One of the most idiosyncratic and
inventive voices of genre filmmaking to emerge in the 1970s was Jeff Lieberman
(born 1947), whose three best known films, Squirm (1976) Blue
Sunshine (1978) and Just Before Dawn (1981) have become
classics of horror and sci-fi. Cited as an influence on such directors as Eli
Roth and Quentin Tarantino (the latter lists Squirm as an essential
viewing if he’s to take you seriously), Lieberman’s filmmaking captures the
low-budget resourcefulness of Roger Corman and combines it with a singular
point of view -- one that seems both quirky and at times, deliriously demented.
Here at Cinema Retro, these are
exactly the types of directors we enjoy tipping our hat to. So I’m excited to
announce that I’ve organized a tribute to Lieberman built around these three
films with the generous participation and hosting of Anthology Film Archives in
New York City, where the retrospective will take place, August 17-19th. (www.anthologyfilmarchives.org)
“3 X Jeff Lieberman” will mark the
first time these three films have been screened in 35mm in New York since their
theatrical premieres, a remarkable event considering how much word-of-mouth
cachet each has, like prized baseball trading cards for cult film fans.
“It all comes down to story,” Lieberman
often says in interviews, and watching these three films, it’s clear why. All
three cohere around a tight, well crafted narrative that does not look to the
supernatural as the locus of horror, but at the inherently corrupt nature of
people as a means to bespoil nature and society. It’s a tough-minded, cynical
worldview that runs throughout his work, and the man himself. Perhaps updating
the famous line from Sartre’s No Exit, “hell is other people,”
Lieberman’s work is shot through with an even simpler maxim: Humanity is
Lieberman’s first film credit was
co-authoring the screenplay for the police thriller Blade (1973),
directed by his mentor Ernest Pintoff, but his debut as a writer-director came
in 1976 when his AIP-distributed Squirm burst upon drive-in
screens and became a sizeable hit, considering its low budget. The fictional
town of Fly Creek, Georgia is terrorized by a killer worm infestation after a
thunderstorm, which sends power lines crashing to the ground and electrifying
the ground -- and thousands of earthworms -- in the process. As a result, they
go on a killer rampage, invading homes and most shockingly, burrowing into
their victims’ skin. It stars a young Don Scardino (Cruising, He
Knows You’re Alone) as Mick, the interloping city-slicker beau of Geri
Sanders (Patricia Pearcy) the local redhead beauty of Fly Creek. Together with
Geri’s sister Alma (Fran Higgins), they attempt to survive the killer worm
onslaught overnight, without power and without a clue as to what has happened
Squirm-- still Lieberman’s most popular film -- feels like a
double-feature twin to 1972’s Frogs (1972, with Sam Elliott), another
swampy, “nature’s revenge” tale of eco-horror put out by AIP. Featuring
early makeup work by eventual seven-time Oscar-winner Rick Baker, and
co-starring thousands of real worms, the film was shot on location in Port
Wentworth, Georgia and aside from Don Scardino, used a cast made up mostly of
locals, who contribute to its earthy and authentic atmosphere, not unlike the
drive-in mainstay The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), which was shot in
similar circumstances. And speaking of earthy, we should pay special tribute to
the actors, who braved thousands and thousands of real live earthworms on set.
Not a rubber worm among them! The original idea, Lieberman revealed to an
interviewer this year, came from a real event. His brother, in order to get
earthworms out of the ground, electrified the soil inserting a electric model
train transformer into the soil. When they slithered out, they noticed they
burrowed back in when light was shined on them. But are earthworms scary? Not
in real life, but as Lieberman explained: “I had to go to great lengths to make
[the worms] scary, because they’re not scary...until you’re shown otherwise you
can just step on it. So I had to make that scary by it burrowing into the
face...so that was the big assignment and I guess it worked.” An interesting
footnote: When a 25 year-old Lieberman wrote the original title on a legal pad,
(then spelled Skworm) and sketched down a paragraph containing the
story, he showed it to his wife. “She said it was the stupidest idea she’d ever
heard. Two years later we’re buying a house with the money that Squirm built.”
The inscrutable weirdness of Blue Sunshine (1978), unlike the fairly straightforward genre mechanics of Squirm and Dawn, is perhaps the main ingredient in its longevity and the word-of-mouth reputation it has built up like a patina since its release. It combines elements of Seventies paranoid conspiracy with zombie horror and drugsploitation, to be sure, but it also manages to evoke all sorts of previously unexplored, dreadful connections, like hair loss and psychosis. (Male viewers feel this one acutely.) Add to that a subplot of a magnetic politician with a past identity he’d like to keep private, and it’s clear why the film always feels timely. Andrew Sarris put his finger on perhaps the core of it in The Village Voice in 1982: “...the question of why a mother, a police detective, a political aide and a guy imitating Sinatra at a soiree suddenly transform into killer zombies is treated as a mystery.” Lieberman’s screenplay gives us the forensic explanation behind their rage, but as to why it manifests the way it does with these poor acid casualties from Berkeley ‘69, he leaves as a paradox. Of all Lieberman’s three films, Blue Sunshine is the most narratively complex and polemical towards American culture, examining corrupt politicians and the drug culture of the 1960s not only with a critical eye, but as the basis for psychological fallout that no other director subsequently explored.
Plot Spoilers: A reveler at a party has his wig accidentally ripped off, precipitating a psychotic rage and driving him to murder three women partygoers. In the killings’ aftermath, the wrong guy is fingered as the murderer -- a brooding and cerebral Zalman King (RIP, 1942-2012) as Jerry Zipkin. Zipkin goes on the run as the cops pursue him as the sole suspect, but as he struggles to clear his name, he simultaneously becomes obsessed in discovering the real cause of the murders, leading him to uncover a disturbing connection between more murders and a group of Berkeley alumni from ten years prior, all of whom took a brand of LSD called “Blue Sunshine” at the urging of a hippie guru, who’s now running for political office in a new, conservative incarnation (Lost in Space’s Mark Goddard). His only ally and defender is Alicia (Deborah Winters), who also happens to be in love with him. The film had a short theatrical release in 1978 and never built up an audience until it became a CBS Late Night staple, leading to its growing stature as a cult favorite. Look for juicy cameos by Alice Ghostley, the versatile character actor Stefan Gierasch, as well as Robert Crystal, Billy Crystal’s brother.
Just Before Dawn (1981), the director’s personal favorite of the three, arrived at the cusp of the Golden Age of Horror -- the early 1980s -- even if it opened and closed theatrically without much fanfare. Since then, however, it has built up arguably more of a devoted cult following than Squirm or Sunshine, probably because of a very simple reason. It’s scary as hell and relied on even fewer effects. It takes a simple formula that has fueled everything from Friday the 13th (1980) to The Blair Witch Project (1999) -- something or someone in the woods wants you dead -- and exploits it using not gore, not special effects, but using the suspenseful atmosphere itself intrinsic to that scenario, and heightens it only with skilled camera work, strong performances and a plot twist midway through that ratchets up the horror by a factor of one.
Just as its echoing whistle-in-the-forest motif makes your blood run cold, it also carries an unmistakable air of another film about hapless campers being hunted in the woods: John Boorman’s 1972 thriller Deliverance, which Lieberman acknowledges as an inspiration behind Just Before Dawn. Their common elements of incest, revenge, sexuality, even religion intersect in Dawn in frightening new ways.
Shot on location in theSilver Falls State Park near Sublimity, Oregon, it features early performances from actorsChris Lemmon (Jack Lemmon's son),Gregg Henry (the star of Slither, 2006), and disaster movie fixture George Kennedy as a park ranger.
Special thanks for Jeff Lieberman for his cooperation in authorizing this festival, and to Anthology Film Archives for their generous sponsorship and hosting of the screenings.