They Came From Underground
Worms: wriggly, slimy, gross, all acceptable adjectives when describing those bizarre non-arthropod invertebrate animals that slowly pulsate through the ground upon which we walk… but scary? Scary just doesn’t cut it when it comes to fleshy entities we accidentally step upon on a dark, sodden winter morning. Squirm, the debut feature of illusive horror filmmaker Jeff Lieberman (Blue Sunshine, Just Before Dawn) tells the story of a backwater rural town situated in America’s Deep South, blighted by a deadly freak occurrence of nature. After a ferocious storm rips though the landscape, tearing down power lines and flooding the soil with millions of volts of electricity, the town’s very own wiggly residents, are imbued with an insatiable taste for human flesh. Unfortunately for Lieberman and Squirm, worms, no matter how ferocious you make them aren’t particularly scary, and instead of blurring the lines between reality and fiction with some degree of believability, or striving for fantastical supernatural scares, the premise is just daft.
A further issue is that of Lieberman’s human characters. Despite, the filmmaker’s best efforts to situate his lead city-slicker protagonist within a hostile rural environment akin to the deeply creepy locales of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, and John Boorman’s Deliverance, the necessary sense of oppressive unpredictability and unknown danger never materialises within the fish-out-of-water scenario. Whereas the ‘local boys’ in those pictures displayed a genuine sense of menace and twisted morality which materialised through horrifying animalistic violence, Lieberman’s locals simply come off as rubes; dumb stereotypical caricatures that are never particularly funny and act solely as fleshy fodder for the emerging worm army – the fact that Tobe Hooper displayed individuals from a similar background as murderous flesh sporting psychopaths is actually far more complimentary. Despite the poor pick of monster and one-dimensional characterisation, Squirm does possess a few strong set pieces mainly thanks to Oscar-winning make-up artist Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London) whose creature design accomplishes a genuine shock factor which transcends the film’s scant budget.
Many classic horror films were produced during the 1970s, including a few which also belong to the revenge-of-nature sub-genre (most notably Spielberg’s Jaws) unfortunately Squirm is not one of them. For a debut feature, the film is stylistically accomplished and the narrative does possess a kooky charm, but whether that is enough to secure Squirm’s legacy alongside horror greats is debateable. Collectors and Lieberman fans will undoubtedly enjoy this HD presentation and its wealth of contextual extra features, but those looking for an introduction to seventies scares should begin their journey elsewhere.