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 3: Back to Perfection (2001)
Body Count: 3 — with 2 others off screen.
The Story: After taking out a wave of shriekers in South America, Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) returns to Perfection, Nevada, where the rest of the denizens from the original film still live; Chang’s niece, Jodi (Susan Chuang) has taken over the town’s general store. When Burt arrives home he makes three unpleasant discoveries: 1) there is a new addition to the town, “Desert” Jack (Shawn Christian), a shady entrepreneur who leads tourists on a low-rent “graboid tour.” 2) Someone is trying to buy up all the land in Perfection. 3) Burt isn’t the only thing returning to Perfection — a new host of graboids have suddenly popped up too. This time Burt is fully prepared, and plans to make quick work of the creatures, until a trio of government agents arrive proclaiming that Burt is in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Those idiots all end up dead, but they manage to stall Burt long enough for the graboids to not only enter their shrieker life-cycle, but beyond. That’s right, there is a third stage for a graboid: the “assblaster,” a long and skinny creature that launches itself into the air with a flaming explosion emanating from its ass, then glides around on a pair of small leathery sails.
What Works: Color me surprised, but the vast majority of this movie works. I liked it more than Tremors 2, actually.
I never would’ve thought that having less Fred Ward could be an improvement to anything, but Tremors 2‘s attempts to make Earl and Grady the new Earl and Valentine really didn’t work for me. The partnership felt forced, and more problematic, the two men had uninteresting chemistry. Burt Gummer’s eventual presence is what saved the movie, so it only makes sense that the series should follow Gummer at this point instead of Earl.
Due to the nature of its set-up, Tremors 2 had the unfortunate circumstance of needing to pair Earl and Grady together the moment they met. The relationship between Burt Gummer and “Desert” Jack plays significantly better if for no other reason than it is given time of evolve organically. That, and I like both Jack the character and actor Shawn Christian more than Grady and Christopher Gartin. Both Grady and Jack fill the same role of the idolizing super fan (to Earl and Burt respectively). But whereas Grady’s blasé desire to face-down graboids made the creatures feel like a humdrum non-threat, Jack is fun because he assumes there aren’t any graboids left in Perfection. He hosts a corny graboid safari tour that is much closer to being Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise, complete with a staged graboid attack that is nothing more than some timed bursts of dust and sand from behind a row of shrubs. When a real graboid attacks the tour, we discover that the rifle perched on Jack’s tour truck is a toy. Jack, like any normal human, is terrified of graboids. Just on a basic level, I think that attitude works better for the tone of the film than Grady’s enthusiasm. These are still horror movies, after all, despite the overt comedy.
It certainly has helped the series that writers Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson stuck with the franchise — although John Whelpley wrote the script for this, with Maddock and Wilson contributing to the story; Wilson also produced, and Maddock directed. Returning to Perfection is a great idea, and one that would have been a huge mistake in Tremors 2. That would have felt redundant at that juncture. The fact that so many years have fallen between these sequels also helps. Now returning to the setting of the first film, 11 years later, not only feels natural, but is something the viewer wants. I wanted to know what had happened to the town, and I love that the film got back all the surviving actors from Tremors.
Maddock and Wilson do something fun with the Tremors franchise that is pretty unique for a horror series — they acknowledge national media attention. It wasn’t until Jason Goes To Hell that it was acknowledged that anyone outside of the Crystal Lake area had even heard of Jason Voorhees. With Freddy it never really happened. Also didn’t happen with Jaws, which is probably the closest comparison here. Realistically, if two different record-settingly-gigantic great white sharks attacked the same small town, killings tons of people, and were defeated by the same man both times… Chief Martin Brody and the town of Amity would be famous worldwide. There would be a shitty movie about him. The Scream series acknowledged this, but it was done for meta purposes. I love the way Maddock and Wilson casually integrate the public awareness of graboids into the film: the graboid video game and rack of “Graboid” Dark Horse comics in Chang’s general store, and the mentions of seeing Burt on various TV specials, etc. More specifically than just pop cultural gags, I love the government showing up not to capture the graboids for sinister Weyland-Yutani Corporation motives, but because they are prehistoric lifeforms. One of the “evil” government men is from the Smithsonian! And he thinks that Burt is a horrible monster for routinely killing these unique creatures before anyone can study them — something I hadn’t really thought about until now.
Michael Gross effortlessly transitions from supporting player to lead here, and the filmmakers once again play him just right. Burt doesn’t need to be a fuck up anymore, now that Maddock and Wilson don’t need to worry about him stepping on Earl’s hero toes, but they still play the character as comically overzealous. There is a moment in Tremors 3 when he blows up his own compound in order to save Jodi, Jack and himself, presuming that assblasters will replicate after eating all his MREs just like the shriekers did, only to learn moments later that eating food puts them in a coma. Oops. “What kind of supreme being would condone such irony,” Burt says, morning the loss of all his weapons and ammo. This is the essence of Burt Gummer. By this stage, all the other characters think Burt is amazing. Cause he is. But bad-luck circumstance routinely keeps him down. Maddock and Wilson also keep up their A-game of story escalation. I love that Burt has made his home impervious to graboids and shriekers. So of course the next stage in the graboid life cycle is being able to fly. Burt just can’t win.
Structurally I think the smartest move the filmmakers’ made in Tremors 3 (that they didn’t make in Tremors 2) is not losing the graboids. We get shriekers, then we get assblasters, but through it all remains Burt’s new nemesis, El Blanco, an albino graboid that is sterile, and thus not capable of entering the metamorphosis the others do. El Blanco seems to stalk Burt, which he later realizes is its attraction to his fancy watch. Keeping El Blanco around gives the movie a sense of fullness and continuity. Plus, at the end of the day, graboids are just cooler and more interesting than shriekers and assblasters.
From what I’ve seen in this series, Maddock seems a better director than Wilson. This movie has a bit more of the vibrant feeling of the first film, and the acting chemistry is excellent once more. The film’s best sequence is when Burt gets swallowed by a graboid, but survives, protected inside an oil drum. Maddock does a very Ron Underwood-like job, as Jack and Burt communicate via walkie-talkie, trying to form a plan. And the conclusion to the sequence, in which Jack must dig Burt out of the ground and the graboid is good ol’ gross fun.
I also love the conclusion of the film, in which Burt stops Melvin (Robert Jayne), now all grown up and still an asshole, from buying up the town to build condos and such, by allowing El Blanco to roam free — thus keeping that pesky Endangered Species Act alive. Burt has also now made the town of Perfection a graboid safe zone, which in a sense ties up the trilogy in a neat bow. They can all live in awkward harmony now, with Burt finally having fulfilled his right-wing nutjob dream of besting both the government and the encroachment of civilization.
What Doesn’t Work: The assblasters aren’t great characters. As with the shriekers, they are largely terrible CG, but even just conceptually they are a little too stupid. I’m not sure why Maddock and Wilson didn’t just give them wings on which they could fly. The “assblasting” seems like something designed to make young boys laugh (which maybe it was). Really, the entire life cycle of the graboid makes no sense. They start as giant slug creatures, then turn into shriekers, which multiply rapidly, then turn into assblasters, which end up laying eggs that produce more slug creatures. Seems like a lot of wasted energy, when the graboids could just lay their own eggs. Just sayin’. There are a lot of stages in which shit can go wrong before this animal actually reproduces.
The film also gets a little carried away with Perfection’s skepticism. When Burt is building his graboid-proof house, everyone is like, “Geez, Burt. What’s it been? 11 years?” And when he sounds his graboid siren, someone says, “Can’t be real, can it?” Really? You all almost died when graboids came out of no where, only 11 fucking years ago. That only feels like a long time when you’re 13-years-old — does 9/11 feel like a long time ago to anyone in New York you think? And since witnessing many of your friends die gruesomely before your every eyes eleven years ago, the graboids have been popping up all over North America. Why the fuck wouldn’t you have made your own graboid defenses? Why would you even live there still? And why would it seem weird that they might surface unexpectedly once more?
The transition from kid to adult isn’t always kind to child actors. Some turn out weird looking (Haley Joel Osment), while others’ skill level simply doesn’t seem as impressive anymore once they’re competing with other adults (Jonathon Taylor Thomas), and sometimes it is both (Macaulay Culkin). Ariana Richards, who played the pogo-sticking Mindy Sterngood in 1990, is all growed up now, and thankfully for her she turned out pretty cute. Alas, the talent she displayed in Tremors and Jurrasic Park ain’t there anymore. If she weren’t a returning character you would assuredly think, “Why did they cast this chick?” While she never threatens to derail the film, her scenes tend to make the film feel a bit amateurish. Though her crush on Jack is a fun detail.
Best Human Kill: When Jack’s doofus sidekick gets swallowed by a graboid right in front of the tourists.
Best Graboid Kill: When they trick a graboid into eating an assblaster.
Best Burt Gummer Validation Moment: [After Jack just assumes Burt has a lighter on him, when they need to light a fuse.]
Burt: How do you know?
Jack: Well… you’re Burt.
Burt: Damn right I am.
How the War Is Won: It is more of a truce.
Should There Have Been A Sequel: At this point I trust the franchise, so bring it.
Next Up: Tremors 4: The Legend Begins