Tremors, 30 Years Later
Thirty years ago, this week, one of the best films of 1990 was released.
Tremors didn’t make a big splash in theaters. The film ended up grossing $16,667,084 at the domestic box office, which while making a profit due to its $11 million budget, was still below projected numbers. To be fair, this was a film about carnivorous subterranean worms— and it didn’t help that it was dumped in the cold of winter during what is arguably the slowest time of the year for the box office. Thankfully, however, Tremors found a second life on VHS where it became one of home video’s biggest success stories. More importantly, Tremors become a beloved cult hit.
Much has been said about the cast of Tremors which I’ll get to shortly, but what stood out the most watching it again, is the screenplay from S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, who both previously penned Short Circuit and Batteries Not Included. Sure, Tremors is a B movie, but it also boasts a tightly-knit script in which every scene; every action; every story beat; and every line of dialogue sets up a chain of events that gives every character a motive and reason to react the way they do. And despite one poorly executed sequence (I’m referring to the pole-vaulting montage), Tremors is a lean, mean movie without an ounce of fat to be found anywhere else.
The plot isn’t complex per se, but there’s something oddly comforting in the simplicity of it all. Tremors takes place in the Nevada desert near a small town called Perfection with a population of only 14 residents who are left to defend themselves against the deadly subterranean creatures. It’s the perfect setting for a monster film since the town itself is isolated. And with only one road leading to civilization, the openness of the desert landscape enhances the desolation of it all. And since the town of Perfection is so far removed from the rest of society, it soon becomes clear that nobody will ever come and save them. Instead, the townsfolk must work together; overcome the odds, and destroy the creatures. And when that fails, they must attempt to scale the rocky mountaintop where the worms are unable to travel underground. It’s getting there that becomes the problem.
Val and Earl
At the heart, and at the center of the eccentric cast of characters is Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward playing Valentine McKee and Earl Bass, a pair of modern-day cowboys working as handymen who become would-be heroes when they stumble upon the shock-sensitive killer worms. Over the years, the two actors have become less renowned for their comedic roles, but Tremors if anything, showcases their talent and range. And while Kevin Bacon with his sexy smile and pretty boy looks is by far the biggest star; it’s their irresistible chemistry that brings their characters to life. They make such a great comedic team and if you replaced Ward with any other actor at the time, there’s no guarantee that Tremors would have been this much fun to watch.
In fact, the two actors work so well together that Fred Ward provides a much better foil for Kevin Bacon than Finn Carter’s Rhonda, a.k.a. the underwritten love interest who is assigned to travel to the town and monitor the seismology readings in the desert. Not long after Rhonda arrives, the people in the town start disappearing – or worse, they end up dead, leaving very little time to establish any chemistry between her and Val— thus making the big kiss, in the end, feel a little out-of-place. But don’t blame the screenplay writers— the original ending of Tremors featured Val and Earl riding off into the sunset, with no hint at any potential romance between Val and Rhonda. Unfortunately, test audiences were not pleased and somehow the producers convinced the filmmakers to quickly reshoot the final scene— just another one of many examples of why studios should not rely on any focus group to provide feedback. In the end, the love interest feels somewhat lost in the shuffle.
The Gummer Family
It doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that there’s something unnatural roaming the desert and feeding on human flesh. Once Rhonda checks her readings and determines that the threat is coming from underground, Tremors begins to slowly open up and introduce us to the supporting cast which includes Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as the Gummer family, a pair of overzealous, gun-crazy survivalists. McEntire and Gross are so good here, they essentially steal the spotlight from the rest of the cast. In one of their most memorable scenes, the two are forced to take shelter in their basement and defend themselves against one of the giant man-eating worms— and just when it looks like they are going to run out of ammunition, the camera pans left to reveal the bunker holds enough guns and firepower to accommodate a small army. It’s just one of many examples of how Tremors takes a simple concept and maximizes it for full effect.
As much as Tremors is remembered today for the performances of Bacon and Ward, it’s the work of the entire cast that brings the movie to life. It really is great casting considering the small budget, and everyone pulls their weight, serving up the quick-witted dialogue in a way that makes it all feel more natural– and yes that even includes Robert Jayne as the annoying teenage brat, Melvin Plug. I especially like the performance by Victor Wong, a character actor who had roles in films like 3 Ninjas and Big Trouble in Little China. Here he plays the ill-fated Walter Chang who is killed in a scene that features some of the film’s best special effects.
Director Ron Underwood
Tremors was the first movie Ron Underwood directed and by far his best. Now known as a go-to director for many successful TV shows, Underwood keeps things moving briskly and finds new clever ways to draw out tension with impressive camera work, especially the shots that show the point of view of the creatures as they stalk their victims. Along with Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski, Underwood frames his exterior shots in a way that constantly reminds viewers how small the town is and how isolated it is. It’s also worth noting how difficult it is to shoot a horror movie outside in the middle of the desert where you can never truly escape the sunlight, and yet director Ron Underwood uses the setting to his advantage and frames his actors in such a manner that the landscape emits a general feeling of emptiness, which both mirrors the town’s small population and the people themselves who are desperate for a change.
Tremors evokes the populist spirit of ‘50s and ’60s B-movies without ever resorting to parody, nor does it ever feel familiar. Instead, Underwood reinvigorates its genre tropes with a finely balanced combination of horror and humor— and despite its tongue-in-cheek script, Underwood never allows it to venture into full-on camp. There is tension and suspense in every one of the action scenes and like many classics that came before it, Tremors focuses less on its oversized monsters and more on their victims and how these people react to attacks by these giant creatures. Even in the bright daylight, Tremors manages to create enough suspense to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.
Apart from taking inspiration from classic monster movies, Tremors owes a lot to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws— so much so, that the original title for Tremors was actually Land Sharks. Much like how the shark in Jaws travels underwater while stalking its prey, in Tremors, the 30-foot-long carnivorous worms known as Graboids, travel underground. And like Jaws (arguably the quintessential B movie), the creatures in Tremors are rarely seen. Instead, the largely invisible creatures can burrow fast enough to devour the entire town if given the opportunity— making them deadly and genuinely menacing.
Another clever inclusion by the screenplay writers was the idea to have these Graboids respond to seismic vibrations. While blind and unable to track their prey’s scent, they do have acute hearing, which means any slight movement or sound can cost you your life. In arguably the best scene of the entire film, Kevin Bacon’s Val is left to stand completely still and silent while the worm-like creatures who circle his feet reveal their razor-sharp fangs as they desperately search for their next victim.
It’s a credit to the creature design that I never once questioned the reality of the Graboids. Along with a team of over 50 visual effects wizards, the filmmakers were able to bring their creations to life with a mix of old school prosthetics, animatronics, and computer-generated imagery. Tremors may be at times funny, but this isn’t the sort of film that has viewers pointing at the screen and laughing at obviously cheesy effects. Make no mistake about it: the monster effects by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis (who previously worked on Alien and The Terminator) is truly impressive, especially given the limited budget they had to work with.
The one and only aspect of Tremors that I’ve never liked was the music heard at the start and at the end of the film. To my surprise, I later learned that composer Ernest Troaost’s musical score for the film went mostly unused since the studio didn’t like it and, later they hired composer Robert Folk to write a new score. Only a few of Troost’s country-themed songs made it into the final cut and sure enough, they are the songs I dislike. That said, Folk’s compositions perfectly match the visuals and heighten the suspense during the film’s most action-packed scenes.
Tremors wasn’t in any way groundbreaking since it borrowed liberally from many other monster movies, yet somehow the film became such a hit, that it spawned four direct-to-video sequels (Tremors 2: Aftershocks, Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, Tremors 5: Bloodlines and Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell)— a direct-to-video prequel (Tremors 4: The Legend Begins), and even a television series. More so, the success of Tremors resulted in many copycats but none of them (save for James Gunn’s Slither) have been able to perfectly match the potent mixture of sharp dialogue, deadpan humour, and horror.
It’s easy to see why Tremors ultimately became a success and why it remains a fun and engaging experience, decades later. The plot is fully realized constantly keeping things exciting. It has plenty of spectacular set-pieces, thrilling action scenes, and plenty of quotable throwaway dialogue. Along with the charismatic cast, superb direction, great script and terrifyingly real effects, Tremors stands the test of time. Many have tried to match Tremors but most have ultimately come up short. Movies like this come around once every few years.
For more on Tremors, be sure to check out our in-depth discussion on the Sordid Cinema Podcast.
- Ricky D