UK. If you like the film then you’ll love this. If you’ve never seen it, then this is the ideal way of doing so as it’s never looked better.