Tremors. 1990. Directed by Ron Underwood. Screenplay by Brent Maddock & S.S. Wilson.
Starring Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire, Robert Jayne, Charlotte Stewart, Tony Genaro, Ariana Richards, Richard Marcus, Victor Wong, Sunshine Parker, Michael Dan Wagner, Conrad Bachmann, Bibi Besch, John Goodwin, & John Pappas. Universal Pictures/No Frills Film Production.
Rated 14A. 96 minutes.
I’ve got a fondness for the monster/creature feature sub-genre of horror and science fiction. There are so many classic, old school Hollywood flicks that have iconic monsters. Everything from James Whale’s Frankenstein to Karl Freund’s The Mummy. You can consider Stephen Spielberg’s birth-of-the-summer-blockbuster Jaws a creature feature. There are even lots of solid indie movies to have produced iconic, horrific creatures, such as the recent Mickey Keating alien film Pod, 90s fare like The Relic and Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic (though studio interference butchered the latter).
And for all its faults, 1990’s underground creature flick Tremors is an entertaining addition to the pack. With a memorable VHS cover I remember wanting to see this movie as a kid. I eventually caught it, still too young for horror, on television late at night. While there’s a great deal of humour and campy movie making, there’s still a super creepy aspect to this one. Despite some almost slapstick style acting and cheese Tremors still manages to attain a level of ’90s horror glory, as it ekes out a few laughs, also giving us a nice dose of creature action with a few fun special effects along the way. By no means is it classic, but it is an enjoyable bit of horror wrapped up a science fiction comedy.
In the tiny town Perfection at the edge of the desert, two handymen, Earl Bass (Fred Ward) and Valentine McKee (Kevin Bacon), are at their wits’ end. They’ve decided to up and get out of there, to try and make lives for themselves somewhere else. Except that when they’re headed out Earl and Valentine find a man named Edgar up stuck in a tower. In fact, Edgar’s dead. He stayed up there for days and dehydrated. Really?
Well turns out, a woman named Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter) is in town studying seismology. There have been some serious, strange readings in the ground around Perfection lately.
Big, hungry, and terrifying worms seem to be living underneath Perfection. And now they’re coming up to grab anything they can get their slimy mouths on.
But when the ground isn’t safe, where do you go?
That’s the biggest appeal of Tremors in terms of its horror. We feel a fear of anything that can come from the air or underneath us, whether in water or under the ground. Because it’s something inescapable. It’s bad enough if you’re in water, as anything can get you, there’s really nowhere to hide you’d have to just keep on swimming. Until you make it to land. But it’s scarier on land. You either have to climb, die, or fight. So that’s what Earl, Valentine and the rest of the crew find themselves up against. And in a small desert town like Perfection there are even a more limited number of options of where to go than might normally be found. A lot of the tension the screenplay builds up is simply through that isolation. The few residents are forced to do anything they can possibly think of to try and fight these creatures.
If you really want to get deep, the tremors represent the influence and pressure of the outside world. Valentine and Earl are on their way out of Perfection, off to the big city. However, they don’t even make it past the town limits before something pulls them back in. The tremors are an outside influence trying to infiltrate the town. Earl and Valentine realize this, their small town way of life threatened, and they’re pulled back in to defend themselves. Underneath the horror and all the comedy, Tremors is about those who realize they’re more at home, safer with those they’ve known in their little tight knit groups than branching out into a bigger place where they don’t know anyone, where anybody, or anything, can be lurking right below the surface. Ultimately, it’s an agoraphobic film, and if you see it in that light then the film can really take on a different light, making the horror more fun.
On top of all that, the Graboid creatures were created by Amalgamated Dynamics (they’ve done a bunch of other stuff from the recent Harbinger Down which they did independently to other bigger films like Death Becomes Her and David Fincher’s Panic Room). Even if you simply take Tremors for what it is, at a base level, the horror and the effects are still a lot of fun. There are some genuinely nasty bits of effects, especially once some of the Graboids start to get shot/blown up.
Cheesy as the movie can get, both Bacon and Ward are endearing, as well as the fact they’ve got great chemistry together. It’s a perfect old guy-young guy buddy combination, to the point you can almost consider this a buddy comedy horror. Again, there’s some definite stinky cheese here. But it’s the way these two sell it, how they use their charm to make the screenplay work even at its most campy. Bacon, as always, is energetic. Ward, too. They play the small town attitude well and you can really buy that these two have been working together for a while in Perfection – part of me wonders how they ended up as partners, Val probably meeting Earl when he was just a teenager and the two became this almost pair of grifters, roaming around doing anything they could to make a buck, work for this person, that person. So for a movie that has ’90s cheese factor of significant proportions, the screenplay actually drums up a good bit of intrigue for all its simplicity. Carter does a fine job with her role as Rhonda, providing a semi love interest that doesn’t actually come out until right before the final credits (something I dig because love stories are tiring sometimes and clutter up certain plots). She gets the chance to be smart, bad ass, and aids in the overall protection of Perfection. In that way, she’s a productive outside influence as opposed to the monstrous Graboids. The rest of the cast is peppered with nice casting choices, such as Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as an awesomely nutty gun-loving couple that come in handy, even the classic Victor Wong is in there for good measure. For an ensemble cast, this film could’ve done much, much worse.
As I said, Tremors is by no means a classic. Or is it? No masterpiece, that’s for sure. But it is one of those ’90s movies I’ll never forget. I saw it constantly on the shelf at my local Allan’s Video, it finally came on television late at night. Then I probably saw it another dozen times over the next 26 years, including today while reviewing it. It’s got light hearted comedy, a couple solid little performances for the movie they’re in, as well as the fact those Graboids are creepy, nasty looking things. In a decade that fell off a little compared to the ’80s, re: horror movies, Tremors is a welcomed bit of fluff that hits the spot when you’re looking for a bit of lightweight cinema that crosses comedy, horror, and science fiction in the span of a quick 96 minutes.