Squirm Blu-ray Review (originally published 2014)
When a powerful storm knocks Fly Creek, Georgia's power lines down onto wet soil, the resulting surge of electricity drives large, bloodthirsty worms to the surface – and then out of their soil-tilling minds! Soon, the townspeople discover that their sleepy fishing village is overrun with worms that burrow right into their skin! Inundated by hundreds of thousands of carnivorous creatures, the terrorized locals race to find the cause of the rampage – before becoming tilled under themselves! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Jeff Lieberman’s Squirm (1976) is probably best-known among genre fans as the butt of so-bad-it’s-good jokes, like a regular stint as late-night movie on Ted Turner’s TBS station (usually following an Atlanta Braves game) and a popular episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (episode 1012). This has framed the film as little more than a dopey curiosity for years, but it’s worth noting that these TV-friendly versions edit out a number of the more gruesome and memorable moments. When viewed out of the comedic context, Squirm is actually one of the better and more genuinely creepy films in the nature run amuck/ecohorror subgenre – which had seen a considerable resurgence during the 1970s, following the runaway success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). Sure, Lieberman’s concept – thousands (millions?) of flesh-eating worms attacking a small town – is silly on paper, but all animal revolt is inherently goofy out of context. It’s the quality of the execution that makes the difference.
Squirm was Lieberman’s first feature-length movie. Despite a lack of experience and a nearly non-existent budget, he managed to make a professional-looking product that includes a considerably epic climax, where a house is basically devoured by a sea of writhing night crawlers. The film is shot using understated, naturalistic photography that hints at the more stylized imagery of Lieberman’s next two films, Blue Sunshine (1978) and Just Before Dawn (1981). Lieberman’s career was too brief and underseen to make any major impact on the genre, but his early movies have a unique and measured dirtiness to them, similar to what Tobe Hooper achieved with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Eaten Alive (1976). Though Just Before Dawn is his masterpiece (and one of the best films of the slasher genre’s golden era), Squirm has an effectively gritty quality that helps authenticate the more skin-crawling (like, literally skin-crawling) sequences and sets the stage for the budget-busting finale, which transcends the obvious fact that Lieberman is filming thousands of inert rubber tubes. Perhaps more importantly, Lieberman’s script takes its cues from The Birds (1963) and Jaws by focusing most of his storytelling efforts on characters, instead of the creatures (in fact, a number of the characters are directly influenced by characters in Hitchcock and Spielberg’s masterpieces). Some of his ‘naturalistic’ dialogue is a bit stiff and some of the supporting performances are quite campy, but the human interest aspects generally work, despite Mystery Science Theater’s hilarious claims to the contrary.
Squirm was shot on a tiny budget, but not so tiny that Lieberman and cinematographer Joseph Mangine couldn’t shoot on 35mm film. It has been available on DVD for some time and was already released on Blu-ray in the UK, though by Arrow Video, instead of 101 Films. Based on comparisons to (now obliterated) DVDActive screen caps (sorrow I can’t include them here), it’s probably safe to say that both discs used the same MGM HD scan for their 1.85:1, 1080p transfers. Squirm is a very dark movie, which has proven problematic for various VHS and DVD releases over the years. Even this relatively clean HD version has issues with indiscernible night sequences and muddy daylight photography. However, the 1080p upgrade does punch-up highlights, sharpen details, and brighten the earth-tone-heavy palette. Grain levels are pretty thick, but consistent, and print damage is minimal enough.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound meets the expectations set by other shoestring movies from the ‘70s – though the sound design is actually more aggressive and abstract than similar productions. The dialogue track is uneven, due mostly to volume discrepancies in set-recorded and ADR’d performances. The incidental sound effects are also a bit tinny and scratchy, but the stylized sounds, including storm noise and the evil worms’ unnatural screams, are strong and well-layered along with the music. Robert Prince’s unsettling string and keyboard score sets the stage for the film’s gloomier moments and is pretty dynamic considering the mono track’s other limitations, especially the vibrating ‘wub wub’ sound he uses to represent the worms.
Writer/director Jeff Lieberman’s original MGM DVD commentary track
Digging In: The Making of Squirm (33:10, HD) – New retrospective interviews with writer/director Jeff Lieberman and actor Don Scardino.
Eureka! (7:00, HD) – Lieberman further discusses his inspiration by physically taking the interview staff to his childhood home to recreate a worm-zapping experiment.
Trailers for other Scream Factory releases
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