Squirm (1976) Retrospective

SUMMARY
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 out of their soil-tilling minds. The townspeople soon 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.

 

 

 

DEVELOPMENT

“The script for Squirm was actually based on a true event.” Lieberman continues. “My brother Gary, who is now a noted pediatrician. hooked up an electric train transformer in our backyard to get worms out of the ground to go fishing. And it was amazing-all these worms suddenly came up out of the earth! Being very young, it scared the shit out of me, and those impressions emerged into a story.”

Within six weeks, Lieberman completed a draft of the arthropod epic, which he then gave to producer George Manasse. whose credits include a dramatization of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal called The Wild Party. He saw the potential in Lieberman’s script and passed it on to independent producers Edgar Lansbury and Joseph Beruh, a team who were mainly known for prestigious Broadway theater productions like Godspell and The Subject Was Roses. Fortunately, as Lieberman notes, the pair also had their lowbrow side.

 

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“The whole thing happened really fast,” he recounts. “Lansbury and Beruh loved Squirm, they thought it was a sure thing when they read the script. and they bought it immediately. They read it in the summer of 75, and we shot in November of that year. Although they had a few investors, Edgar and Joe mostly used their own money ($470,000) to make the picture.”

Squirm’s scenario was originally set in New England, but the weather conditions of the fall season forced the filmmaker to seek an alternative site for his worms to invade. Scouting for a well foliated shoreline location. Lieberinan settled on Port Wentworth. Georgia, a small town just outside of Savannah. “Since those large sandworms weren’t common in the area where we were shooting, we had to get the worms from Maine, refrigerate them and bring them down to Georgia,” Lieberman recalls. “The next spring there were articles in the paper about how Squirm threw off the whole fishing industry in Maine because there weren’t enough worms left after we got through!”

While half of Squirm’s slithering hordes were of the fake rubber variety. the multitude of authentic worms caused several major production dilemmas. “To get the real worms to act the way they did, we electrified them,” Lieberman reveals.

“We ran wires over the floor and juiced them with a rheostat. But we’d only get three good jolts out of ‘em before the room would start to smell like burning hamburger!

“The one setup that stands out in my mind is when we had to fill an entire living room with worms. We built a scaffolding that was about four feet off the ground, and covered it with worm-colored canvas material. We poured thousands of worms over the top of it until it was about six inches deep in them. Then we brought in a local Cub Scout troop, and they got underneath the scaffolding. They were all hunched over, and I directed them to pick their shoulders up and make the whole sea of worms undulate. It was pretty effective.”

 

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Even more memorable is the now legendary “Worm face” scene, in which a young Rick Baker transformed actor Richard A. Dow into what is perhaps Lieberman’s most striking vision of horror. The hideous sight of a slew of sandworms burrowing through Dow’s prosthetically modified countenance has churned many a young, impressionable stomach over the years.

“I had that scene vividly etched in my mind I knew exactly how it had to be shown.” Lieberman says of the show-stopping effect. “I felt it was the most crucial element in Squirm. to the point where I told the producers that we shouldn’t do the movie unless we could find somebody who could figure out how to create Worm face. If we couldn’t convince the audience that worms are much more horrible than just something gross that you can stomp on, we wouldn’t have a movie. That’s why I thought Bug was the stupidest thing I ever saw, or Frogs for instance: What are they gonna do, gum you to death? There’s no sense in doing these movies if you can’t deliver.”

With these concerns in mind. Lieberman brought Baker to New York during preproduction to cast Dow’s face for the fateful scene. “Rick told me. I’m not sure this is gonna work.” Lieberman recalls. “Prosthetics were brand-new for him. We didn’t have the budget to test it out, and when Rick finally made the facial appliances, he said. “You’ve got two takes. We put these artificial worms on monofilament line, and they were soaked in high speed machine fluid so they’d be lubricated enough to go through the channels under the latex: if the appliances tore, we were out of luck. There was a puppeteer standing just off camera, pulling the lines to make the worms go up through Richard’s skin. We actually got it done in one take, because I didn’t want to spend three hours putting the whole rig back on his face.”

According to Lieberman. the impact of Baker’s artistry was felt instantly on the set. “There was a 340-pound grip on the crew named Mongo, and I saw him walk away because he was so grossed out the director remembers. “I knew right then and there that we had a hit on our hands!

Ironically, while the film’s fragile femme Patricia Pearcy had no problem handling the slimy creatures, lead actor Don Scardino (who later starred in He Knows You’re Alone for the same producers) was reportedly disgusted by his wriggling co-stars. Fortunately, the actor’s aversion to Squirm’s subject matter didn’t dampen his friendship with Lieberman: years later, as producer of the sitcom The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. Scardino had his old friend brought in to direct the show’s Halloween episode.

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One supporting actor found a surefire method of dealing with the film’s unpleasant shooting conditions. “The actor who played Willie Grimes, the old man who is found eaten by worms, was just a local guy who wanted to be in the movie, Lieberman reveals. “He was required to lie there in a hole for eight hours with a fake body that had worms in its gut. He just had us give him Southern Comfort, and as long as we kept him drunk, he was happy as a clam!

“One of the interesting things about Squirm is the actors who aren’t in it.” Lieberman continues. “For instance, we could have had Kim Basinger in the female lead. I personally auditioned her, but like an idiot. I said, “Nah, the audience will never believe that she lives in this hick town.’ I didn’t understand that the horror audience would rather see a beautiful girl with a body like that being covered with worms than anything else.”

The young Basinger wasn’t the only star to be deprived of Squirm’s golden opportunity. “At one point. we had Martin Sheen to play Scardino’s character. Lieberman says. “But he started talking to me about changing the character and making him an actor, so that in the scene where he holds up the skull. he could say, “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well… He said it gave him a handle. I told Edgar Lansbury, with all due respect, that if I had to spend time on Sheen, we’d never bring the movie in.”

 

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After five weeks of the most exhausting labor Lieberman had ever experienced. seven days of which was solid worm work. Squirm was in the can. But the filmmaker’s toil didn’t end with the conclusion of principal photography. “I was heavily involved with the post production on Squirm,” he notes. “In fact, I created the sound of the worms. I rubbed two balloons together and recorded them at different speeds. Then, on another track. I recorded big shears snapping open and closed to create the sound of the worms’ teeth. We put these together on a multi track machine and made one loop that would be for a few worms, another for a thousand worms and another for a million worms.

The director also reveals that the endearing “worm scream” sound heard during close-ups of the critters was appropriated from the hog. slaughter scene in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Trivia buffs may have noticed a Squirm poster hanging in the background of several scenes in De Palma’s Blow Out, which Lieberman claims is not a coincidence. “De Palma was my idol back when I was doing Squirm.” he admits. “I met him years later, and when I asked him about that poster in Blow Out, he said, ‘Only use the best!

The MPAA didn’t take to Squirm as kindly as De Palma. Not surprisingly, they fingered nearly all of Squirm’s scary moments as objectionable to PG-rated sensibilities. “It was so annoying!” Lieberman fumes. “They cut the effects scenes so short that it looked like a mistake in the editing! Even the scene with the worms falling on the girl in the shower, which is all in your head to begin with, had to be cut down! AIP didn’t care about stuff like that, they weren’t exactly artistes, they just wanted to get the film a PG. In the theatrical version, there was just enough of the worm attacks left for them to work; on TV. the cuts are ridiculous!” Squirm eventually went out with an R rating.

Thankfully, the edits didn’t stop Squirm from raking in the long green, Lansbury and Beruh recouped their investment from foreign theatrical advances alone. When Lieberman came up with another horrific screenplay concept, the producers gave him the go-ahead almost instantly. The resulting film, 1977’s Blue Sunshine, is viewed by many fans (and the director himself) as Lieberman’s finest hour in the low-budget arena.

Jeff Lieberman Interview

Your film Squirm from 1976 is a somewhat offbeat horror film and not quite in the vein of the traditional horror movies from the 70’s. It has more in common with the Creature features of the 50’s. Do you agree or do you see the film as something completely different?

I was heavily influenced by the creature features of the 1950’s, in fact the radiation films inspired my late 70s film Blue Sunshine. But Squirm was directly influenced by The Birds which was from 1963, so it doesn’t fit into that 50’s-70’s decade thing. It’s a big mistake that so many people make, trying to force movies into fitting into trends of certain decades, no matter whether reality enters into it or not. Ninety percent of  the movies made in America during the Vietnam war had nothing to do with the war, yet pretty much all of them are attributed to it.

 

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How did the project start and what inspired you to write the story?

Well, it was inspired by The Birds but also by an experiment me an my brother did as kids and that can be found in Roger’s monologue about how, in his childhood, he used electricity to get worms out of the ground. I did the exact same thing with my older brother, who read all about it in Boy’s Life magazine.

How long did it take to write the screenplay and did the story change along the way?

It only took me about six weeks to write Squirm, and that was in long hand on yellow legal paper. I couldn’t type at all back then. And no, the story didn’t change.

Why did you decide on using sea worms instead of…well, any other type of worms?

Because, as Gerri says in the movie: “They bite”. Only kind of worms I know of that have those sharp pinchers and scary looking mouths.

Did you already have a studio interested or did you shop the script around? And how did the executives react to your story about killer worms?

I had nothing when I was writing. No studio, no interest, just sat down and wrote it. Then someone I knew got it to some producers and instantly there was a mini bidding war between them and using that leverage, I got to direct my first movie. Material is everything.

Regarding the casting, did you have a regular casting process or did you write the script with any specific actors in mind?

I had nobody in mind at all. It was my first film and I didn’t even know any young actors at that time.

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I have read that Kim Basinger auditioned for the female lead. Is this true?

Sadly that is true. She was fresh out of the Ford model agency and incredibly stunning. And from Georgia too. But I decided that nobody would believe she lived next door to a worm farm so I nixed her. What a jerk I was.

Yep haha. So I guess it’s right that Sylvester Stallone and Martin Sheen were interested in being a part of Squirm?

Martin Sheen was first cast in the lead as Mick and Stallone wanted to audition for Roger. Though I have an enormous respect for Sylvester Stallone, and he went on to have a monster career, I still think he was totally wrong for the role of Roger. Martin Sheen would have been fine, except that he saw the movie for something other than what it was and I’m sure it would have been a clash had we proceeded.

Tell me about the production and how the shoot went down.

It was a rag tag, non-union crew, all New Yorkers transplanted to the swamp lands outside of Savannah Georgia, very rural South. We didn’t quite fit in. Burt Reynolds was filming, I think Gator or one of those other red neck movies he did at the same time down there, so our two crews go on great. It took 25 days in all, including all special F/X with worms. Of course there was not only no CGI back then, but no money to do SFX opticals later either, so we had to figure out how to do most of it right there on location in the camera.

The make-up is designed by acclaimed make-up artist Rick Baker. How did he come aboard and how was it working with him?

The producer found him, but I had a great working relationship with him. It was mostly him telling me exactly how it needed to be done and me doing what he said. I didn’t know squat about special F/X make-up back then and on top of that, he was using the very latest technology that he learned from the great Dick Smith. So I got really lucky in that regard because to this day, the signature of the film is still the worm face shot designed by Rick.

Now where does one go to get so many sea worms? And do you have any idea how many you used in the film?

I think we used around a quarter of a million of them, all off the coast of New England.

I have always wondered about what you did with the rest of the worms after the production wrapped. Did you sell them or throw then into the sea or what?

Actually there were none left, they were all dead and many of them from electrocution!

 

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About the original poster artwork painting (with all the colors and the skull), I have always loved that and I think it’s a shame it hasn’t been used as cover artwork for the DVD release. But who came up with the idea for the poster and did you have anything to do with it?

I had nothing at all to do with that poster, it was all the marketing department at A.I.P. Didn’t have any input on the MGM DVD either. Purely marketing people.

Where do you see Squirm as far as its place in the overall canon of hallowed horror films from the 70s?

 As far as the movie itself, I think Squirm holds up amazingly well. There isn’t a lot to date it; it’s sort of ever green, it’s almost Nancy Drew mystery but with killer worms. It sounds funny, but it keeps on playing around the world on TV and now the hi-def channels and all that, to this day, I believe because of those reasons. There is a timelessness about it. It still makes money, too.

 

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Cast/Crew
Don Scardino as Mick
Patricia Pearcy as Geraldine “Geri” Sanders
R.A. Dow as Roger Grimes
Jean Sullivan as Naomi Sanders
Peter MacLean as Sheriff Jim Reston
Fran Higgins as Alma Sanders
William Newman as Quigley
Barbara Quinn as the sheriff’s girl
Carl Dagenhart as Willie Grimes
Angel Sande as Millie
Carol Jean Owens as Lizzie
Kim Leon Iocovozzi as Hank
Walter Dimmick as Danny
Leslie Thorsen as Bonnie
Julia Klopp as Mrs. Klopp

Directed by Jeff Lieberman
Produced by George Manas
Written by Jeff Lieberman

Music by Robert Prince
Cinematography Joseph Mangine
Edited by Brian Smedley-Aston
Distributed by American International Pictures

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