I first heard of the director Jeff Lieberman when I recalled seeing the artwork for one of his films, Squirm on the video shelves in the 80’s. The sleeve depicting a shower head dripping with worms instead of water with some of them having crawled under the skin of the scared woman in the picture (this shot was actually taken specifically for the video art rather than being a still from the actual film) burrowed (pun not intended) into my brain as it was so eye catching and disturbing to my young eyes.
It would be several years until I saw the actual film and after I had read further about it in John McCarty’s excellent book The Modern Horror Film. This great book also introduced me to other horror masterpieces such as Mother’s Day and The Devils.
Squirm concerns Fly Creek in Georgia where a huge storm has felled electricity wires which causes them to pump huge amounts of voltage into the ground causing the worms within to become carnivorous killers. The morning after Geri, a local of the area goes to pick up her new boyfriend Mick who is visiting her. Fly Creek has a worm farmer (!) and the truck that he uses is the vehicle that Geri uses to pick up her beau. The 100,000 worms that were on the back of the truck all escape meaning that the killer worms (specified as bloodworms natch) are far from being few and far between. The action kicks off (or should that be slithers off) when Mick finds a worm in his egg cream in the local diner.
Squirm is a fantastic update of the monster movie genre of a few decades before. But Lieberman imbues it with a deft and very witty script, idiosyncratic lead and side characters alike and a tongue in cheek sensibility. There are also very perceptive and funny observations of small-town life especially when a big city outsider views them with fresh eyes. Much of the film feels like we are seeing these through the eyes of Mick with the locals being either a bit crazy and/or not very friendly.
But this playfulness doesn’t detract from Squirm being a highly effective horror film that has suspense and gore in equal measures. It helps enormously that Rick Baker was assigned the task of the special effects and he doesn’t disappoint.
Squirm does for worms what Jaws did for sharks. Squirm also unleashes literally shitloads of worms onto the characters to battle against and for the audience’s enjoyment. There are even scenes that show writhing, slithering oceans of worms which take your breath away as to how such a feat was accomplished on screen and the audacity to accomplish such feats. This is also naturally great fun for fans of all things icky horror.
The film also has a strangely apocalyptic ending that has religious ‘end of days’ connotations and takes the movie to a whole other level rather than just being a throwback to the killer animals genre.
The movie denotes another great addition to Don Scardino’s filmography alongside such other gems as He Knows You’re Alone and Cruising.
Great fun and it’s brilliant to see the original uncut version (the film was cut by distributors to try and get a PG rating) looking and sounding fantastic thanks to Arrow Video.
The next film that I discovered by Lieberman came about in a very strange way. I was getting into Siouxsie and the Banshees and learnt that in 1983 the band temporarily split into two side projects. Siouxsie and drummer Budgie became The Creatures whereas Steven Severin and Robert Smith became The Glove. Smith and Severin named their album Blue Sunshine after the Lieberman film of the same name (I once asked the director if he had heard of this album that was named after one of his films. He replied that indeed he had and even had the album’s artwork framed in his living room).
Whilst the film was released on video during the heady early days of home video in the UK, it had gone out of print and disappeared completely.
As luck would have it as soon as I had arrived in London to undertake a film degree, the movie was being shown at the NFT a few days later. I went to see it and was bowled over at how original and brilliant it was.
Blue Sunshine concerns a spate of seemingly random cases of people going on murder sprees after first losing all of their hair. This is linked to a form of LSD they had taken ten years earlier that lies dormant in the system of the person who has ingested it but then turns that person into a bald-headed homicidal killer.
Lieberman has a field day with the different circumstances in which the now upstanding pillars of the community suddenly become maniacs. The babysitter scene is worth the price of admission alone as is the scene in which one character undergoes his transformation in a shopping mall disco after first complaining about the music (this would count as a very witty addition to the ‘Disco Sucks’ movement).
There is a sense of urgency to proceedings as someone who witnessed the first transformation is actually mistaken as the killer who killed three women by throwing them into a blazing fireplace. Hence, Jerry has to gather evidence in order to clear his name whilst doing all of this on the down-low so that he doesn’t get arrested by the police who are looking for him.
Witty but not played for laughs, innovative and horrifying, Blue Sunshine walks a fine line and completely accomplishes what it sets out to convey and does so with verve and panache. I’ve never known a film with the same feel or look as Blue Sunshine which makes me love it even more. It really is a one-off and fantastic because of it.
Again, it would be quite a while until I could get my mitts on another Lieberman film I had read a lot about but wasn’t available in the UK. It would be whilst I was living in Sydney that I would be able to see the hillbilly/slasher variant Just Before Dawn on vintage VHS.
The wait was worth it. Just Before Dawn is just as innovative and imaginative as Lieberman’s other films.
The five kids who are venturing up mountain to a house that one of them is inheriting are the complete opposite to many young teens in both slasher movies and within the deranged hillbilly genre. They’re likeable for a start and it feels like they have a purpose rather than just being the kind of vacuous morons who you can’t wait to see get sliced and diced.
There’s also another great twist regarding Just Before Dawn that is so simple that I’m surprised no one else used it earlier. There are in fact two killers who are identical twins and built like Brunswick bricklayers. I love the fact that one of them takes the red hat and vest of Vachel, the first person we see him kill in the film and is seen wearing them throughout the rest of the movie. This reminds me of The Hills Have Eyes with the character of Pluto wearing Bob Carter’s false teeth around his neck after he has been killed. In fact, Lieberman insisted that he had seen neither Hills nor The Texas Chain Saw Massacre prior to making his film.
There’s a great scene in which two of the kids, Megan and Jonathan go skinny dipping. What they don’t see is that one of the killers has actually entered the water as well. We earlier saw Jonathan going underwater and pulling Megan’s legs which she playfully squealed and screamed at. We then see this happen again but this time Megan looks out to the furthest shore to see Jonathan there who waves back. She then screams and starts to frantically swim to him as she realises that whoever and whatever was tugging at her legs underwater wasn’t her boyfriend. A fantastic scene that is both very scary and very funny. It’s little touches like this that helps to set Just Before Dawn apart from the majority of uninspired entries within both the slasher movie and demented hillbilly genres.
Vachal’s demise at the hands of one of the killers also goes to show how brutal the movie is. He is stabbed from behind with a machete which exits through his groin.
Another great thing about the movie is the absolutely gorgeous cinematography. Yes, it’s difficult to make such beautiful surroundings look unimpressive. But, the scope and vision here are both epic in their magnitude to emphasise just how out of their depth the teens are. By contrast, other shots are claustrophobically close when needs be.
There’s also the kick-ass ending which was such a massive surprise when I first saw it that I was astounded by its originality and audacity. No, I’m not going to reveal it here.
And so for these three movies, this is why we salute Jeff Lieberman. He made movies that defy expectations, breathed new life into tired old genres where cliches had become de rigour and he granted horror fans with having a modicum of intelligence. Oh, and he still made kick-ass horror films.
His other movies are also worth investigation such as his movies Remote control, Satan’s Little Helper and the short film he made, The Ringer (which conveniently is on YouTube).