Directed By: Ron Underwood
Release Date: January 19, 1990
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Michael Gross, Finn Carter, Reba McEntire
Where do I begin in talking about Tremors, the 1990 horror-comedy movie about giant, subterranean worm monsters called graboids terrorizing the quiet, barely-populated town of Perfection, Nevada? For starters, it's a movie that I've seen countless times throughout my life, and I have fond memories of many evenings watching it on the USA Network or The Sci-Fi Channel, spellbound by its goofy charm in a way that has ensured that it'll always have a special place in my heart. Yet for nearly three decades, I'd never had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen, surrounded by other people; that is, until last week.
Now, before I get into both that experience and the movie proper, I have to acknowledge something straight out of the gate, which is the fact that Tremors, despite being almost thirty years old, launched an entire franchise that is still going to this day. In 1996, it received its first sequel, Tremors 2: Aftershocks, a direct-to-video film that I've seen just as many, if not more, times than its predecessor. It's an underrated and underappreciated gem, one that I'll hopefully cover on here one day, and the one-two punch of Tremors and Tremors 2 in the '90s ultimately gave way to Tremors 3: Back to Perfection in 2001, the short-lived Tremors: The Series in 2003, Tremors 4: The Legend Begins in 2004, and Tremors 5: Bloodlines in 2015. And that's still not the end of it, as another sequel, Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell, is arriving later this year, while a second TV series is being developed with Kevin Bacon set to lead, the actor returning to the franchise for the first time since appearing in the original film.
It is, quite simply, stunning that the Tremors franchise has lasted this long, and though the subsequent films that followed Tremors 2 stumbled in quality, in my opinion, they've mostly gotten by purely on their charm, taking the original film's cue in being self-aware enough to not take the goofy premise at their core too seriously. I say all of this because it is important to note that outside of the first film, the Tremors franchise has been relegated entirely to the small screen, and when I had the opportunity to finally see Tremors on the big screen last week, I was pleasantly surprised that the house was nearly packed, with an audience turnout that was evenly balanced across all ages. Before the film even began, I was able to hear an elderly couple talking about how they had seen the film back when it had first been released, a woman my age excitedly telling her partner how she, like me, had grown up watching the Tremors movies on TV, and a father convincing his young children that they were going to have a blast.
And throughout the course of the film, it was easy to see just how deeply Tremors has resonated with the people who came out to see it for the hundredth time and how effective it still is for people experiencing it for their first, as every well-placed joke had everyone laughing, every clever reveal garnered an audible "Oh, no!" from several people, and every big, crowd-pleasing moment, like the show-stopping rec room scene or the moment when we learn whether graboids can fly or not, earned applause.
Directed by Ron Underwood, who the very next year after this film's release directed the Academy Award-winning City Slickers, and written by Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson, the duo responsible for shepherding the franchise up through Tremors 4, Tremors is - and I say this with all seriousness - a master class in narrative efficiency. Its runtime is a little over an hour and a half, and not a minute ever feels wasted, the film getting in, doing its job, and getting out long before it overstays its welcome.
We're introduced immediately to Bacon's Valentine McKee and Fred Ward's Earl Basset, a pair of handymen with lofty dreams of leaving their rural life in Perfection, Nevada - aka the middle of nowhere - behind, and just as they decide to finally make said dreams a reality, they find themselves stumbling into the aftermath of several mysterious deaths. From there, it doesn't take long before they find out what the cause is: Giant worms with snake-like tentacles in their mouths that travel underground, drawn to their victims by sound. They, along with what's left of the population of Perfection, including Michael Gross' gun-toting survivalist Burt Gummer, the character who went on to become the face of the franchise, are then forced to come together to figure out a way to outsmart the graboids and find a way to safety.
Its goofy, B-movie trappings aside, Tremors is a film that should be used as an example of how to properly pace a story. Its characters aren't complex or deep, but they don't need to be in a movie like this, and Tremors never bogs itself down with character-related exposition that keeps the film from always moving forward, instead letting their actions within the narrative outline who they are and their interactions with others fill in the rest along the way. For instance, the natural chemistry between Bacon and Ward and the repeated usage of Rock-Paper-Scissors as their way of making decisions speaks volumes to their characters' bond with one another without needing their history explicitly laid out before us, and even when they make fun of each other, it's evident from the subtle smiles and snappy back-and-forth that it's all genuinely good-natured, just like the tone of the film itself, which makes it easier to root for them as protagonists within minutes of meeting them.
Another example of the film's efficiency is how every setup, however innocuous, is paid off. A throwaway joke about a stampede between Val and Earl at the start of the film comes full circle in the final act. A decision by the duo not to fix a loud freezer in the town's general store has repercussions when the group is doing their best to not make noise lest they give away their location to a graboid. A young girl's ongoing attempt to set her own Pogo stick record comes into play at the worst possible time. Seeds are planted throughout the first half that bear fruit in the second, and that fact is demonstrative of how such an "out there" concept that could've embarrassingly fallen flat on its face can be elevated into something more simply because the people behind it took care to think so many things through and deliver something lean and focused, where everything has a purpose and a place.
And as I mentioned earlier, all of it gels together because Tremors walks the fine line between taking itself too seriously and falling victim to its own cheese. It's self-aware enough to know that trying to make a serious horror film out of itself could have - and undoubtedly would have - inadvertently led to many unintentionally hilarious moments, and instead invites the audience to join in at poking fun at itself and the types of schlocky, low-budget monster movies it's having fun emulating without outright mocking them, somewhat similar to Frank Marshall's Arachnophobia, another horror-comedy from 1990 that also knew when to lean hard into its concept and when to pull back.
Late in the film, Burt Gummer and his wife - played by Reba McEntire, no less - take a stand against a graboid that has penetrated the wall of their underground rec room, firing bullet after bullet into the beast, and just as it seems their ammo may be running low, the camera follows them as they back towards a wall where dozens of guns are mounted. It's a simple, hilarious reveal, and had the film attempted to play it straight, it would only be remembered for being the cause of blindness for many whose eyes rolled so far back in to their head as to get permanently stuck; instead, the reveal feels completely earned, and this single moment in all of its low-key simplicity is emblematic of how Tremors as a whole keeps its tongue in cheek, often without having to say a word.
What few issues I do have with the film, whether it's its relatively dated score or the fact that the love story between Val and Finn Carter's Rhonda feels somewhat disingenuous, feel pretty trivial when the overall film is so solid. For the most part, it's a pretty timeless endeavor, and a healthy portion of that notion can be attributed to the animatronics and puppetry on display. Compare Tremors to, say, Tremors 3, which came out a decade later and featured the introduction of the flying Ass-Blasters - take a second to groan, I'll wait - and you can easily see which one has dated itself more, with the third film's abundance of CGI having not aged well at all, while the original's efforts to keep its creatures tangible having paid off in spades all these years later.
At the end of the day, Tremors has stood the test of time because it's a film that set out to be nothing more than enjoyable but instead became supremely memorable thanks to its likable cast, its stellar creature design, its tight narrative focus, and the abundance of charm that binds all of that together. It invites everyone in, from diehard horror fans who can appreciate the love letter to the genre that it is to newcomers trying to figure out where to dip their toe to anyone of any age simply looking for a slice of pure, unadulterated entertainment that goes down easy and sticks with you long after it's over. Even after three decades' worth of rewatches, Tremors has yet to grow old, and I look forward to seeing what an audience another thirty years from now will make of it, particularly if the franchise is still going and Tremors 12 is on the way.
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