At its best, Mystery Science Theater 3000 could offer a  kind of mul­ti-lay­ered, post-mod­ern satire that tran­scend­ed goof­ing on movies to sat­i­rize pop cul­ture as a whole.  However, they were just as capa­ble of get­ting it wrong and giv­ing a skew­er­ing to movies that didn’t deserve it.  For exam­ple, Phase IV and Danger: Diabolik are two gen­re clas­sics that were wrong­ly given the MST3K treat­ment.  Squirm is anoth­er mem­o­rable exam­ple, a lit­tle hor­ror film that is too smart and charm­ing­ly quirky to be sub­ject­ed to Squirm-posaggro-nerd riff­ing.

Squirm fits neat­ly into the cycle of “revenge of nature” films that were so pop­u­lar in the ‘70s.  It’s set in small south­ern town where big city boy Mick (Don Scardino) is trav­el­ing to meet Geri (Patricia Pearcy), a local who shares his love for antiques.  However, the lit­tle town recent­ly suf­fered a mas­sive storm that downed a big set of pow­er lines.  Said pow­er lines are feed­ing a few hun­dred thou­sand volts of elec­tric­i­ty into the ground — and that is dri­ving the local worm pop­u­la­tion under­ground insane.  Soon those worms are com­ing above­ground to attack the town­ies and the love­bird heroes must fight to save friends and fam­i­ly from the onslaught.

Squirm-01Squirm could have been incred­i­bly sil­ly but instead comes off as charm­ing because it makes the right cre­ative deci­sions to make its “killer worms” premise work­able.  Writer/director Jeff Lieberman takes the Jaws-esque tack of sav­ing the big crea­ture effects for the sec­ond half of the film and spend­ing the first half on build­ing an atmos­phere and craft­ing char­ac­ters the audi­ence can actu­al­ly relate to as they try to fig­ure out what’s hap­pen­ing.

Lieberman’s atmos­phere build­ing is helped by a sub­tly creepy score from Robert Prince, includ­ing some fun analog syn­th touch­es, and styl­ish yet earthy cin­e­matog­ra­phy from gen­re vet Joe Mangine that match­es the small town set­ting nice­ly.  As for the char­ac­ter-build­ing aim, Lieberman is helped by some excel­lent lead per­for­mances. Scardino is fun as an atyp­i­cal lead­ing man who’s more like to crack a joke than throw a punch and brings a believ­able intel­li­gence to the sleuthing part of the film.  Pearcy brings a low-key charm to her hero­ine and shows her dra­mat­ic met­tle when the sit­u­a­tion geSquirm-02ts dire.  Elsewhere, R.A. Dow steals some sce­nes as a dim-wit­ted local sweet on Geri and Peter MacLean has fun with his “sus­pi­cious sher­iff” arche­type.

Finally and most impo­rant­ly, Lieberman deliv­ers a qual­i­ty pay­off when it’s time for the hor­ror moments.  He doles out small-scale shocks in the ear­ly parts of the film — the most mem­o­rable being a worms-under-facial-skin illu­sion cre­at­ed by a young Rick Baker — and then he and Mangine bril­liant­ly use night­fall as cam­ou­flage for the big worm attacks.  The finale’s stag­ing is high­ly effec­tive, with dark­ness used to keep the audi­ence in sus­pense as large mass­es of worms spar­ing­ly shown. In this scene and many oth­ers, Lieberman and his crew turn the lim­i­ta­tions of a low bud­get into a clev­er styl­is­tic approach.

In short, Squirm is much bet­ter than its “shown on MST3K” stig­ma would sug­gest.  Viewers with open minds will dis­cov­er that there’s a lot of intel­li­gence and style under the­se cheap thrills, a propo­si­tion that b-movie buffs can enjoy with­out snarky com­ments from the peanut gallery.