Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Tremors; following the on-going plight caused by a species of underground-dwelling carnivorous megafauna known as “graboids,” as well as the struggles of the man who becomes their de facto Ahab, Burt Gummer. The franchise spanned four films from 1990-2004, and a failed television spin-off in 2003.
The Installment: Tremors (1990)
Body Count: 10 (though we only see 7 of those)
The Story: Valentine McKee (Kevin Bacon) and Earl Basset (Fred Ward) are handymen in the podunk desert town of Perfection, Nevada, population 14. Among those 14 are Burt (Michael Gross) and Heather Gummer (Reba McEntire), two paranoid survivalists, and Walter Chang (Victor Wong), the owner of the town’s only general store. Also tossed into the mix is Rhonda (Finn Carter), a grad-student doing seismology tests in the area. Fed up with living hand-to-mouth, Valentine and Earl decide to finally pack up and head for the big city. But as poor luck would have it, they’ve decided to leave on the same day that strange and gigantic worm-like creatures begin sucking humans underground. When the creatures attack a pair of roadside workmen, a rock-slide blocks the only road out of the valley. Trapped, the town of Perfection must band together to try and stay alive.
What Works: Everything. Tremors is a nearly flawless adventure-horror movie.
First attention needs to be given to the script by Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson. Tremors isn’t a great idea for a movie, by any means. It is nice and basic, but the graboids are essentially just bigger and slightly more plausible versions of the creature from Blood Beach (1981). It’s the execution of the concept that makes Tremors such a joy. Maddock and Wilson have a great sense (at least on this project) for how to casually ramp up tension, both within single scenes, and structurally over the length of the entire film. One interesting moment or set-piece always organically flows into the next, with the stakes continually getting hirer and more dire. And the characters are all fantastic.
Valentine and Earl are great characters on paper, and as embodied by Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward they really rise to another level. Their Butch and Sundance age discrepancy and banter often make Tremors feel like the creature feature William Goldman never wrote. Ward in particular is just a goddamn treat to watch. Watching his performances here and in Miami Blues, it is frankly amazing that Ward never became a more established star. His ability to do comedy that simultaneously feels nuanced and broad is perfect for a film like Tremors, and the man has a penchant for embracing the less attractive elements of his character in a way that strangely makes him that much more likable and appealing. Bacon is also a lot of fun, and I love that he and director Ron Underwood choose to let the character get scared (something heroes are not always allowed to do).
The surprise hit of the film is Michael Gross as Burt Gummer. For those too young to have watched Family Ties, it is hard to really paint the picture of how weird it was to see Gross go from being a lame-o hippie dad to an ultra right-wing weapons-loving badass. Pairing him with country singer Reba McEntire was a wacky move too (although, personally, I had no clue who she was when I saw this in 1990). Valentine and Earl are the heart and soul of the film, but the Gummers often steal the show. For one thing, it is just a hilarious idea to validate the paranoia of survivalists. No one sympathizes or supports these weirdos in real-life, but I dare you not to pump your fist when Michael Gross breaks the glass on his fucking 8-gauge elephant gun case, climaxing cinema’s secondest greatest ammo wasting gun-sturbation scene (the first being the jungle razing scene from Predator). I’m kind of an anti-gun guy, but my inherent maleness can’t help by drool at the sight of the gigantic bullets that 8-gauge takes.
The path of Ron Underwood’s career makes me sad. Riding a wave of prestige from his Peabody Award winning animated TV special, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, he certainly decided to go for something big and weird for his theatrical debut. He followed this success with an even bigger desert-set hit, City Slickers. Then he made a couple weird choices before the failure of Might Joe Young, followed by the history-making catastrophe of The Adventures of Pluto Nash, shot his standing as a theatrical director in the face. It is sad because Tremors is no fluke. Underwood is a great director, and it sucks to think what he might still be giving us today. He strikes me as the perfect guy to helm a superhero movie. But, alas, he is certainly culpable for his decisions. Why he chose to follow the phenomenal success of City Slickers with the mediocre rom-com Heart and Souls is beyond me. Underwood should’ve made the 90’s Godzilla reboot.
But I digress. Underwood’s staging throughout the film is impressive, especially considering this was his first theatrical film. Tremors had a pretty sizable budget ($11 million, in 1990 dollars), and Underwood lets us see all of it. For a ridiculous creature feature like this, you don’t really expect set pieces on the scale of what we’re given. From the graboid bursting through the wall in the previous mentioned Gummer shoot-out, to the destruction of Chang’s general store, Tremors gets pretty epic. Even more impressive though, is what Underwood does in the less epic moments. The use of seismographs to create tension is practically Hitchchockian in its simplicity; with cutaways to the seismograph’s needle getting wonky letting us know that some graboids are coming before the characters do. I also love how Underwood stages the scene in which an unfortunate woman is pulled underground inside her car. What begins as a showy moment of special FX, as the station wagon gets sucked into the dirt, ends with an eerie and wonderful cut-away from a distance, where all we can see are the cars two headlights shining up in the sky – which then disappear one at a time. Another highlight is the excellent bit where a road worker accidentally hits a graboid through the pavement with his jackhammer.
This is of course a creature feature, so in the end it would be made or broken by the graboids. Fortunately the graboids are awesome. Their design succeeds by plausibility; they look like they could be a real thing. And the fake-out regarding their size (when it turns out the snakes we see earlier in the film are just their tongues) is a wild reveal. They also have a good balance of smart and stupid. They’re smart enough to surprise our heroes, but also stupid enough to fall for traps. Tremors has always held a special place in my heart because they never bother to explain what the graboids are or where they came from. Dinosaurs? Aliens? We hear theories, but never get answers. But this never comes off as Lost-like “we’ll let you figure it out” nonsense. Explaining the graboids would be like explaining why the shark in Jaws was so big, and why it loved eating people so much.
What Doesn’t Work: There is no aspect that doesn’t work. But I will say that every time I see this film I want Melvin (Bobby Jacoby), the annoying teen Jokester to die. (Fun fact: when I first moved to Hollywood, the owner of the condo I rented was Bobby Jacoby – aka, Robert Jayne. I was pumped.)
Also, in order to get a PG-13 rating, all but one “fuck” in the film was awkwardly dubbed over, which makes the film feel like a TV edit at times. But I can’t really complain about that, considering that I wouldn’t have been able to see the film in theater when it came out if it had been R. My childhood would have been worse.
Best Human Kill: Hard to top Chang’s death, as he’s the only victim we actually witness swallowed.
Best Graboid Kill: I like the first graboid that gets killed by stupidly running into the cement wall of a drainage ditch. Though the graboid that swallows a bomb and showers its guts all over our heroes is pretty great too.
Best Burt Gummer Validation Moment:
Earl: What kind of fuse is that?
Burt: Cannon fuse.
Earl: What the hell do you use it for?
Burt: My cannon!
How the War Is Won: When only “stumpy,” the Figurehead graboid, remains, Valentine tricks the creature into borrowing off the side of a cliff.
Should There Have Been A Sequel: Objectively, yes. All successful horror movies get sequels. That’s how movie monsters become iconic. Subjectively, no. Like Jaws, when all the pieces come together to create a horror outting this sublimely perfect – so perfect that the film appeals to even those outside the horror fanbase – there is simply no where to go but down.
Next Up: Tremors 2: Aftershocks