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 aggro-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 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 gets 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.