On Tremors

I recall the first time I ever saw Tremors, certainly one of more interesting B-movies to see, featuring Kevin Bacon, and Reba McEntire (Reba). Some small budget films, like this one, have a certain appeal that makes them rewatchable for years to come. According to the Sabotage Times article, “Why Monster Movie ‘Tremors’ Is Still A Cult Classic“:

In all my years of movie-going, I’ve only ever had an entire cinema to myself once. The year was 1990, and at the time I was a regular at our local picture house. It was a proper old-school cinema, with curved stalls, a balcony, and those little green tickets that were torn off a roll and slipped under the box office window. The Penistone Metro even made national news at one point, when distributors threatened to withhold new movies if the management insisted on keeping the half-time interval, so that audiences could slope off to the bar for a pint and a couple of cheeky Lambert & Butlers an hour into the show.

As I settled into my sagging and slightly sticky seat, I looked around and noticed that there was no-one else in the room. Even after the trailers for forthcoming attractions had played, as well as the ads for local businesses (double glazing, second-hand furniture and a sandwich shop on the corner – “Now there’s a meal for a man”), I was still all on my lonesome. But I didn’t care, this was a film I’d been itching to see since I’d read all about it in Fangoria, the horror fan’s Bible.

Despite solid reviews, celebrating its loving pastiche of 1950’s monster B-movies, Tremors failed to capture the public’s imagination. It had dropped off the radar pretty quickly in the States, and seemed doomed to a similarly ignominious fate in the UK. Nevertheless, as its opening scene unfolded on the time-worn screen, I couldn’t have been more hooked if a Graboid itself had wrapped around my ankle.

If you’ve never seen Tremors on one of its many TV airings, you’re now in a minority. Over the years it’s built up a loyal cult following, even spawning a franchise of direct-to-DVD sequels and a short-lived TV show. Unfortunately, much like The Shawshank Redemption a few years later, the studio managed to get everything right except the marketing. Apparently, ‘small desert town gets menaced by giant sandworms’ didn’t hold much appeal when compared with the racing adventures of Cole Trickle or John McClane facing another fucked up Christmas.

So why is Tremors held in such high regard by those who’ve experienced its low-fi wonders? For a start, it’s got an awesome script. The dialogue crackles, with jokes based on characterization rather than glib smart-arsery. Take the scene where our ‘better than nothing’ heroes prepare to ride to Bixby – store-owner Walter Chang shows his support by offering them “Swiss cheese and some bullets”. Just what you need when under attack from mysterious subterranean monsters – if the rounds don’t get ’em, the Emmental will.

The inhabitants of the ironically named Perfection are a rag-tag bunch of losers, loners and gun-toting conspiracy theorists. They’re joined by a seismology student from a nearby university who subverts genre convention by drawing a blank when repeatedly asked to explain the curious phenomena besieging the backwater hamlet. Rhonda may be the only person in town with a tertiary level education, but she’s as clueless as the rest of them when the worms begin to turn – “Why do you keep asking me?” she moans, as the creatures begin burrowing under Walter’s shop, much to the dismay of its occupants.

Fizzy dialogue is one thing, but it dies a death if the roles are miscast. Thankfully, this is another area where Tremors comes up trumps. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward are amazing as Val and Earl, a pair of work-shy handymen who are all set to leave Perfection forever, following one too many shitty jobs. In this case, literally. Their easy banter and genuine chemistry positions them as a curious fusion between Butch & Sundance, and Del & Rodney.

The other key pairing is Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as the Gummers, a survivalist couple who live in a fortified bunker on a nearby hillside. Throughout the film, much humour is poked at their paranoia and passion for military-grade hardware. But in the end, it’s Burt’s ability to quickly knock up a batch of homemade explosives that saves the day:

Earl: What kind of fuse is that?
Burt: Cannon fuse.
Earl: What the hell do you use it for?
Burt: My cannon.

Ultimately though, a monster movie lives and dies by the quality of its effects, and this is one area where Tremors didn’t scrimp. Despite a relatively low budget ($10m and change), the creatures are as good as anything that came from Hollywood in the early nineties. Designed by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr, who later established ADI, one of the industry’s leading effects houses, the Graboids are curiously believable. Having teased audiences with snake-like beasts throughout the film’s first act, director Ron Underwood delivers an awesome money shot that genuinely shocks, as the full scale of the creatures is finally revealed. It suddenly becomes clear that the serpentine creatures we’d seen earlier were simply the Graboids’ tongues, feeling out seismic vibrations and dragging unwilling victims into their prehistoric jaws.

In its brisk 96 minutes, Tremors packs in a handful of genuinely ingenious moments, some great jump scenes and a few splats of gore, but never loses sight of its own silliness. As Burt and Heather reluctantly surrender their ‘impenetrable’ fortress, you can’t help but join in with Burt’s bitter laugh as he laments the fact that you can never be too prepared: “Food for five years, a thousand gallons of gas, air filtration, water filtration, Geiger counter. Bomb shelter! Underground… God damn monsters.”

A couple of weeks ago, Tremors popped up on one of the Freeview channels (where it seems to be in regular syndication along with The Pelican Brief and The Chronicles of Riddick) and within twenty minutes it was trending on Twitter. Finally, after twenty years, the little film that could seemed to be getting the recognition it deserves. It may not break any new ground, but like the Graboids themselves, it has a way of pulling you in.

According to the Den of Geek Lookback Review:

In 1990, a small-budget horror comedy took the perennial Jaws template, right down to the iconic poster art and replaced that film’s sleepy coastal village and giant shark with a landlocked valley in the American southwest and a handful of Frank Herbert-esque sandworms.

Tremors made modest returns at the box office, enough to cover its small cost, anyway, but was anything but a blockbuster. And yet, twenty-odd years later, there are no less than three Tremors sequels (two direct-to-video, one TV movie) and one short-lived Tremors Sci-Fi Channel series. During the expansion of the Tremors mythology, the sandworms of the original attacked Mexico, learned to fly and visited the 19th century, for some reason. But in the beginning, there were merely four monsters, one impossibly isolated town and a ragtag group determined to make it out alive.

So what happened in between? How has a micro-budgeted B-movie become a franchise spanning close to 15 years? The answer can be found in the years following Tremors’ limited success in theatres, when it picked up steam on VHS and became, if not exactly a cult-classic, at least a late-night staple for a certain generation whose nostalgia for the original made it profitable for expansion four times over.

And after all these years, how does the original hold-up? Probably about as well as you’d expect. In aping the Jaws formula, Tremors is never as artful as Steven Spielberg’s horror classic, but it manages to build suspense in the same ways: by largely keeping the monsters hidden from the audience, allowing shifting ground and snake-like appendages to hint at a deeper horror.

Tremors opens with Valentine (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward), two laborers letting their general inertia keep them stuck in a town they dislike, doing work they despise. Right as they decide they’ve finally had enough of Perfection, Nevada (population: 35), they meet precocious seismology student Rhonda (Finn Carter), investigating a recent spate of unusual seismic activity and soon begin discovering corpses littered around town.

As Earl wryly notes, it eventually becomes apparent the boys waited “one God damn day too long” to leave Perfection. The only road out of the valley is blocked by boulders and there’s no vehicle that can traverse the rocky mountains surrounding it. Meanwhile, strange snake carcasses are appearing in the dirt, people are turning up missing and station wagons are found buried in the ground.

When the giant sandworms causing all the commotion are finally seen, they amazingly live up to expectations. All beaks, jaws and slithering tongues, they resemble an H.R. Giger creature, yet still seem plausible and recognizably terran. It’s never explained what created the monsters in the first place (Val guesses the government is behind them, a “big surprise for Russia”), but they never feel out of place in the barren desert that is Tremors’ setting.

The worms are also expertly crafted, another element that keeps the film from looking as dated as even its own sequels. Where future installments would replace the puppetry of the original with CGI creatures and effects, Tremors’ scares are decidedly hand-crafted, from the tangible feeling of the worms themselves to their underground movement, portrayed not by bubbling CGI landscapes but rippling boards on a front porch.

There are details that leave the indelible stamp of 1990 on Tremors, of course. The early scenes are almost always bookended by terrible young-country vamping and Bacon sports a ridiculous southern accent and matching mullet throughout the film. Despite this, he’s still able to carry the story with an easy charm even the most unflattering haircut can’t hide and he’s aided by the more low-key Ward, with whom he establishes a believable chemistry filled with telling details of an apparent lifetime of idling.

Val and Earl are completely codependent on each other: cooking together, living together and settling all disagreements with games of rock, paper, scissors Val always loses. It’s easy to see how these two have kept each other from ever leaving Perfection or pursuing any kind of future. If either weren’t there, the other would have left long ago.

And like a platonic Brokeback Mountain, they seem to bicker constantly only because it wouldn’t be appropriate to show their reliance on each other in any other way. Incidentally, there is a token love story thrown in the mix, as Val begins the film hoping to find his blonde haired ideal woman and is immediately disappointed when the visiting female seismologist turns out to be merely an attractive brunette.

That Val eventually falls for her anyway is both predictable and unnecessary, a relationship that seems awkwardly shoe-horned into a film that doesn’t really need, or even particularly want, a romance. Apparently his ability to fall for a pretty girl by the end of the film counts as character growth, although judging by the way the relationship closes the film after mostly being ignored altogether, it could just have easily come from writer’s block – as if the screenwriters couldn’t think of any other way to wrap things up.

Val, Earl and Rhonda are joined in their fight for survival by a couple of gun nuts played by Michael Gross (the only actor who would continue through the Tremors series for each of its sequels) and platinum selling country musician Reba McEntire, who would follow her acting debut in Tremors with a number of film roles and an eventual sitcom. These gun-toters, apparently attracted to Perfection precisely because it’s the most isolated place they could find, manage to save the day with their homemade dynamite and an entire wall of guns, all of which are evidently left loaded at all times.

Their presence and status as de facto heroes, make Tremors something of a red state version of Jaws, a difference felt not only in the swapping of the northeast for the southwest, but in the aforementioned music cues and the reveling, even celebration, of dirt and grit.

It’s easy to see, then, why Tremors made an impact. It may be the same old Jaws formula, but it’s been flipped on its head, not just in setting, but in its very villains and protagonists. There are opportunities missed – the isolation of Perfection seems tailor-made for some sociological breakdown that never comes – and the third act tends to drag as it runs out of ways to keep the characters stranded, but Tremors hits its marks while retaining a unique aesthetic all its own, and never quite crosses the line into ridiculous. It may not be a great film, but as far as Jaws knock-offs go (giant snakes, giant crocodiles, giant spiders, et. al.), it comes closest to recreating the magic.

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2 thoughts on “On Tremors

  1. My mother LOVES this movie. I enjoyed it the first 6x she made me watch it with her; after something near 48 viewings, I really dislike the movie… But she’s moved on now. Now my nephew has seen it about 10x 😉

  2. Pingback: On Beauty Shop | The Progressive Democrat

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