Why The Director Of SQUIRM Was Furious About The MST3K Version Of His Movie

Jeff Lieberman, director of the cult classic SQUIRM, dishes his problem with MST3K, and it's not what you expect. Jeff is coming to the new Yonkers Drafthouse Saturday!

When Mystery Science Theater 3000 did Squirm in one of their final episodes, I was shocked. After all, Squirm is actually an awesome movie. Yeah, it's about electrified worms coming out of the ground and eating people, but that's an awesome concept. And it's done incredibly well - the shower scene in Squirm is maybe the second best horror shower scene behind Psycho. I still look at my shower head with mistrust. 

If you live in New York you'll have a chance to see Squirm on the big screen - in 35mm! - with director Jeff Lieberman in attendance. It's playing at the new Yonkers Drafthouse this Saturday; if you're a city-dweller this is totally worth hopping on the Metro North. If you go, ask Jeff about star Don Scardino, who now directs big movies like The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. I didn't get a chance in this interview, because I had to ask Lieberman what he thought about MST3K poking fun at his movie. He was mad about it,  but for reasons that might surprise you (or might not, if you know anything about exploitation filmmakers).

Squirm is a great audience picture.

Oh yeah. I thought of it as a matinee movie. I used to love matinee movies when I was kid, and I thought in terms of the audience when I was making it. It’s the kind of movie where you want the audience to be very vocal. One thing that surprised me when I went to the first public screening, when it opened on 50 screens in the New York area, I don’t know if it’s because I went to a theater in Times Square - I went to the biggest one I could find, it had about 900 seats - it was 2/3rds black audience and they were rooting for Roger, the worm guy. They were going, ‘Kill that white bitch!’ They wanted Don Scardino’s character to be eaten by worms or for Roger to kill them. I never watched the movie from that perspective! But I can see it. Poor old Roger, he gets screwed over in the movie.

It’s funny - the Alamo Drafthouse is well-known for its no-talking policy. But that was definitely not the policy for these grindhouse theaters.

One of the times when we were screening Squirm at the New Beverly Theater, Tarantino’s theater in LA, and I asked the audience beforehand ‘If  you remember any lines, anything, give it a shout out during the film.’ It’s the opposite of the Drafthouse. I was going to mention it to Tim League, but then I was like oh no, this goes against the policy they’re trying to establish in Yonkers!

What inspired Squirm?

My brother was a little older than me, and we both read the science magazines - Popular Mechanics and Boy’s Life and stuff like that. We used to go fishing in a lake a lot, and one of the issues of Popular Science had an article how to get worms out of the ground using electricity. You take your train transformer - which we had, Lionel electric trains - and you took the poles and copper wire and stick them in the wet ground at night and you zap it and the worms would come up. When we did it in my backyard we had one of those over ground swimming pools, so when you took the pool down for winter it left this big, round glob of mud, perfect for worm farming. We zapped it there, and then when we turned the pool lights on we could see the worms but they reacted to the lights and went back underground. Now, I was 10 years old, so it’s not like I said there’s something here for a movie, but maybe 15 years later add a little LSD...

As a matter of fact in the movie when Roger gives his little backstory about the train transformer, that’s basically what I just told you. That’s where that monologue comes from. It’s a true story!

Have you seen the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of Squirm?

Back then when it was put on they sent me a tape. I said, yeah okay I get it. I was furious about the sale - I don’t care about goofing on the movie, I tell the audience to goof on the movie. What I was furious about is that some jerk at MGM sold it to them. They pay so little. I own 12% of Squirm and it’s going to cheapen the value of the movie from then on. I know the movie plays in its entirety on cable without having to put it in a package of a thing like that.

Mystery Science Fiction was really invented by Zacherly, and Elvira called herself Zacherly with Tits. The movies they would get, they would get them because the owners of the films would go, ‘Oh well, a little bit is better than nothing’ because nobody was booking these movies to play in their entirety. But Squirm was playing all over the world in its entirety on its own, so why would you make a cheap sale like that? Once you do that you can’t sell it to stations at the same time. Of course the fandom thought I was being sensitive about them goofing on it, like it was Gone With the Wind or Citizen Kane. I was furious about the financial aspect. I didn’t give a shit what anybody says. It’s a movie about worms.