A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #1: “Squirm” (1976)
by A.J. Hakari
I’m always surprised when I find that certain movies have the sizable followings that they do (seriously, that many people dig Phase IV?), but Squirm is kind of a puzzler. Granted, folks aren’t gathering en masse for The Room-scale midnight screenings or modeling their attire after the film’s redneckian cast (unless they’re from North Carolina, where I assume it’s just the norm). But between a recent revival by the Alamo Drafthouse gang and a contingent of personal friends who maintain that, “No, dude, it’s a fun flick,” I can only gesture in Squirm‘s direction and reply, “Really?” It’s not the scuzziest excursion into backwoods-based terror that the ’70s birthed (and it cranked out plenty, believe you me), but its absence of scares and any appealing characters whatsoever makes you question how the movie ever managed to slither its way into cult adoration.
It’s a beautiful morning in Fly Creek, Georgia. An overnight storm sure did a number on the place, but the townspeople are still the same God-fearing, bitter, unnecessarily hostile assholes they ever were. But beneath their feet wriggles a horror just waiting to tear them apart. Some downed power lines have caused intense amounts of voltage to seep into the ground, and with the muddy ground acting as a perfect conductor, the hordes of worms living below the surface have nowhere to go but up…and they’re mighty hungry. You see, these aren’t just any worms — they’re extremely pissed-off little buggers, filled with a ravenous hunger and able to strip a human being down to the bones in no time. But will a 98-pound weakling with an affinity for antiques (Don Scardino) and his gal pal (Patricia Pearcy) actually convince anyone of the subterranean threat before Fly Creek is eaten right off the map?
Squirm is better known these days from the trouncing it endured on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (and on its penultimate episode, at that). Now I’ve seen the Satellite of Love troupe poke fun at some heaping slices of cinematic cheddar that I actually enjoy unriffed, but there’s no such affection to be spared for this tepid entry into the Great “When B-Movie Animals Attack” Race of the 1970s. It’s hard to explain, but Squirm is one of those movies that just makes you feel unclean while watching it. The viewer is constantly surrounded by squalor as far as the eye can see and repulsive characters who leer into frame at every available instance — in short, it’s like watching a Tobe Hooper movie, only without the dignified presence of squealing cannibals. Not only are the townsfolk quick to nearly lynch some city slicker for daring to grace their hamlet, said protagonist is a condescending wimp whose heroics consist of whining, falling down, and demanding egg creams.
This is where I’d expected to talk about how I rooted for the worms to drag these annoying archetypes to a composted hell, but that would mean wanting to see the creatures at all. Squirm works off of the lone conceit of, “Gee, a handful of worms is enough to gross people out, so entire rooms overflowing with the things oughta make them soil their underoos!” In other words, if you think watching a single worm crawling around is dull, pulsating mobs of them sloooooooowly making their way towards the visibly-depressed actors really ought to test your patience. Occasionally, you’ll get some cool shots (one with a homicidal hayseed getting swallowed up by a writhing mass is rather effective), but mostly, you’re too bored with the main narrative’s shenanigans or too busy wrapping your head around the logistics of how all these worms catch so many people off-guard to experience any twinges of suspense.
Squirm is an unpleasant and pretty joyless little endeavor, but it’s far from the bane of ’70s horror cinema. It’s a harmless animals-on-the-loose flick, dopey but tolerable, and even a few shades more atmospheric than contemporaries like The Food of the Gods and Night of the Lepus. Feel free to ironically or legitimately admire Squirm all you’d like, but a blown raspberry is about the most passionate reaction it can get out of me.