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Non-Review Review: Tremors

Man, I love Tremors. I’m a professed B-movie geek who grew up on the particularly cheesy Wes Craven and John Carpenter films of the seventies and eighties, who has always harboured a soft spot for playful monster movies, so I reckon I’m the film’s target audience. Tremors is one of those affectionate throwbacks, those movies that don’t just aim to evoke a particular genre and time period (as The Expendables was a generis eighties action movie produced twenty-five years too later) so much as offer an up-to-date and self-aware reinvention of them (as Spielberg produced a thirties adventure serial with modern sensibilities in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Rodriguez offered a brutally hilarious modern-day Mex-ploitation film in Machete). Tremors is basically a fifties B-movie produced with late eighties A-list talent and self-awareness.

The town's gone to ground...

That isn’t to say that Tremors is anything more than a really, really well-made creature feature, or that it ever dares to move beyond the classic monster movie formula. Indeed, Ron Underwood’s film adheres relatively faithfully to the genre conventions we’ve come to expect. The characters are still trapped by the plot in a confined location, with circumstance and plot contrivance conspiring to keep our two plucky heroes in the region, against their desire to leave. “I mean, is there some higher force at work here?” Earl Basset loudly laments when bad luck continues to ensure that he and his partner Val are unable to depart their desert community despite several attempts. The movie uses all these classic and forced plot devices, but it’s always aware of how classic and forced they might be, making it refreshing in its candor and wit.

Indeed, Underwood is certainly less than subtle about the movie’s influences, as he documents a small town under siege from gigantic worm-like monsters traveling through the soil. His music cues evoke Jaws, as if conceding he’s constructing a playful land-based version of the classic shark movie…. but on land. Indeed, the script concedes the influence, acknowledging that the mysterious monsters (nicknamed “graboids” by fans), are basically sea monsters that can travel on land. “I thought eels lived in the water,”one character remarks.

Keep on truckin'

There’s a sense that Underwood and his team are playing with the audience’s conventions and expectations, knowing that they’ll deliver everything that’s expected, even if toying with us a bit along the way. For example, as is requisite in a B-movie like this, we’re treated to a plucky female scientist who provides exposition on the monsters. Here instead of being the traditional glasses-wearing-model-turned-actress sort of beauty, we’re treated to a still-quite-hot but not-unbelievably-hot scientist – and the movie still makes a point of stripping her down to her undies during the big chase sequence.

Tremors works so well not because any of its ideas are especially innovative, but because the execution is top-notch. That execution includes a superb cast (headlined by Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon), fantastic direction by Underwood and an impressive script by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock. Maddock and Wilson are able to spoof the sorts of clichés and plot devices we expect in films like this, while still using them effectively. One of the best moments in the film sees the three leads each postulate alternative backgrounds for the monsters.

Young guns...

Val suggests, “I got it. They’re mutations caused by radiation,” even before he can finish rhyming off that cliché, he has a better one. “Or, no – the government built ’em. Big surprise for the Russians.” Rhonda pieces together her own theory, “There’s nothing like them in the fossil record. I’m sure. Okay, so, they predate the fossil record. That would make ’em a couple billion years old. And we’ve just never seen one ’til now.” Getting in the spirit of the game, Earl’s guess is short and sweet. “I vote for outer space,” he remarks. “No way these are local boys.”

A lesser movie might have offered a concrete origin for the creatures, but the movie is smart enough to know, as Earl points out, it “doesn’t matter where they come from.” It makes no different from a plot point of view – the monsters just need to provide a threat to the characters in a film like this, and an origin is secondary at best. At worst, it robs the creatures of some mystery and makes them seem less threatening. In fact, the script cleverly leaves it to the audience to make up their own minds on the matter.

Up on the roof...

As a director, Underwood is able to give the film a warm sense of humour, but without undercutting any of the thrills or suspense. Despite the fact that a lot of the film is silly and ridiculous (including the survivalist couple Burt and Heather, or the money-hungry antics of various characters in the midst of all this), Underwood knows that the film has to be able to thrill the audience. Underwood has quite an eye for suspense, with some wonderful fakeouts early on, but some nicer moments later.

In particular, Underwood grasps the uneasy power of repetitive action to unnerve the audience in a film like this. He knows that showing characters doing the same thing over and over again opens up the possibility that they could be attacked this time or the next time or the time after that. As such, he can draw a large amount of suspense from something as simple as a pogo stick, or a bouncing ball. After all, one would imagine that there’s only so many possible ways to scare an audience using underground monsters, and it’s only until a certain point that they are effective, but Underwood manages to carry the film effortlessly.

Saving his Bacon...

He’s helped by the cast. Bacon and Ward are able to provide the film’s requisite bro-mantic machismo with enough character and charisma to set it apart from the more standard version you generally see in films like this. Indeed, the pair work perfectly well together, even during the mandatory “self-sacrifice” sequence. (“Good luck, sh!thead.” “Don’t worry about me, jerk-off.”) Looking at how perfectly all the elements balance, I’ll admit to being a bit disappointed that any sequel was ever greenlighted without being able to bring all the key players on board.

Tremors is a fun film, a silly film, and a hugely enjoyable film. It’s an ashamed creature feature, of the kind we don’t see too often, but it tempers the limits of the genre with a wit and intelligence that is too rarely seen. I can’t help but wish that the monster movie revival in the late nineties might have learned a thing or two from it.

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for reminding me what a great movie “Tremors” is. You pointed out exactly what works so well in it. Any movie that adds a word like “graboid” into our cultural lexicon is something to be applauded.

  2. It’s a very fun flick and I haven’t seen it in a long long time but I can say that whenever it’s on TV, usually around Halloween time, i can always say that I’m enjoying myself. Good review.

  3. Great piece on a classic 80’s movie. Can remember walking out of the Carlton still grinning. That decade was the perfect mix of subversive humor in a mainstream studio movie.

    • Hi James! Yep, I love that cheeky late eighties period. It felt like cinema was trying to adjust to blockbusters while retaining a sophisticated and (as you noted) occasionally subversive sensibility.

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