That Moment In Tremors (1990): Night Attack

REVIEW: Local handymen Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Wardare having a less than typical day in Perfection, a dusty, isolated old mining town in Nevada that has more abandoned tires than people. First they meet a young, attractive college student doing seismology experiments who claims there are some unexpected findings. Next they discover local boozehound Edgar Deems (Sunshine Parker) atop an electrical tower with his thirty-thirty Winchester. Oh yeah, and he’s dead. From dehydration. After that, they come across Old Fred (Michael Dan Wagner), a sheep farmer. Well, what’s left of Old Fred. They find his decapitated head buried in the sand under his hat next to a pen full of sheep that appear to have turned themselves inside out. Naturally they run away.

Things go from bad to much, much badder and soon it’s clear that Perfection is home to a few new residents: enormous, unground monsters that burrow their way from victim to victim based on vibrations. As the town prepares for a siege, and the only way of communication is disabled (of course), our heroes join forces with the remaining towns folks–including a kooky survivalist couple–and go to work to defend their homes.

A fun and campy monster thriller, Tremors delivers in spades. Never too scary and never too silly, the film succeeds because of the great chemistry among the cast. Clever special effects and some effective direction make this the classic it has become.


That Moment In: Tremors

Scene Setup: We’re not far into the film. The town’s doctor (Conrad Bachmann) and his wife (Bibi Beschare building a home just outside of the town. Under a starlit evening, they are enjoying a break, talking of the future. Their portable generator cuts out and they go to investigate . . . and you just know that’s gonna be a bad idea.

Why it Matters: Up to now, we can’t say we’ve seen much of the creatures. The aftermath, sure. Severed heads, eviscerated sheep and one snake-like (think anaconda) appendage tore off and clinging to the undercarriage of Val and Earl’s truck. The sheep slaughter and poor Old Fred came off as amusing, but here things take a dark turn. The playful campiness of the first act is temporarily set aside for a bit of straight-up chair-gripping horror.

More: Every great monster movie must contend with how best to reveal its beast. Too early and there is nothing to look forward too; wait too long and audiences grow frustrated. Tremors follows the original “Jaws” formula (even the poster pays homage) and teases us appropriately in the first act, and in this moment, we see just how tenacious and powerful the creatures are. While we still don’t get an actual look at any full-size monster yet, they become larger in our imaginations, and makes us more anticipatory for the big reveal. Before this, all the monster kills were off screen. Now we see it up close and it’s terrifying. And fun. 

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

We love a good monster flick, especially about a BIG one. Of course these days, big is real big, with the likes of the Kraken in the Titan movies, the massive Kaiju of Pacific Rim and the incredible proportions of the latest Godzilla. Our favorite is still the Jötnar of the Norwegian found footage mockumentary Trollhunter.

The Tremors monsters are a wee tad smaller, stealing a bit from the Dune sandworms in design . . . and a little from the Xenomorphs in the Alien franchise with lunging secondary mouths, though here they are attached to three tentacles, like if a giant earthworm with fangs burst from under your feet, opened its mouth and a nest of ornery pythons lunged at you. Actually, just like that. While the movie doesn’t bother with explaining their origin (that’s loosley left to the sequels), the film goes to great lengths to make their existence and the circumstances for which the townspeople are in very plausible.

Pictured: Two, possibly three sleepless night.
Pictured: Two, possibly three sleepless night.

So what makes this monster movie work so well? The answer is of course . . . the people (you thought I was going to say monsters, didn’t you?). It’s a rule of filmmaking that often goes ignored in creature features: Without characters we can identify with, care about, or have interest in, monsters are stripped of their menace. Do you think the velociraptors in the kitchen, hunting kids we never met rather than the two we’d already come to care about would have had the same impact? We probably would have rooted for the dinos. (Not that I condone kiddies as snacks.) That being said, the population of Perfection is chuck full of personality and good humor, especially Val and Earl who if, let’s face it, had been Pauly Shore and any one of the lesser Baldwins, would have made this movie a direct-to-landfill release. Fortunately, we have Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, and they are a great action/comedy team who really should have done more together.

Bacon, the bigger star of the two (his name is right at the top of the poster) plays familiar for us–we can easily see him as an older Ren McCormack, moved on from Bomot, his dancing days over, still a little footloose (sorry) and misguided. That works to an advantage here as the rebelliousness and cock-sure attitude is just the thing in battling the “Graboid”monsters.

Fred Ward, at the time, was best known for playing astronaut Gus Grissom in the epic retelling of the U.S. space race The Right Stuff and Remo in the ultimately unsuccessful but still entertaining Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (which promptly ended). He has this wonderfully weathered face that really gives his performance and character in Tremors a lot more credibility. We sense he’s been doing what he’s been doing and wishing to get out it for his whole life. Val and Earl both seem like strong independent men, but it’s obvious to us that they are nothing without each other. They even live together. Despite their banter and bickering, they are two halves of a whole.

While the story mostly focuses on these two, they are in good company. And that begins with the Gummers, Burt and Heather, played by Michael Gross and Reba McEntire. Cast against type, these two are ultra-survivalists prepared for the worst, living in a house/bunker that is more like a paranoid hermit’s wet-dream vacation home surrounded by military grade hurricane fencing. They speak extensively about ammunition and are ready to blast a rifle shot at a moment’s notice. While they’d been planning for defense against world war whatever, the opportunity to take advantage of their post-apocalypse-ready arsenal against subterranean slithering beasties is just the thing they’ve been craving: a chance to make things go boom.

We mentioned Jurassic Park earlier (the velociraptors). That movie was still three years off, but little Ariana Richards must have used this film as her audition tape to show off her running from people-chomping dino-beast skills.

Let’s talk about the college girl. When we meet her, she’s out in the deserts of Nevada conducting seismographic readings. By herself. We have no problem with that. In fact, it’s a clever bit getting an expert in among the townspeople. Finn Carter is a fine actress and she’s fun and charming and does a great job in her role. The problem is that the word “forced” is still weak in describing the relationship her character Rhonda and Val develop throughout the film. They simply are not a good match. At one point the monsters almost catch her and to escape, she pulls off her denims so we can A) see some leg, and B) have a ‘cute’ moment between she and Val once she is free. Neither are effective. It’s actually not cute. It’s weirdly awkward. The story goes that she did no rehearsals for the jeans scene so the reactions would be genuine for both actors. They should have rehearsed. Or better yet, take a stand and decide not to sexualize the female character. Not that it’s gratuitous or even tawdry (did we just say ‘tawdry’?), but it felt just like it looks, an added scene created only to get the girl out of her pants. The scene should have been terrifying, but instead becomes a distraction. Don’t get us wrong, sex and nudity in films is awesome if it makes sense. And we wholly understand the formula for jiggly young girls in scary movies, but here, it’s not necessary and feels out of place. It’s a silly tease that seems to suggest the filmmakers were required to put in a little sexy but afraid to go all the way. Either way, of course, by movie’s end, they two are a couple, and in the sequel, apparently married. Still, the best relationship is between Val and Earl and though we see in the very beginning that Val pines for a certain type of girl, Earl thinks he needs to reconsider his list and develop a more health approach to making himself whole.

Moving on. Any decent monster movie has that scene establishing the creature as a serious badass. It’s important in creating a more substantial fear of the beast and giving audiences added investment in the hero’s struggle. We were somewhat okay with the shark until it devoured the Kitner boy and then we altogether stopped taking baths. It changed from cool to terrifying after little Hyun-seo got snatched up by the Host and we decided “screw it,” no body of water is safe. Even the T-rex was simply awe-inspiring until it gruesomely gobbled up Gennaro in the bathroom and we spent weeks after not moving so it wouldn’t see us.
In Tremors, we know the doctor and his wife are about to be worm food, quite literally, but when it happens, and as traumatically as it does, we are unprepared, just as any good monster movie should make us feel. The rest of the movie goes for thrills rather than frights, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying.
I love a fun monster movie . . . if it’s done right. Eight-Legged Freaks, Arachnophobia, Deep Blue Sea, Anaconda. These are tongue-in-cheek and combine realistic creatures with a playful spirit. They aren’t meant to be hyperreal and certainly not taken seriously. Tremors blissfully knows its roots and what it’s trying to be, and so does with great affection for the genre. And it’s audience.

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Director:

Ron Underwood

Writers:

S.S. Wilson (story), Brent Maddock (story),

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