During a thunderstorm in 1970s’ rural America, a fallen pylon sends millions of volts into wet mud. Thousands of particularly gruesome fanged and multi-legged worms are charged with a desire to devour human flesh, coming out at night to attack the inhabitants of smalltown Fly Creek in Georgia. Not suprisingly, the electric storm coincides with the arrival of Mick (Don Scardino), who has come from New York to woo local belle Geri Sanders (Patricia Pearcy). Mick epitomises all tourists, associated with pollution and the nasty stuff they leave in the water, and causes frowns all around when he asks for his fancy ‘egg cream’ in the local caf. The two lovers, who did not factor in an attack of killer invertebrates during their romantic break, are the focus for Jeff Lieberman’s film. When people start to die in the town Mark and Geri set out to find out why, but are Mark’s quick-witted city ways a match for the wired worms?
Jeff Lieberman’s debut Squirm (1976) is well aware of its ludicrous premise, although as ‘ecological parable’ the film may have resonance for audiences in light of a new wave of climate-change horror. The release of the film certainly coincides with a turn to authenticity in current genre cinema. I’m thinking of recent homage films that show a reverence for celluloid over data, physical special effects and everything analogue, for example, Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) and Berberian Sound Studio (2012). The revenge of nature, or at least the physical, is now staged in the modes of production and materials used to make films.
One of the gems on Arrow’s Blu-ray release is the inclusion of the Q&A with Lieberman and Scardino from New York’s Anthology Archives (2012). Their stories about the pre-CGI production are as much a part of revisiting the film now as watching it. Highlights include how make-up artist Rick Baker produced some ground-breaking prosthetics for the shoot, as well as how the all-star wriggling cast of 250,000 worms were rounded up and made to wiggle on cue – animal lovers turn away at this point to avoid authenticity overload. Lieberman also reveals how sets and reverse printing were used in some scenes to create a particular creepy effect. Squirm is put together with visual eccentricities throughout, and part of this is the creation of some eerie, off-kilter shots.
My favourite is a story about the resurfacing of a sound effect that originally featured in Carrie, also made in 1976. When Lieberman was searching for a sound for the worms’ hideous screeching, Squirm sound editor Dan Sable, who had just been working on Carrie, played him a chilling recording of the scream of a pig being slaughtered (it’s enough here just to mention pig’s blood and prom dance). Lieberman thought this was the ideal sound for his rabid swarm, and ultimately it features heavily in the film. It’s interesting to hear that iconic sound effects enjoy this kind of covert resurrection.The resurfacing of the real is what gives the film its uncanny draw, and is as enjoyable now in its HiDef regalia as it was in its grindhouse, scratched up, celluloid form.
Watch the trailer: