Week 11 — Georgia
There’s a whole subgenre of nature-gone-batshit movies with one-word titles which could be classified as interjections — Them!, for instance, or one of my favorites, Sssssss. I wouldn’t call any of these movies “classics”, although some people swear by them based on what I can only guess is a misguided sense of nostalgia. Most are what you’d expect them to be: filled with cheesy acting and even cheesier special effects. Throw in a plot involving potential nuclear holocaust or genetic experimentation gone wrong, and you’ve got something that would even make the great Lawrence Woolsey proud (see last week’s column). Some of these movies are good, light-hearted fun — artifacts of an earlier era when people were much more easily entertained (see The Hula Hoop, Pong) Others are pretty painful. Where does this week’s film, Squirm, fall?
Find out after the break…
Hollywood Peach: Georgia in the Movies or One Blogger’s Difficult Quest to Find a Movie to Review Both Filmed and Set in Georgia
Despite its history, size and natural beauty, there really haven’t been as many films as one would think which have been filmed in Georgia. Georgia does have the distinction of being the setting for one of the most infamous films of all time, a movie which has never had an official release in the United States.
I knew immediately this is the movie I wanted to review this week.
It wasn’t Squirm.
Included is a portion of what would have been my review of Song of the South. I did not review it for the reasons stated below.
In 1946, Walt Disney and RKO Radio Pictures opened their latest feature film, which was set in the state of Georgia, at a gala premiere in Atlanta. The movie was a full-length live action and animated film based on the Uncle Remus stories, a collection of African-American animal folk tales compiled by the late Joel Chandler Harris. The various collections of Uncle Remus tales, published by Harris, a white newspaper editor, were wildly popular when first published in 1881. By the mid-20th century, however, Harris’s collected stories had fallen out of favor. While the animal tales themselves were not controversial, the general consensus was that the character of Uncle Remus that Harris had invented as a platform to convey the stories was dated. The minstrel shows had come and gone and Uncle Remus was a perfect example of the “Uncle Tom” stereotype that much of America wanted to forget — the kind, joyful elderly slave who respects and obeys his massah and has nothing but love for the pre-antebellum deep south. Yet, as if it were any surprise given their progressive stance on race relations — the Uncle Remus books remained popular and well-treasured in the southern United States well into the mid-1900s. Also a fan of the stories was Walt Disney, who bought the rights to Harris’s books in 1939.
Song of the South opened in Atlanta to mixed reviews, although the film’s most popular song, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”, has gone on to be a Disney classic and netted the film an Oscar. Additionally, its star, James Baskett, was given an “honorary” Oscar for setting Hollywood’s portrayal of blacks back 100 years for his portrayal of Uncle Remus. Baskett was unable to attend the premiere of Song of the South due to Atlanta’s segregation laws, which is just shameful. Realizing this, Disney has never released Song of the South in the United States to the home video market, although the movie has been re-released in the theaters as late as 1986 and in various forms all over the rest of the world. In March 2010, Disney CEO Robert Iger said there are no plans to release the film in the U.S. in the future, and referred to it as “antiquated” and “fairly offensive.” Meanwhile, Disney still makes money off of the film all over the rest of the world. Select scenes from the movie have been featured in Disney’s Sing-Along-Songs line of video tapes and the film served as the inspiration for Disney World’s Splash Mountain ride.
I’m fascinated with Song of the South — or should I say, I’m fascinated with how guarded Disney is about the film. Since the film itself is fairly easy to obtain as a bootleg, I planned to make it my featured review for Georgia. I obtained a copy of the film and watched it, read countless articles on it, did hours of research into it — never once did I stop to learn that not one frame of the movie was actually filmed in Georgia. Yes, Song of the South was filmed in the South — but that South was Arizona and Southern California.
I needed a Plan B. I had already seen Deliverance, set along a fictional river in the real-life Georgia wilderness. Since one of the cool things about this column is that it gives me an excuse to experience new films I would not have seen otherwise — in what I consider an act of defiance, I decided to review Gone With The Wind, the other movie aside from Song of the South which features Hattie McDaniel playing Mammy or an equally offensive black caricature. I had never seen Gone With The Wind in its entirety. It’s supposed to be a classic — one of the greatest films of all time.
Once again, no dice. Turns out that Gone With The Wind was almost entirely shot in California.
What it eventually came down to was to review one of two films: Driving Miss Daisy or Squirm. The first film won the Oscar for Best Picture for 1989, a year of saccharine Best Picture entries which also included the movies Dead Poet’s Society and Field of Dreams. Squirm was lampooned on the penultimate episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Guess which film I picked?
Squirm was written and directed by Jeff Lieberman (an auteur!), whose previous film — Blue Sunshine (1976), a film about a string of LSD-inspired murders — is considered a cult classic. Likewise, there are plenty of people out there who have described Squirm as a classic of the B-movie genre. I’m not going to disagree. Just take a look at that poster and tell me that isn’t a movie you’d want to see. The poster alone pushes this movie into classic status. Apparently, the Misfits agree.
For starters, Squirm uses the age-old gimmick of claiming to be “based on a true story.” The first thing you see after the MGM logo is a text crawl which claims that “late in the evening of September 29, 1975” an electrical storm struck a sea coast area of Georgia sending “thousands of volts” surging into the ground and cutting off all electricity to the town of Fly Creek. During that period, the town experienced what scientists say was one of the most “bizarre freaks of nature” ever recorded.
I don’t know. Maybe if the producers of Squirm had John Larroquette record a voice-over, like the producers of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did, it would have given the prelude to Squirm a little more authenticity. First of all, there is no Shit Creek Fly Creek, Georgia. The film was shot in Port Wentworth, Georgia. In 2008, Port Wentworth suffered a disaster when a sugar refinery exploded, killing 14 people and injuring 40 others. The town has never been under attack by electrified worms, a scenario which is problematic in and of itself. Lieberman claims that the idea for Squirm came about when — as a kid — he was able to call worms to the surface of the ground using electricity. I don’t buy it. I would imagine if you were to electrify the ground, the most likely scenario would be that you would fry any worms or other living things in it. But I’m just a skeptic.
So, after giving us the premise of the movie, we’re dumped right into the story. I like movies that waste no time. Some might call it lazy movie-making. I call it efficiency and it’s part of what makes this an entertaining movie. It moves fast. A creepy song plays over the opening credits, which is sung by a little kid. Later, we hear what I call “Theme from Squirm” being played on what sounds to me like a kazoo, which is just an odd choice of instrumentation. Also, during the opening credits, we see a sign for “Live Worms.” That’s called foreshadowing! Next, we see — the worms! Wow. They really don’t waste any time! They’re ugly too! These aren’t your garden-variety earthworms. We learn later, according to one of the characters, that “They bite!” Close-up shots of the worms are accompanied by squealing noises which I learned were recorded at a pig slaughterhouse. Ew…
Speaking of the characters, let’s meet them: There’s the townies, of which the major characters include sisters Geri (Patricia Pearcy) and Fran Higgins (Alma Sanders). The two girls live with their mother. Their father is dead and their grieving mother is somewhat mentally unbalanced. The Higgins’ next door neighbor is Roger Grimes (R.A. Dow), whose father owns the local worm farm. We learn later that Roger is disgusted by worms. Ironically, it’s Roger who winds up being attacked by worms (see the photo above) and turns into a sort of wormface monster who stalks Geri for the remainder of the movie. We know Roger is infatuated with Geri because he is seen spying on her early in the movie as she stands naked in front of her bedroom window. He later tries to kiss her but is pushed face first into a pile of flesh-eating worms. I guess Lieberman realized that worms only go so far as a threat and had to throw a little extra in — I mean, what’s the worst a worm can do? They can’t run. They can’t drive cars. They’re not very intimidating unless you get in real close with a magnifying glass.
Last but not least among the main characters is Mick, who is from New York. His real problem is he makes really crappy jokes. “I’m not a tourist, I’m a Libra,” he quips at one point to Geri. Oh, right! Because “tourist” sounds like “Taurus”! Puns are hilarious! New Yorkers are so witty!
Fran is the pot-smoking slut of the two sisters while Geri is the sweet girl. Pearcy, the actress who plays Geri is kind of like a Laura Flynn Boyle type or a Laura Dern but — you know — a ginger. Kudos to Lieberman, a maverick of sorts, for casting two gingers as the heroes of this movie during an era when America was dealing with a lot of ginger prejudice. He could have just as easily cast a brunette in either one of the roles made up in “freckle-face” wearing a wig or sporting a dye job. Also, credit goes to the director for not resorting to typical ginger archetypes like the sultry seductress, the geek or the “step child.”
In all seriousness, the characters in Squirm are a notch above the typical B-movie cookie cutter heroes and villains. Every once in a while, Lieberman slips something into the movie’s dialogue that takes the characters out of the second dimension — the best example being Roger Grimes’ unexpected aversion to worms. The acting’s also not too bad, considering what the actors had to work with. According to IMDb, R.A. Dow was a method actor who spent six weeks in Georgia preparing for his part. I wish that were a joke, but if you don’t believe me, look it up yourself.
You’ve still got your stock characters, like Peter Mac Lean’s asshole smalltown sheriff Jim Reston “who don’t take kindly to cityfolk.” Nevertheless, Reston is quite amusing for a stereotype. The best scene is when he accuses Mick of slipping a worm into his egg cream — apparently a concoction that consists of chocolate syrup, “a little milk” and seltzer water. I repeat, Mick is accused of slipping a 5-inch long worm into his own Yankee milkshake. That’s the kind of meta joke that might go over well in “New Yawk”. But not in Fly Creek, Georgia. No sir.
There’s a lot of worm imagery that Lieberman includes aside from numerous close-ups of the squigglers themselves. Some of it is subtle, like a brief cut-a-way shot of a woman running her fingers across a rack of beaded necklaces or kids eating red licorice. Some of it is not so subtle, like the sheriff and his date slurping down a plate of spaghetti.
As for the worms, Squirm delivers as advertised. The finale of the film involves an entire house practically enveloped in the critters. There’s also a great scene where Mick and Geri come across the body of Roger Grimes’ father at his worm farm. Mick rips open the man’s shirt to find this sight:
For a B-movie, Squirm‘s got the goods and ranks right up there with Food of the Gods in the pantheon of Man Vs. Nature films. In spite of the gruesomeness of some of the images in this article, the movie is actually somewhat low on gore and contains only a brief glimpse of female nudity from Ms. Pearcy, making it the kind of “horror” movie a parent could enjoy with their kids. My wife saw it as a kid and said that, for years she was afraid to turn on the shower because of a scene where worms emerge from a shower head. Anna was a lonely child.
What Variety had to say about Squirm: “Squirm is an average shock meller about some rampaging sand worms in the Georgia sticks, claimed to be derived from an actual occurrence on September 29 1975. Some genuine creepy special effects are offset by clumsy and amateurish low-budget location production, yet there is an admirable earnestness to the effort.”
Too harsh, Variety. Too harsh.
Next week: Hawaii.
Squirm on YouTube