Jeff Lieberman Makes Us <em>Squirm</em> at His Tarrytown Office

Cinema Retro to pay tribute to horror filmmaker at Anthology Film Archives

Lieberman. (Jessica Shiraz)

“Turn around. Don’t move. I want to show you something.” The Observer was standing in horror film writer/director Jeff Lieberman’s office. Relics from film sets poked out of the wooden shelves, smiling photos of A-listers and even Bob Dylan peppered the walls, and one Emmy Award rested precariously on a ledge.

Then, without warning, a worm—the last surviving worm—from the film Squirm was flung at our head.

“Everything’s normal [at home], except my office,” Mr. Lieberman said through a boyish grin. Welcome to Tarrytown: thick with blue mist rolling out from the Hudson River, it’s the historic village that inspired the legend of the Headless Horseman.

It’s no mere coincidence that Mr. Lieberman decided to drop anchor here.

Mr. Lieberman’s quirky and inventive films, in line with his idiosyncratic personality and imaginative way with words, have newly acquired a cult status with younger fans. When he gave a talk in Switzerland, to his great surprise, most of the attendees wouldn’t have been born when his first movie, Squirm, was made.

“If a Rumpelstiltskin sort of figure said you’ll be speaking about Squirm to a packed audience of people not born yet in 37 years time, I’d have said, ‘What are you smoking, and where can I get some?’”

One of the older Swiss fans, a man in his 40s with long hair, was even sporting “a tattoo from his wrist to his bicep” with the original Squirm logo inked in. We asked Mr. Lieberman if he had been flattered by this bodily homage. He shook his head fervently.

“It’s so wrong on so many levels.”

It was Mr. Lieberman’s cult status as a horror film director that compelled David Savage of Cinema Retro magazine to reach out to him.

“Horror movies have taken center-stage in contemporary pop culture, so it’s natural to look back at the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the genre and the filmmakers who had such a great influence on today’s movies and moviemakers,” explained Mr. Lieberman.

Starting tomorrow, Cinema Retro is paying tribute to Mr. Lieberman at the Anthology Film Archives, screening his first three movies—Squirm (1976), Blue Sunshine (1978) and Just Before Dawn (1981)—from August 17 to 19.

Mr. Lieberman’s movies perhaps appeal to younger generations thanks to their originality, especially considering how much generic zombie and vampire rubbish is swamping the world of cinema. In Squirm, we are presented with an unlikely monster: worms.

Squirm is based on a scientific reality,” insisted Mr. Lieberman. “Electricity really does make worms shoot out of the ground. We did it as kids—I magnified the source idea times ridiculous.”

Mr. Lieberman knew he had succeeded when one of the crew—“this guy we called Mango, he was about 300 pounds”—staggered off to throw up after filming one ghastly scene. “If Mango’s puking, we’re gonna have a hit movie.”

The second film, Blue Sunshine, a satirical time capsule of the ’70s hysteria surrounding drugs, will engage a wider audience, not merely horror fanatics.

“It pokes fun at the older generation in the ’70s fearful of their kids taking drugs,” said Mr. Lieberman. The effects of a new form of LSD suddenly kick in 10 years later, causing its users to lose their hair and become homicidal maniacs. Upon its release, several critics surprisingly thought that the movie was based on scientific truth, and one reviewer at The New York Post even believed the movie “chronicled” a true event. Parents and critics alike labeled the movie “a cautionary tale.”

“You’re talking about a generation that’s defined by long hair. So I thought to myself, what’s the opposite of that?” Each psychopath whips off his or her hair—or has it yanked off—in dramatic fashion before embarking on their rampages. Mr. Lieberman began to hum the tune to a Neil Young song. (“Almost cut my hair/ It happened just the other day …”)

The last of the three, Just Before Dawn, is Mr Lieberman’s favorite. The film’s final struggle between protagonist Connie and her persecutor, with her iconic punch, a kind of reverse rape, is a must-see for anyone interested in filmmaking. It will chill you to the bone without resorting to the gory splattering of blood and guts.

A more recent homage left Mr. Lieberman disapproving of unoriginal imitations. “That film [Wrong Turn] made me the most angry,” Mr. Lieberman muttered bitterly. “It’s stealing … The only recent things that I thought were fresh and effective were the Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.”

But how about his original screenplays that never made their way onto the silver screen? Mr. Lieberman openly admitted that he has earned more from these than movies he actually made.

“I pitched one to Dustin Hoffman called Us about a nursing home in the future,” Mr. Lieberman told us. Even though he was disappointed when the movie was never produced, the script proved to be a turning point in his career. “That script opened up Hollywood to me.”

But now he has a script that he won’t let simply fall by the wayside.

“I have the movie I want to make,” Mr Lieberman declared. Producers and friends alike have said that this semi-autobiographical screenplay is his masterpiece. It’s about a film director who meets a young couple from Morocco, but The Observer is forbidden from divulging any more than that.

“Everything leads up to this movie.” Jeff Lieberman Makes Us <em>Squirm</em> at His Tarrytown Office