Tremors begins with a man peeing off a cliff and ends with a freeze-framed kiss set to a Reba McEntire song. Movies that commence with urination are a very limited sub-genre, best represented (appropriately) by Waterworld, and if movies concluding in Reba McEntire tunes are their own genre I’m not the guy to ask. But these things would seem to disqualify Tremors as a horror movie. I’ll allow it for this column because it’s still a creature-feature — albeit a PG-13 creature feature where the monsters are less cartoonish than the human beings.
Despite my arch tone, I enjoyed Tremors a lot. Believe it or not, I only just watched it the first time. I’ve always been aware of Tremors, at least since it hit home video and found its huge popularity, but I guess I had no idea exactly how popular it’s become. I didn’t know, until a few minutes before sitting down to write this piece, about the three sequels (the latter two direct-to-video) and the TV show, which ran for one season of 13 episodes on the Sci Fi Channel (back before it douched itself up into SyFy). And despite the CHUD connection, I didn’t even know what a Graboid was until today. But this column is about educating myself as much as anyone else, so I hope you’ll forgive my ignorance.
Tremors stars Kevin Bacon as Valentine McKee, and it is he whom we are first introduced during his private moment. Both the cliff and the peeing are elements that will return later in the movie. Tremors remains one of the few horror movies I have seen that addresses bathrooming details during a monster siege. Sometimes nature calls, even while nature is attacking.
Anyway, Val and his buddy Earl Basset (the great character actor Fred Ward) are handymen for a tiny Nevada town called Perfection. They’re frustrated with their going-nowhere existence and are just about to blow town for good when they recognize an old man who is at the top of an electrical tower, hanging on for dear life. He lost. The guys recognize the dead man, and wonder what could have scared him so bad that he climbed up a tower and stayed so long that he died of dehydration while up there.
One of the coolest things about this movie is that the main characters find out almost immediately what exactly is happening (it’s almost as if they saw the theatrical poster!), and from there the movie is a constantly-inventive string of set-pieces that find them trying to stay alive while the ground is literally being pulled away from their feet. The Graboids are a group of carnivorous worms that travel underground, burrowing up to the surface to swallow up their prey, which is almost always humans, occasionally sheep. There are only four Graboids in this movie, but obviously there are more or there would never have been enough for three sequels and a TV show.
According to the movie’s Wikipedia page, the town of Perfection only has fourteen residents, and half of those are eaten up in the early goings. Then we’re left with a potential menu that includes Val, Earl, a visiting geology student named Rhonda (who Val comes to crush on even though she isn’t a blonde with “world class breasts”), a guy named Nestor who nobody expects won’t get eaten, a teenager named Melvin (whose performance I’d call supremely obnoxious if I could say for sure he isn’t mentally challenged), a mother in purple overalls (?) and her young daughter (Ariana Richards from Jurassic Park), and one of my favorite character actors of all time, Victor Wong (Big Trouble In Little China, Prince Of Darkness, The Golden Child.)
One thing I’m not happy about — SPOILER ALERT — is that Victor Wong is one of the few notable characters to get eaten up. In this movie, he plays the Vincent Gardenia role from Little Shop Of Horrors — that is, he’s the old man who owns the store and is eventually swallowed by a creature which looks like a cross between a penis and a vagina — but he doesn’t even get much of a chance to sing. Meanwhile, the little girl who annoys everyone by hopping around provoking the Graboids on a rusty pogo stick makes it all the way through to the end. I mean, I know this is a PG-13 but even Spielberg had the balls to let Alex Kintner get chomped. It’s not like I actively wanted to see a kid get eaten (well, maybe Melvin), but I’d rather see that happen, if the price is going to be Victor Wong. The only way I can justify his character’s death is to imagine it as an unofficial sequel to Big Trouble In Little China, wherein his character Egg Shen from that movie, in exile from San Francisco, moves his store to Perfection, Nevada, where he once again comes in contact with that unearthly subterranean beast he had always been previously been able to vanquish.
“You will come out no more.”
Anyway, enough of this fan fiction. I haven’t even gotten to the franchise’s marquee character, Burt Gummer, played by fan-favorite Michael Gross, otherwise best known as the dad from Family Ties. After Tremors, you will believe that a man best known for playing a soft-spoken, liberal-leaning paterfamilias on a 1980s sitcom found new fame by playing a ranting, raving survivalist gun nut in a series of monster movies about subterranean creatures which look like a cross between a penis and a vagina.
Burt and his wife Heather (the aforementioned Reba McEntire) are actually pretty entertaining, particularly in a scene where they double-handedly defeat one of the Graboids after it chews into their rec room. The two of them maintain their composure as they turn towards the buffet of handguns, rifles, and automatic weapons hanging on the wall, and spend what seems like five minutes of screen time pouring rounds into the monster until it finally sputters out. The Gummers are Sarah Palin’s kind of Americans. It got me thinking, how in movies there are some archetypes that are made out to be likable when they probably wouldn’t be in real life. This happens a lot in horror movies. In this case, Michael Gross’s Bert Gummer is certainly one of the more memorable characters in Tremors, and in fact he went on to take over the franchise from stars Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward (“Michael Gross in Tremors 4: The Legend Begins“), but you wouldn’t be so happy if he were your next-door neighbor, and you really wouldn’t be happy if he were setting public policy. But on screen, he’s a good guy to know.
Such is the strange, wonderful, democratic magic of movies.
Tremors is a lot of fun. I’d say it deserves its popularity. It’s a barnstormer, silly and raucous. The tone is set from the start, by the lively and profane lead performances by Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward — and how is it that Fred Ward hasn’t ever been cast in a Coen Brothers movie, by the way? — and continues through an energetic pace set by director Ron Underwood, who is now a TV director, kind of a waste. The Graboids are great monster villains, and the various ways in which they’re thwarted by our heroes are creative and funny. The movie isn’t scary for a minute, but not all monster movies have to be created equally on that front. I’ll take high energy and fun characters over moodiness and despair most days of the week. Definitely on a Thursday.