Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Squirm (1976) - MST3K Review


This episode starts with a short, “A Case of Spring Fever”. Its deals with a dumpy guy who wishes that springs didn’t exist. Coily the Spring Sprite grants his wish. The main character soon realizes that the world is entirely composed of springs and learns the error of his ways. Coily sets the world to right, and our hero spends the rest of the short telling his golf buddies how great springs are. No kidding.

The feature answers the question, what happens when you combine a huge storm, a downed power line and big slimy worms? Mick (Don Scardino) is about to find out. He arrives in Georgia to meet with a Geri (Patricia Pearcy), a girl he met at an antique show. Things don’t go exactly right. First there’s Roger (R.A. Dow), who’s obviously enamored with Geri and who keeps butting in. Then there’s the testy Sheriff (Peter MacLean) who is convinced that Mick is a troublemaker – especially after the egg cream incident. Then there are the man-eating worms. They start pouring out of the ground and devouring hapless southerners. Will our northern gent be able to save the town from the “squirm”y menace?

Film Review:

Sometimes you just ask, what the hell is this short about? My summary for “A Case of Spring Fever” really doesn’t do this short justice, you should seek it out (with or without MST3K commentary) if you can. The whole thing is a really strange exercise about the importance of springs. Why? Were people doubting the need for these simple machines, or was this part of a larger film series that would include pulley-ee the Pulley Sprite and Inclined Planey the Inclined Plane Sprite?

It’s mildly interesting to see how many things in our world actually contain springs (even more so in the pre-digital world we see here). But the short belabors the point with Coily’s maniacal laughter and bizarre sound effects. Coily comes across kind of demonic actually and our hapless lunk-head is well, helpless. You also know exactly where the short is going within the first minute of the film.

The big kicker is right when you think the short is done, with Coily setting the springs back in place, the short just keeps on going. Our hero goes golfing with his buddies and spends the next five minutes of the short babbling on and on about springs. The short shows all his buddies bored out of their minds – seriously! The short ends with one of the friends about to declare that he doesn’t want to see another spring as long as he lives. Our hero stops him just in time and then shares a secret smile with Coily. Truly a bizarre little film.

“Squirm” is actually a movie with a budget and financed by a major studio (MGM). So it’s a bit more competent then some of the other episodes we’ve seen this season. That’s not to say that director/writer Jeff Lieberman is a master of the filmmaking art, but he does a respectable job with what he’s got.

What he’s got is oozy gooey worms as the threat. This makes the horror element pretty simple to execute, especially with the disturbing idea that they can devour you. Now the idea that electricity could turn the worms into man-eaters, that’s about as silly as you get.

There are a few missteps with the horror elements. For instance, the numerous close ups on the worms. Nothing wrong with that on the surface. But when you add roaring sound effects it just makes me laugh. Then there’s Roger, who after he’s been attacked by the worms, turns out to be a zombie worm face man. Um, really? Roger was actually kinda of creepy already what with is obsessive behavior and low IQ. But now he’s just silly looking with the zombie makeup and the even dumber lines he’s been given. Have the worms been eating his brain?

Odd characters abound in the film. You’ve got Mick, the thin and nerdy lead. I think that we are supposed to root for the guy because he’s the underdog: the northern gent in the southern town. He’s such a dweeb that you end up laughing when he’s in peril. On top of that he’s supposed to be our romantic lead, but he generates very little chemistry with Pearcy. I can believe that they met at an antique show, but I can see them more as shopping buddies instead of lovers.

Pearcy is shrill and overly southern. Yeah I know it’s a weird comment, but she’s putting the accent on really thick. We don’t feel frightened for her, but keep hoping she’ll end up as the worm food. Her mother played by Jean Sullivan is an over the top Southern Belle in every way. As the movie progresses she gets spacier and spacier. Then there’s little sister Alma, with her oh so hip 1970’s clothing and shoes. She’s a fashion disaster and uses the best 70’s slang in the movie.

You can’t have a southern movie without the stereotypical intolerant sheriff showing up. MacLean plays the part to the hilt; being a nasty jerk from the moment we lay eyes on him. He’s also into harassing waitresses with a slap on the butt and getting girls into his jail cell for some nighttime shenanigans.

To add to the 70’s feel the whole thing, you’ve got a wonderful Moog soundtrack. Not only does it instantly date the film, but it’s not even used effectively.

Lieberman does a competent enough job with the film. It’s not slow moving, but it’s not really scary. If you find worms icky, then yeah this movie is going to gross you out. If you find the Southern states inherently frightening, then you’ll be horrified by this movie. But for the most part, it’s just a silly romp with plenty to make fun of.

Episode Review:

Let’s start with the short. This little movie has been on the radar of Mystery Science Theater for years. Back in the Comedy Central years, it had come up for consideration. I’m not sure why the Brains never decided to riff on it, but they were inspired in other ways. A series of host segments for the episode “Viking Women and the Sea Serpent” had Crow masquerading as Waffly the Waffle Sprite, sharing the glory of waffles with Joel and Tom. Trace Beaulieu even adapted Coily’s vocal mannerisms and the goofy sound effect. Earlier this season Crow once again dressed in a costume and declared himself Droppy the Water Droplet for the episode “Future War”.

So the short is finally revealed and it’s just as silly as the host segments lead us to believe. The riffing is pretty steady, mocking our pudgy protagonist and the demonic sprite with equal zeal. After the zillionth time Coily yells “No springs” and laughs insanely, Tom quips “And No Redemption either!” After the world is returned to normal and our hero continues babbling about springs, Mike asks the question on all our minds, “Um movie? Shouldn’t this be over?” it’s a great riffing session and starts the episode with a bang. I consider it a perfect finale for the long history of mocking short subjects on the show. At the time Bill Corbett lamented that he only got to work on three shorts during his time playing Crow on the show – but now with Rifftrax he, Mike and Kevin tackle shorts regularly and to be honest they are some of the funniest material they’ve done. Check out the hilarious 70’s educational short “Drugs Are Like That” for a taste of the comedy.

“Squirm” is ripe for mocking and provides the team with lots of material to work with. All the characters get attacked: Micky with his nerdy feeble physique, Geri and her ultra skinny body, the slimy sheriff and the zombie Roger. Mike and bots also provide the worms with voices (much as they did with the bats in “It Lives by Night”) when they aren’t already roaring.

Even though the film is saturated in 70’s music and fashions they team goes lighter on the 70’s jokes and focuses more the extreme Southerness of the film. As I mentioned before, it feels like the director instructed his actors to play up the accents and behavior. The result is a movie that wallows in stereotypes and Mike and the Bots just jump on it, even allowing it to ooze into one of the host segments.

My favorite sequences mostly involve the ineffectual Micky. The whole scene with him ordering an egg cream at a diner and having to explain what it is to the waitress is odd to begin with. Mike and the bots just riff on everyone in the diner, especially the nebbish Micky and his fear of drinking the egg cream he just ordered!? Near the end, Micky is rendered shirtless, for the ladies I guess (just like “Boggy Creek 2”) and forced to wander around in the swamp. Mike and the bots are relentless on his feeble looking arms and the way he strains under the wood he’s bringing back. When he’s attacked by worm zombie Roger, all bets are off and the riffs come at both characters expense.

The host segments are varied. Things start with the safety check the satellite. Turns out the ship is very unsafe. Pearl then reveals that she will take over the Universe Fair, but will start with her local county fair. Observer and Bobo help with rides and games. At the first break, Mike and the bots discuss Coily and how he works in the grand scheme of things. At the next break, the movie is so Southern that it has caused Tom to transform into a Southern Belle! For the next break, Mike is inspired the movie to create his own mutant worms – turns out they taste pretty good too. In the finale Crow dresses up like the super 70’s sister in the movie and Pearl has Observer test out the bungee jump.

All told you’ve got an entertaining mix here. The movie and the riffing are a little better than average, but the classic short and the fun host segments push this into a higher grade. In my mind, this is the last good episode. But I’ll save my reflections on the final episode. For now I give this episode four egg creams out of five.

This episode is available on DAP. A Case of Spring Fever is available as an extra on the Killer Shrews disc in The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection – Volume Seven.

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