Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Jeff Lieberman

Jeff Lieberman (perhaps best known for Squirm, 1976) remains a critically neglected director within the horror genre. Although admittedly not in the same ‘league’ as Romero, Craven, Carpenter, Hooper, Cronenberg etc., his films are like the mortar between the bricks of these film-makers, extending and enriching sub-genres within horror cinema. Squirm is one of the best ‘creature features’ derived from Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963); Blue Sunshine (1978) (a true progressive horror film in its depiction of 1960s ideals destroyed from within by self-serving opportunism) spans the ‘invasion-metamorphosis horror’ gap between Shivers (1975) and Dawn of The Dead (1978), paving the way for the latter; Just Before Dawn (1981) picks up and develops the tropes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1976) (although the conscious influence on Lieberman was Deliverance, both the book and the film) and Satan’s Little Helper (2003) riffs intriguingly on Halloween (1978).

His films bristle with intellect. Lieberman is not an originator or a genre innovator; he is a magpie who steals from the nests of other directors. But the treasures he steals glister brightly, and he displays them magnificently.

Perhaps more than any other director, Lieberman has the ability to crystallise the essence of a subgenre in a single striking image.

In Blue Sunshine, we have the psychotic babysitter stalking her young charges with a large knife; her ‘invasion-metamorphosis’ is signified by her bald head – her ‘possession’ by the visual reference to Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Babysitter with a knife: Blue Sunshine (1978)

In Just Before Dawn, there is the stunning moment where our heroine fends off her backwoods attacker by thrusting her fist down his throat (an inversion of the rape/violation imagery redolent of the ‘urbanoia’ film, notably the gun-in –the –woman’s-mouth scene in The Hills Have Eyes).

A fist down the throat: Just Before Dawn (1981)
In Squirm, we have three such moments, each encapsulating the three stages of narrative progression in the ‘nature rises up against us’ subgenre: proliferation – the scene where worms infest the face of the antagonist, Roger; besiegement – where the worms threaten to erupt from a showerhead on to our unwitting heroine (also, of course, a sly nod to Psycho – linking via The Birds to Hitchcock – see what I mean about the keen intellect?) Finally annihilation – when the worms invade the house and Roger sinks into them like a man disappearing into quicksand.

The worms claim Roger: Squirm (1976)

These iconic moments encapsulate the narrative conventions of their subgenres (the ‘nature horror’, the ‘backwoods horror’, the ‘zombie-metamorphosis horror’) unlike any other. Perhaps that’s why, despite a lack of recent critical attention for the films, these images featured so often in the horror film books and magazines of the 1970s.

It is a measure of the neglect in which Lieberman currently stands that his films have received patchy distribution on DVD.  Only Just Before Dawn and Satan’s Little Helper are available on UK cert R2, the former transferred from a very shoddy print. The American R1 of Just Before Dawn is of similar poor quality but includes a ‘Making of’ and interviews with cast and crew.  MGM released Squirm in 2003 on R1 only. The transfer is good (although the night scenes are a bit murky). Blue Sunshine is available in a double disc presentation from Synapse films on R1 (and a similar Dutch R2). This set includes a bonus CD of the film’s soundtrack, together with an early Lieberman short, 'The Ringer', and a substantial interview, ‘Lieberman on Lieberman’, which is a must for anyone wanting more information on this important director - very little exists on him any elsewhere.


Wes M said...

I must admit Jon, I wasn't enamoured with Squirm when I first saw it a few years ago on DVD, but your post has sent me back to the shelf and the MGM disc is now sitting by the TV waiting for a free slot. We'll see how it goes... A shame about the treatment of Just Before Dawn, a film I've always wanted to see but kinda forgot about after negative word about the 2005 Shriek Show disc. I'll try to find an uncut rip. I do like backwoods horror films I must say, for me an atmospheric forest location is marks on the board even before the film begins. Blue Sunshine...how come I still don't have this in my collection ? Must rectify that soon. A great post Jon, much food for thought...

Jon T said...

Hey, Wes. Blue Sunshine seems to be the one that most endures, judging by the coverage it gets on the web as a cult curio. The synapse double disc is worth a buy.

Michael Williams said...

Once again, a thought provoking post. It has been ages (probably 20 years) since I saw Blue Sunshine or Squirm; perhaps it is time to revisit them, although I am still trying to find time for Witchfinder General.