Tremors takes place in a town called Perfection (population: 14). It’s an ironic name, because the only thing perfect about the place is how perfectly dull it is. There’s barely enough people there to sustain the local shop/gas station. The only apparently dynamic workers in the town are the two local handymen, Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, respectively). And they’re itching to get out of town. But Earl insists they can’t just run away: they need a plan.
Earl is a thinker. Val is more emotionally driven, and the second he sees the prospect of a woman, he drops any pretense of ambition: he just wants to find a blond, leggy bed warmer, but instead he finds a frizzy haired, rather unkempt new grad student doing seismological investigations in their little valley. Perfection seems to be a hotbed of seismological weirdness. There’s stuff moving all over under the ground. Maybe the equipment is on the fritz, but it’s still odd.
Anyone familiar with this now 31-year-old film knows that the weirdness is crazy, burrowing worm monsters that reach up from under the ground to grab the unsuspecting townspeople of Perfection and pull them to their deaths. Tremors, released in January of 1990, made absolutely no earthquakes at the box office, but became big shakes on the home video market. There’s a reason for that eventual success: for a movie of this type, monsters attacking a small, localized group of people with limited resources and no easy way out, it’s rarely been done better. The box office failure is probably the fault of marketing. The still on-going subsequent success of the film is because it’s damned good at what is sets out to do.
Tremors has a template pretty similar to other monster movies, Jaws being the genre titan that looms largest. Normal people get wrapped into a situation far outside of their ken, and their petty personal problems are put on hold because they suddenly have an existential crisis to overcome. Their true mettle is uncovered in how they approach it. This is a template used by a thousand direct-to-TV horror movies shown on SYFY back when it actually showed something like sci-fi. Most of those movies are garbage. Tremors is fantastic. What’s the difference?
The situation for a monster movie is always going to be the same: monster shows up, eats people. People, with a rather strong objection to being eaten, endeavor against their unfortunate fate. In the end, they win, because if they don’t, you don’t get to bring them into a sequel where they almost get eaten again. That is the static aspect of the story. The dynamics are found in the characters, and the monster. On both levels, Tremors knocks the ball completely out of the park.
The characters are not deep (this isn’t the sort of movie where deep character motivations matter, or can matter) but they are very sharply drawn, and very quickly. Tremors has about a dozen speaking parts, and every single one of them has some defining trait, beyond potential victim. The two main characters, Val and Earl, are guys who probably have more to offer, but inertia has kept them static. And their story arcs might be compelling even if underground worms didn’t interfere and start murdering their friends and townsmen. Other characters in the film are just as sharply drawn. Burt and Heather Gummer (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire, respectively) are survivalists who seems a little crazy, but are suddenly the most useful people on earth when evil monsters attack their small community. Finn Carter plays the brainy grad student Rhonda who is eventually fed up with having to come up with all the good ideas – after all, underground-tunneling worm monsters are as novel to her as they are to these rednecks in Perfection.
The monsters, too, are constantly evolving in the audience’s perception. They seems like weird, stupid monsters at first; the local grocer dubs them “graboids”. But these graboids are shown to be constantly coming up with new schemes that make the character’s intelligent plans against them come up inadequate. They’re underground, and they can’t climb up buildings, so everyone in town climbs up on their roofs but that just leaves the monsters the opportunity to start digging out the foundations of the buildings and bring them down around the character’s ears. At first, they seem like creepy weird snakes, until the giant body of one of the full monsters is uncovered. Then the seismologist looks at her charts and determines there’s at least three more of these things around.
The film weaves in the stories of its characters into their predicaments with a smoothness so there’s never a cloying feeling of being taught a lesson. There’s an arc to the main characters, but it isn’t overly obvious, and there isn’t the other annoying aspect of modern monster movies where one character is the sensible one, and everyone else is an idiot. Every character gets to contribute something to the effort of survival. This is particularly highlighted in the scene at the Gummer house. They’re the survivalists, kind of a local joke, and one of the worm monsters invades their basement. Well, that’s where they have their gun stash, and in what may (subjectively) be the greatest scene in a 20th century American movie, they proceed to go from gun to gun blowing the hell out of this primordial monstrosity, and strike a blow in the war of humanity versus ancient worm monsters.
Another thing that sets this film apart from the average SYFY nonsense is the visual beauty of the film, highlighted in this 4K release by Arrow Video. Shot primarily in Lone Pine, California (a place your humble reviewer has been through many a time in his childhood summer vacations), it makes the maximum use of its rural, scrubby hill locations. Modern cheap monster movies seem to be mostly shot in the parking lots of the film production’s offices. Tremors has locations. It has scope. It has something to see.
It may have failed at the box office on release, but Tremors has had a tremendous afterlife. One might almost call it an “underground success” had one not used up all one’s allotted puns earlier in the review. Six sequels (of varying quality) and a short-lived TV series have followed in its wake. But the original Tremors wasn’t an attempt at a franchise, it was a stand-alone film with a fresh premise, and a sterling example of how to use a standard formula to create something new. Funny, frightening, and as entertaining as ever, the original Tremors deserves a new audience.
Tremors has been released on 4K Ultra HD by Arrow Video. This release does not include a standard 1080p Blu-ray disc with the feature. It does have an incredibly deep array of extras, both on the 4K disc and on an accompanying 1080p Blu-ray disc. A pair of commentaries accompany the feature film, both new to this release. One is by director Ron Underwood and screenwriters Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson, and the other is by critic Jonathan Melville.
There are several new video extras on the disc: “Making Perfection” (31 min) a new documentary with several interviews with the filmmakers and cast, including Kevin Bacon. “The Truth About Tremors” (23 min), an interview with co-producer Nancy Roberts. “Bad Vibrations” (11 min), an interview with DP Alexander Gruszynski. “Aftershocks and Other Rumblings” (13 min), an interview with producer Ellen Collett. “Digging the Dirt: The Visual Effects of Tremors” (21 min) examining the films FX. “Music for Graboids” (14 min) with composter Ernest Troost and Robert Folk. “Pardon My French!” (17 min) is an assembled compilation network television overdubs. Archival material includes “The Making of Tremors” (45 min) from Laurent Bouzereau from 1995; “Creature Featurette” (11 min), which is on-set camcorder footage on the making of the graboids; and Deleted Scenes (5 min), as well as EPK material, trailers and image galleries.
The second disk contains extensive outtakes from the “Making Perfection” documentary, including long form interviews with Ron Underwood (48 min), S.S. Wilson (82 min), Brent Maddock (63 min), Nancy Roberts (51 min), and creature designer Alec Gillis (60 min). There’s also an “Arclight Hollywood 2015 Q&A” (72 min) with many members of the cast and crew hosted by Jonathan Melville, a gag reel with commentary, and a trio of early short films by S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, and Ron Underwood: “Recorded Live” (8 min), “Dictionary: The Adventure of Words” (17 min), and “Library Report” (25 min).
There is also a 60-page book with essays by Kim Newman and Jonathan Melville, a pair of posters featuring cover and poster art, and six double sided lobby cards.
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