Tremors is a modern classic; an unforgettable film with memorable characters, great monsters, and a charm all its own. It’s due to the quality of the first movie that this series has endured as much as it has through a series of diminished returns sequels.
Tremors 2 captured a lot of the magic of the first but a focus on smaller and goofier looking monster (made with mediocre CG as opposed to the original’s use of miniatures and models), the departure of Kevin Bacon (though Fred Ward and Michael Gross both returned), plus a loss of the quirky small-town charm of the first one made it a lesser film. Tremors 3 brought back Michael Gross and the town of Perfection, Nevada but some horrible CG, bad characters, a goofy new monster with an even goofier name, and a limp plot made it a strictly fans-only affair. Tremors: The Series is basically Tremors 3 stretched out into a TV show and despite a wider scope and a handful of fun new characters (including Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris as a long-suffering government liaison) it had some bad episodes, Michael Gross departed for the latter part of the season, and it was cancelled before it had a chance to find itself. Tremors 4 was a welcome return to the practical movie-monster goodness of the first as well as a return to a strictly subterranean menace, it even had some good new characters but the prequel angle and having Michael Gross return, not as fan favorite Burt Gummer but as his milquetoast ancestor kept it from being much more than a silly lark.
Tremors 5 was filmed and completed pretty much under the radar and was released with little to no fanfare on Netflix/VOD/DVD simultaneously. Troublingly it was directed by the star of today’s Doomsday Reels entry, Don Michael Paul, who was responsible for such awful garbage as Lake Placid: The Final Chapter and the unofficial Caddyshack 3: Who’s Your Caddy? Also the previous four films’ production company Stampede Entertainment was not involved, nor series writer S.S. Wilson. Add to the pile that Jamie Kennedy is in the film. The deck was stacked against this movie from the beginning, so how does it fare?
I went into Tremors 5 with apprehension, while I love all the films I’m more than willing to admit that everything past the second one just isn’t up to par. We open on Burt in the deserts of Nevada (not Perfection, the movie is rather non-committal on whether El Blanco is still kicking around or if Melvin got his wish and turned Perfection into a kitschy cookie-cutter town) filming an episode for his reality TV series. The intro for the show features a fancy CG introduction explaining the Graboid life-cycle and summarizing who Burt is and what he does. Shortly afterward, Burt meets new camera-man Travis Welker (Jamie Kennedy.)
Travis is sort of a hybrid of the sidekicks in the last four entries, he’s got the competence and sensible qualities of Juan Pedilla but annoying kid aspects of the sidekicks in parts 2 and 3 though he isn’t as lovably idiotic as Grady Hoover or detestably stupid as Desert Jack Sawyer (nor, thankfully, as boringly plain as Tyler Reed.) I know this is going to sound crazy but Jamie Kennedy, despite some annoying lines written for the character, is actually really likeable. He holds his own against Michael Gross and Travis’ character moments are all rather effective. He’s also smart, resourceful, and surprisingly kind of cool.
Burt gets hired by a man representing the South African Wildlife Federation to go to South Africa where they have reported sightings of the final phase of the Graboid’s life-cycle: The Assblaster (ugh.) Burt and Tyler go to South Africa where it’s revealed that Burt’s guns were confiscated by customs and he has to make due with a pretty pitiful arsenal provided to him by a local hunter, Johan Dreyer (Brandon Auret of Neil Blomkamp’s films.) It is at least refreshing that they take away Burt’s arsenal at the beginning of the film this time.
Naturally things don’t go to plan. The African Graboids have evolved differently from their American counterparts: they’re smaller, faster, they corkscrew out of the ground and go airborne to attack prey rather than emerging beneath. Now the Graboids’ snakelike tongues, called Grabbers in this movie, can detach from the larger creature and hunt down prey on their own. We don’t see the Shriekers cycle as the worms are too young but the new Assblasters (ugh) look very different from their US counterparts, they’re nearly three times the size with lamprey-like mouths, eagle-like talons, and weird bat/bird looking wings. The characters even say “Assblaster” enough times with a straight face that you stop cringing every time they do it.
Of course, the big deal is that Burt is back. Michael Gross has been the one constant in this series aside from the subterranean worms and though the nearly 69-year-old actor is showing his age, he still remains as enjoyable as ever. Unfortunately, none of the four people who wrote this movie have the same grasp on the character’s dialogue/traits as S.S. Wilson did so Burt doesn’t get as many great funny moments but Gross has been playing the man so long that Burt’s allowed to shine through, though most of it seems to have been improvised and off-the-cuff (a scene with Burt trapped in a lion cage is great.) Fortunately, unlike in Tremors 3, it’s not up to Gross to shoulder the whole movie.
We have the series standard potential love-interest as Dr. Nandi Muntabu (Pearl Thusi), her daughter Amahle (Nolitha Zulu), and sort of a surplus side-kick type/rival love-interest for Nandi, Buruti (Rea Rangaka.) These characters have their own b-story as the movie splits Travis and Burt up to deal with Graboids while Nandi, Amahle, and Buruti deal with the Assblasters. It splits things up nicely and allows for the maximum amount of action to be going on at one time. The three South African actors don’t have much character or even much of an arc but they’re all likeable and handle themselves with aplomb, their scenes work and help spread the film out some.
Speaking of action, for a movie that has a budget alleged to be even less than the previous film’s there’s a lot of action and a lot of monster work. What’s more, the monsters look good. Yes, all the monsters are CG, and no they don’t look perfect. For one thing, CG looks fake, get over it. For two: this is the fourth direct-to-video entry in a series that was only a modest success 25 years ago, the fact that you’re getting production value at all at this point is nothing short of miraculous.
The creatures are recognizably CG, but they’re really good CG for a direct-to-video film and certainly worlds better than what came before. We never quite get that moment that all the fans have been waiting for where we get to see Burt Gummer go up against an army of Graboids with sufficient firepower, but he has a lot of great bits and that familiar reddish green goop splatters all over the screen numerous times. While the film is PG-13, that’s because the MPAA don’t give a fuck about gore when it concerns monster deaths.
The new monster designs are suitably cool and it handles the problem of having the Graboids’ complete lifecycle detailed in previous movies smartly. It would’ve been a copout to add a new stage to the life-cycle and using a different monster/mutated version of the originals would’ve been equally cheap. This way we got three new monsters with a surprisingly clever explanation, they just evolved in a different biome and are better evolved than their more sluggish cousins, in much the same way a puma and lion are rather different animals. The bit with the tongues detaching is a bit strange, bordering on dumb, but The Grabbers add a degree of danger that previous entries didn’t have so I’m mostly for it. I am slightly disappointed that we never saw a Graboid eating any of the African Wildlife we see in the movie (they trot elephants, wildebeests, and a lion out in front of us with no payoff.)
Tremors 5: Bloodlines (that title has a double meaning which you may or may not find annoying) is the best Tremors film since the second one and considering all the obstacles it faced (bad director, bad production company, low-budget, four writers, being a late-period straight-to-DVD sequel made 11 years after the previous entry) it works extremely well. This is a cut above what most direct-to-DVD sequels look like and it’s a damn good movie on its own, of course it gets a bit of handicap for being what it is and it still doesn’t hold a candle to the original but it breathes some new life into the Tremors series and I feel like we have more places to go from here.
We can only hope that Phantasm V will be this good.