CULT CORNER: Tremors (1990)

With a fifth outing on the way, we revisit Tremors for the original tale of the worm that turned. 

Who made it?: Ron Underwood (Director), S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock (Writers/Producers), Universal Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire, Robert Jayne, Victor Wong.

Tagline: “The monster movie that breaks new ground.”

IMDb rating: 7.1/10.

Tremors gets my vote as one of the finest horror/comedies ever made. It’s a hard balancing act to be sure. Directors have to be genuinely frightening to entice the genre buffs, yet funny enough to appeal to a larger demographic. Only a chosen few have really succeeded. It stands alongside such greats as Re-Animator and the original Scream for effectively splicing bloody set-pieces with “aw shucks” humour. And while it exceeds as a humorous shocker, Tremors is also a fantastic monster movie. Modestly budgeted yet made with love for its pulpy roots, Tremors was good enough to spawn four straight-to-video sequels and even a short-lived television series. How many creature features from the 90s can say that?

In the small community of Perfection, Nevada, self-proclaimed “handy men” Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) depart from their glum existence for the town of Bixbie. Unfortunately, they’ve decided to up sticks one day too late. A rash of murders and strange events soon conspire against them. But it isn’t some psycho offing the local cattle and farmers but a herd of giant, subterranean worms. They burst through the earth’s surface with tentacled tongues and kill everything in their path. Joining forces with their neighbours, they have to work together if they’re ever going to enjoy an afternoon stroll again…

Helmed by Ron Underwood, who would later torpedo his career with the execrable The Adventures of Pluto NashTremors gets so much right that it’s tough to know where to start. Underwood has a knack for building tension that allows us to fear for the characters. He is also smart in that he doesn’t reveal his beasties upfront. Their presence for the first act is limited to a seismic ripple of dust as they make their way through the desert soil, or a bravura bit where a worker’s drill pierces one’s skin and goes flying across the concrete. Like the shark in Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), Underwood never lays his cards on the table until he absolutely has to, and you’ll be surprised at how long he teases the big reveal. The director uses the environment shrewdly, and the wide open spaces only exacerbate the feeling of tension when a wrong step will result in death. The set-up for this movie is truly fantastic. 

Tremors ultimately works, though, because we give a crap about the protagonists. It’s fair to say that the film would have been dead in the water without Bacon and Ward. They make us go along with the ridiculous concept out of sheer goodwill. The picture even begins with a priceless sequence of Val playing a practical joke on his surly pal that tells us everything we need to know about these two. They’ve been friends forever, and the script by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock delights in their interplay. This is a duo who resort to solving their disputes with a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” They’re funny and sarcastic, but the writers are smart enough to make them resourceful, too. When they finally realise the nature of their adversary, they react as we would and do everything in their power to stay alive. In short, they are just about the most ideal lead characters you could ever hope to see in a movie of this sort.

The rest of the cast also deserve plaudits. Finn Carter plays token female and graduate student Rhonda, whose research into the valley’s seismic shifts allows for a dollop of old-fashioned mumbo-jumbo. For once, in a sly twist on the genre’s conventions, the scientific “expert” is just as clueless as everyone else. Then there’s little shit Marvin (Robert Jayne) who cries wolf so often you can see the pay-off coming a mile away. Store owner Walter Chang (the great Victor Wong) is more concerned with naming the monsters than he is about saving his own skin (“Graboids” is the best he can do). And rising above the supporting faces is Richard Gross and Country & Western singer Reba McEntire as survivalist nuts Burt and Heather Gummer. Their stockpile of weaponry naturally comes in handy whilst simultaneously satirising the all-American need to bear arms. When the body count begins to rise, you can’t help but pity our heroes and their plight.

As good as the cast is, Tremors isn’t exactly a performance showcase. Thankfully, there are iconic scenes aplenty. Who can ever forget the bit where Val, Earl and Rhonda pole-vault across the terrain to a nearby truck? Or when the Graboids illuminate the night sky with upturned headlights as they consume a car with a screaming woman inside? Wilson and Braddock milk their concept for all its worth and frequently up the ante to hugely enjoyable levels. And then there’s the Graboids themselves. The sequels would add more to their backstory, making them prehistoric beings released from their Earth core slumber, but here they’re monsters with no reason for being other than to chow on homo sapiens. Better yet, they weren’t created with modern CGI but good old-fashioned models and stop-motion techniques. You’ll frequently wonder how they pulled it all off on a tight $11 million budget, or why it still looks so solid after all this time. This is a skilfully assembled flick from beginning to end, and only a obligatory kiss before the credits roll feels awkward. Not bad for a twenty-five year old monster mash.

Tremors wasn’t a hit over night, of course, making around $48 million domestically, but it did become a smash on video and cable. This is a cult film through and through, and it’s possible that modern viewers might not warm to it. But for those who absolutely love B-movies in the creature tradition, it was a classic then and remains one in 2015.

Best Scene

“BROKE INTO THE WRONG REC ROOM, DIDN’T YOU, YOU BASTARD?!”

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • S.S. Wilson said that he got the idea for the film while he was working for the US Navy in the California desert. While resting on a rock, he imagined what it might be like if something underground kept him from getting off the rock.
  • The Gaboids are very reminiscent of the giant worms in Dune. Both are giant worms, live underground, live in the desert, have large mouths on the end, and respond to vibrations on the surface. Also, both films have the characters escaping the worms by retreating to rocks where they can’t get attacked.
  • According to promotional material from the Sci-Fi Channel, the official scientific name of the Graboid is “Caederus mexicana.”
  • Composer Robert Folk was brought in at the very last minute to re-score the film. This was due to the original score composed by credited composer Ernest Troost was lacking the punch that it needed for the film musically. Approximately thirty minutes or more was written by Folk and strangely goes uncredited in the film’s credits.
  • Prior to the film’s release, Kevin Bacon felt the movie was a career low: “I broke down and fell to the sidewalk, screaming to my pregnant wife, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing a movie about underground worms!’”.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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