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 4: The Legends Begins (2004)
Body Count: 8 (with a stated 15 others happening off-screen)
The Story: We are once more in Perfection Valley, but the time is 1889, when the area was named Rejection Valley. A silver mine is slowly turning the town of Rejection into a burgeoning boom town. That is until 17 miners are mysteriously killed by an unseen assailant, shutting the mine down. Most of the town’s residents evacuate, leaving only the most desperate behind — including a family of Chinese immigrants named Chang, who run a general store. These residents are hopeful that salvation lies in the arrival of the mine’s owner, one Hiram Gummer (Michael Gross), but unlike his aggressive and resourceful descendant Burt, Hiram is a prissy and spoiled city man, wholly unprepared to deal with the graboids (or “sand dragons” as they’re called here). After witnessing the terrifying capabilities of the graboids, Gummer hires a gunfighter, Black Hand Kelly (Billy Drago), to take the beasts out. Of course, in the end, Gummer will have to save the day.
What Works: Tremors 4 premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel, after the spin-off Tremors TV series had already been airing on the network. I think this context is relevant. If viewed as more of a lark for the fans (like when a TV show will do a weird fantasy episode just for funzies), and less as a legitimate installment in the franchise, then the film isn’t half-bad.
The most bona fide achievement the film has is its return to practical FX. The CG in Tremors 2 and 3 was just terrible, and routinely ruined whatever moment the crap FX were part of. I was more forgiving with 3, because it was already following the shit CG in 2, but both films were equally embarrassing really. There is only the slightest bit of CG in Tremors 4, and it is fairly seamless. Though I suppose only so much credit can be given here, as the graboids themselves were still practical puppets in the other sequels; it was the shriekers and stupid assblasters that were CG shames. And Tremors 4 has no shriekers and assblasters. The only “new” creature we’re given in this installment is finally seeing a baby graboid, which is capable of launching itself out of the dirt like a jumping fish — completing our exposure to the graboids nonsensical life-cycle.
I respect just sticking with the graboids. Honestly, I expected there to be yet another kind of graboid, even though we learned that assblasters were the final stage. But I should have had more faith in Maddock and Wilson at this point. It is a rare horror franchise that has the same creative team through its entire run, and it really shows. The first three films form a pretty solid trilogy, especially considering we slowly lose the original heroes in increments. And 2 and 3 covered the obvious sequel bases: 1) fighting graboids abroad, and 2) graboids returning to Perfection. The only other logical route would be to have graboids attacking the big city, but that wouldn’t be feasible for the obvious reasons of budget. 3 positioned itself perfectly to turn into a TV show (which I presume was very intentional). The only way to do another effective film was to have the graboids menace a new group of people. This silly Back to the Future 3 high-concept was a fairly novel way to do that, while still staying connected to our existing characters.
Hiram Gummer is not as much fun as Burt Gummer. And had the character not been played by Michael Gross (something I very easily could have seen happening in a cheaper, shittier sequel), the entire concept of the film wouldn’t have worked. Though Hiram isn’t Burt, we’re clearly going to view him through the Burt prism, and presumably enjoy the humorous character contrasts (it’s like a Star Trek mirror dimension bit for Michael Gross). We are meant to smile when we learn Hiram has never used a firearm; in fact, now he is the only character in town who doesn’t own a gun. Smile once more when Hiram finally mans up and acquires a gigantic punt gun. Smile when he uses a classic Burt line, but rephrased in lame old-timey speak, “I feel I’ve not been privy to critical, most needful information.” In other words, this is a film for diehard fans capable of enjoying such winking prequel gags.
Though it is not without some other successes. Putting Billy Drago in your film is never a bad idea, and his portion of the film is the most entertaining. The FX, by KNB, really are fantastic too. Also, S.S. Wilson, returning to the director’s chair after Tremors 2, seems to have improved. While 2 felt like it was just barely making the grade at almost all times, being carried by the script and presence of Fred Ward and Michale Gross, Tremors 4 has a bit more life to it (in a directing sense, I mean).
What Doesn’t Work: Like I said, the film is a lark. Going back in time may not be as batshit absurd as sending the Leprechaun into space, but having Burt Gummer return as his own ancestor is obviously silly. It also doesn’t make any sense. Having the Chang family embedded in Perfection for many generations makes a fair amount of sense (though doesn’t really explain why Chang had an accent in the first film), but Burt says in Tremors that he and his wife selected Perfection due to is isolation. This kinda conflicts with the end of Tremors 4 in which Hiram announces that he is going to build a well fortified house in the same location Burt eventually builds his house. Also seems odd that Burt’s fortune apparently comes from his family’s old money ownership of the town’s once prosperous mine. I’m of course not actually holding that against this film (cause who gives a shit?). I’m just sayin’, is all. This isn’t a movie one is supposed to invest much in.
The film is a little overly cutesy. That tone, combined with the general production values, makes it feel like an episode of Brisco County Jr or something — minus Bruce Campbell. The film also has terrible score. In other words, Tremors 4 doesn’t feel very cinematic. Though, neither did Tremors 2 or 3.
Really though, there isn’t anything wrong with the film. There are no terrible performances or characters, the FX are actually the best part of the film, and the story is light and mostly charming. It just all feels kind of trivial. And aside from an early scene in which the party Burt forms to investigate the mine murders are all killed in a matter of minutes, the film doesn’t have much in the way of novel set pieces. Each of the sequels suffered from loosening the “rules” of the graboids, as far as how easily they can detect or get at you. Tremors 4 is the most guilty of this, as the filmmakers have changed up the idea of graboids being drawn toward vibrations, to them being drawn towards noise. So now our characters will walk willy-nilly around on the ground, but be kept safe by whispering. Even just ignoring continuity, that lessens the danger overall. In the first film, once a graboid knew your general location, you were fucked unless you could get up on a rock or building, or as Kevin Bacon learned, hold perfectly still.
Best Human Kill: When Black Hand Kelly is being swallowed, and he goes inside guns a’blazing (to no end).
Best Graboid Kill: I guess I’ll give it to the one who runs mouth first into a saw, underground. I liked the way the kill was revealed by the creature’s orange blood slowly liquefying the surrounding dirt.
Best Burt Gummer Validation Moment: Simply the fact that his pussy ancestor must learn to love guns.
How the War Is Won: The final graboid is pulled by the tail into a steam powered engine, and for some reason this slow speed impact makes it explode.
Should There Have Been A Sequel: No, I think the mere existence of this film suggests the well of novel ideas had run dry.
Next Up: Tremors: The Series