As part of our “first week of spring” series, we’re travelling back to the 1970s to review another EcoHorror film. Director Jeff Lieberman earned some good will among slasher horror film fans with his hidden gem, Just Before Dawn. Before this low-budget “campers in the woods” film, Lieberman found himself a spot in the ‘cult classic hall of fame’ with his flesh-eating worms film, Squirm (1976). This was another B-movie “creature feature” that made the rounds on Sunday afternoons when I was a kid. It was also one of the last films to get the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.
Squirm (1976) takes place in Fly Creek, Georgia, where a thunderstorm knocks over power lines, sending electrical surges deep into the ground. The electrical surge drives thousands of flesh-eating worms to the surface. As the threat slowly burrows its way up from the earth, big-city kid Mick shows up in Fly Creek to visit his local girlfriend, Geri. Once Mick and Geri discover the threat beneath their feet, they must convince the skeptical sheriff and townsfolk that the worms are dangerous.
The Slow, Methodical Slithering of … Worms
For a movie that’s about flesh-eating worms, Squirm is a surprisingly slow, boring film. In fact, the film moves along at such a meandering pace that one wouldn’t be faulted for thinking it was about killer sloths. There is nothing wrong with a ‘slow burn’ approach, but it’s hard to build either anticipation or dread when the looming threat are earthworms. Generally, worms produce a “yuck” reaction out of people, not feelings of terror. More importantly, there is nothing holding Squirm together in between its “creature” scenes. Neither character development nor exposition drive Squirm from one death to the next.
Witness the Terrors of … Bad Acting
Even with a better script and a more compelling “creature” I’m not sure there’s not much Lieberman could have done with his cast. The performances are almost uniformly dreadful in Squirm. Only Don Scardino, playing protagonist Mick, turns in a fairly credible performance. There are some pretty broad southern accents in the film that may make some viewers wonder if someone can sound “too southern”. Most of the characters are fairly one-dimensional stereotypes. As a result, the long stretches between the action make Squirm feel like it’s dragging its feet.
Impressive Early Make-Up Effects from Rick Baker
If Squirm has a redeeming feature it’s Rick Baker’s impressive make-up effects. Yes, the same Rick Baker whose work on An American Werewolf in London prompted the Academy to create an Oscar just for makeup effects, created the effects in Squirm. Not surprisingly then, the makeup effects for Roger with worms burrowing into his face are impressive, particularly for a low-budget film. Additionally, the film used real worms for all of its scenes, which may increase the gross-out factor for viewers when literal mountains of worms engulf their victims. All other productions aspects of Squirm are pretty poor. The sound is particularly weak with much of the dialogue sounding muffled. Perhaps the sound budget was allocated to the ridiculous sounds effects of the worms screaming.
Worms Just Aren’t Scary
Sharks are scary. Spiders and snakes are creepy. Even bees can make you feel a little nervous. Unfortunately, worms aren’t naturally “scary” and Squirm doesn’t do much to convince you of otherwise. Maybe if Lieberman had included a little more tongue-in-cheek humour – some self-awareness about the silliness of the concept – Squirm might played a little better. As it stands, this is the type of bad film that seems to be blissfully unaware of just how bad it is, making it an ideal candidate for shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: D-