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Tremors, written by S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, and Ron Underwood, directed by Ron Underwood, 1989, 95 min.
Tremors is a funny, scary, impeccably constructed monster movie, of the kind that doesnít happen very often. Itís a low budget first time film, and the care and attention paid to every little element shines through from beginning to end. Tremors is also the rare movie that can escalate tension effectively, and subsequently knows what to do with all that tension when it gets to the concluding segments of the story. A very enthusiastic and well-written movie, with a strong and effective ending. I know that not everyone will agree with me on this one, but Tremors is a personal favourite of mine so I freely admit Iím not very rational about it.
Tremors takes place in a small town named Perfection in an isolated desert valley in Nevada. Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward) are two local handymen who have always dreamed of getting out; Rhonda (Finn Carter) is a university student who has set up seismological stations all across the valley to study the geology of the area. Itís a small town, so thereís only a few other characters, like a store owner, a retired doctor and his wife, an annoying kid named Melvin, and some local ranchers. Two other people who actually like the valley are Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) and his wife Heather (Reba McEntire), survivalists who have a basement full of guns and food rations and other preparations for the direst of situations. We follow Val and Earl as they do a dayís work, meet the other inhabitants of the valley, and finally decide to leave. But fate has a different destiny in store for them!
The first signs of trouble are small but no less disturbing. When Val and Earl first meet Rhonda, she tells them that she has been getting some strange readings on her seismographs. Val and Earl are on the road out of town when they come across the town drunk Edgar; Edgar is up in an electricity transmission tower, dead of exposure, clutching his gun, as if he were afraid of walking on the ground. A few other people have disappeared and Val and Earl find that Old Fred and his flock of sheep have been eaten/massacred. By only twenty minutes into the movie, Val and Earl discover that the main and only road out of the valley has been blocked (with another two deaths, two highway workers). Several more steps of carefully escalated tension ensue. Even the moments of humour (like the christening of the monsters as ďgraboidsĒ) ultimately donít destroy the tone of Tremors.
In the last hour of the movie, the human characters basically know what the monster is: some kind of giant underground mutation, which senses vibration, and is hungry for anything that moves. But having seen the monster and knowing what it can do is in no way a lessening of audience fear in the capable hands of this particular group of filmmakers. For one thing, despite all the human ingenuity available to the characters, they donít have much to work with. Even their last refuge, to stand on the roofs of the buildings in their town, wonít last long: the buildings are flimsy, and they will all die of exposure before anyone comes to the valley to rescue them. It helps that two of the valley inhabitants are survivalists; at about an hour into the movie, one of the graboids try to break into the Gummer basement, much to its chagrin and with much expenditure of ammunition. The guns are all loaded of course! And it also helps that Val is personally offended that the graboids seem to be getting smarter (which is effectively demonstrated); in the climax of the movie, he takes a big risk on a plan that he thinks of on the spot, with the line, ďThis bastard ainít smarter than us.Ē Cleverly, Valís idea comes full circle to something that he did in the very first scene of the movie (and also a locale we saw in the first shot). Itís a beautiful resolution to the story. I can hardly think of any other monster movies where the human characters defeat the monsters by the application of brains not brawn. In fact, Iíll widen that to most action or thrill-packed movies of any kind. Val and the other inhabitants of Perfection have great physical courage, no doubt about that, but itís the use of their little grey cells that carries the day. Very very satisfying. When I watch Tremors, I get wrapped up in the thrills and spills of the story, but itís always the ending that to my mind lifts it above other genre material of its kind.
The character intros are priceless, Burt Gummer in particular. Burt, who is the character with the longest-lasting presence in the Tremors universe (see note on sequels below), has his first lines of dialogue complaining about to the store owners about the bullets available. Reba McEntire, in her movie debut, does a stunning job as Mrs. Gummer. She at first seems like the stereotype of the long-suffering wife, but it soon becomes clear that she has enough inner strength of her own to remain calm throughout all the crises, and to soothe Burtís sensitive ego without hardly thinking about it. Val and Earl are the heart of the movie, and their wise-cracking relationship opens the movie. Even the background characters are perfectly suited to the story. For example, Mindy is a young girl who lives in town, and she has a habit of seeing how far she can go down on the road on her pogo stick. As could be expected in a movie about some monsters who live underground and are attracted to vibration, this is going to be very bad!
Tremors does most of its explanations in passing, and the filmmakers cover just about every question the audience could ask. On the subject of how the graboids can move so fast through the ground we get a partially credible account, but we never find out why they are so tenacious. Another thing that is never explained, and one that works the best, is the origin of the graboids. At about halfway through the movie, Val, Earl, and Rhonda are speculating about where the graboids came from - mutations due to radiation, government-built during the Cold War, and outer space among the speculations - but these are ultra-conventional explanations. A movie like Tremors needs a monster, and there it is; the likelihood of some townsfolk figuring out where the monsters came from, all the while fighting for their lives, is pretty remote. So kudos for that.
Otherwise, each aspect of Tremors is carefully explained, and, as I said, in the best manner possible: in passing, audible yet not the focus of whatís happening. For example, about twenty minutes into the movie, Val and Earl come back to the store, and one of the side characters is complaining to another: ďIím not accusing anybody. Iím just saying, some of my cattle are missing.Ē This kind of movies with big scary monsters almost never explains how the creature got so big; with this one line, Tremors lets us know that it respects our intelligence. And then it gets back to the good stuff, scares, laughs, and lots of suspense.
Tremors was made in 1989; while it was not a huge blockbuster, it became a fan favourite. Tremors 2: Aftershocks was made in 1986 and Tremors 3: Back to Perfection in 2001, both of these straight to video. Tremors 2 features Earl and Burt in Mexico hunting some graboids; just as soon as they have it down to a science, the graboids mutate into a new form. This second movie works reasonably well without Kevin Bacon and Reba McEntire, and without the bigger the budget of the first movie (the special effects are obvious yet heartfelt and appropriate, a better mix than most such movies can boast of). In the third movie, Fred Ward also leaves, so only Michael Gross is left, as good old Burt, still defending Perfection. The graboids undergo yet another mutation, so now there are three levels of peril to contend with. Since the third movie, Tremors has been developed into a TV series starring Michael Gross. Itís a fun series, with a few surprise characters returning from the movies. For example, Melvin is now a scumbag developer. The typical Tremors storyline isnít that easy to fit into a peril of the week format, but the show comes close.
DVD Note: Tremors on DVD comes on 1 disc, with the movie itself, a 20 minute feature entitled The Making of Tremors, and a few other things, including some fairly raw behind the scenes footage, and some outtakes which include the original ending. Itís not really that much material but respectable enough for a movie thatís more than ten years old now.
Last modified: June 5, 2003
Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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