Quentin Tarantino is back with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his most unabashedly emotional movie ever— but how does it compare to the rest of his filmography? We decided it might be fun to look back at Quentin Tarantino’s trajectory over the course of 20-plus years helming films and try to agree on what his best film is. It quickly became obvious, this was no easy task.
Before we get to the list we should mention that although Tarantino has contributed to other projects such as Four Rooms, Sin City, True Romance, ER, and CSI to name a few— we’re ranking just the theatrically released feature films he has directed. And yes, while Tarantino does consider Kill Bill one movie, it was unfortunately released both theatrically and on home video as two separate films, and so for the purpose of this list, we are splitting them up (not to mention, it’s still nearly impossible for most people to see them as a single entity).
With that out of the way, please accept our definitive ranking.
Tarantino’s homage to the road demon genre may be one-half of a double bill, but the film also works as two movies in one. You see, Death Proof offers two incarnations of the same story: two separate sets of beautiful women are stalked at different times by a psychotic stuntman who uses his muscle cars to execute his murderous plans. In other words, Death Proof is essentially two slasher films, since the second half (which takes place a year later) works as a sequel, with four new voluptuous victims for our murderous villain, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), to terrorize. The claustrophobic first half of Death Proof takes place on a dark, raining night amidst a dingy Texan bar, intact with neon lights and a soulful soundtrack of rare ’70s pop tunes. The second half takes place mostly on the open road, in bright daylight, and features sun-baked cinematography and a twangy score in place of the soundtrack. Much like the two sets of women, the two halves work as contrasting doubles. In tone, Death Proof begins as a dark thriller, but it quickly shifts gears and becomes a non-stop action film. In fact, everything about the two halves is completely different, from the pop culture references, photography, automobiles, visual effects, music, and clothing, to the hairstyles, props, etc.
Death Proof is also deliberately atmospheric and very patient taking its time getting to know each character and Death Proof gets the bragging rights of landing Kurt Russell, the iconic star of many beloved genre films. Tarantino’s gift for resurrecting the careers of iconic actors said to be past their prime is once again on display, as Russell turns in a tour-de-force performance as the smooth-talking tough guy who gets his kicks from vehicular homicide. With Russell and Tarantino working together, we see a movie star and a director in perfect harmony.
Some call it a masturbatory fantasy project, but Tarantino’s kinetic action sequences and his avid love for cinema in all its incarnations make Death Proof a work of art. More importantly, Death Proof doesn’t simply comment on its genre inspirations – it adds to their very legacy. The car crash that ends the first half is worth the price of admission alone. It’s a breathtaking slice of gory mayhem shown four times from various points of view, and ten times more frightening than anything you’ll see most horror movies. And while Tarantino may lack the budget of bigger action films, he does not lack the talent to skillfully direct a car chase and capture the horrifying aftermath of a car wreck. The extended car chase is a bona fide old-school tour de force, a sheer brutal and primal statement on the new power balance of the sexes. Jammed with astonishing stunt work (absent of CGI), the climax will have you gripping to your armrest. Obviously, Death Proof is shaped by such films as Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and Steven Spielberg’s Duel, but Death Proof is influenced by more than just vehicular horror; it’s a grim stalker picture, a slasher film, and a blaring anthem to female empowerment. It’s also a small masterpiece and the Frankenstein creation of a movie fanatic of exploitation cinema. Tarantino’s sadistic ode to muscle cars and real-life stunt work is sheer genius. (Ricky D)
9) The Hateful Eight
Less the epic spaghetti western it initially comes off as and more of a chatter-filled murder mystery, The Hateful Eight nevertheless feels grandiose, presenting a sprawling cast of unforgettable characters teeming with infamous reputations and potential lies. And that’s really the draw for Tarantino’s eighth film — just what exactly is the truth, and is anyone telling it?
Though it’s a satisfying enough whodunit revolving around an octet of grizzled manhunters, brutish outlaws, conniving desperados, and mysterious cowpokes snowed in at a remote mountain general store, The Hateful Eight is really a story about telling stories. Everyone’s got one, and they’re used for all manner of things; a sordid tale of a tortuous journey across icy peaks is clearly meant to provoke hurt and outrage, while a former Johnny Reb spins an unlikely tale of accepting a new position as Sheriff of the nearby town in order to gain trust enough to be invited for a stagecoach ride. Bloody Civil War battles are recalled for the sake of establishing camaraderie, and a detailed explanation is offered for the absence of the store’s proprietors in order to allay suspicions. But are any of these intricate narratives true, or just manipulative yarns?
Some may be turned off by the preponderance of lengthy monologues, but those with a love of language and violence will be riveted by this deadly, high-stakes poker game of bluffs and tells. These killers are the stuff of legend, poking and prodding at their opponents with words, before unleashing more gruesome attacks. And never mind that The Hateful Eight isn’t Tarantino’s most ‘cinematic’ film by a longshot (despite being handsomely photographed on 70mm film); he makes the most of the rustic interior setting with expertly staged action and brilliant performances, unraveling his story through careful speech and chronological shifts that keep things fresh — all the way to the rotten end. (Patrick Murphy)
8) Django Unchained
It’s hard to describe why Tarantino’s Django Unchained is such an odd and interesting entry into the director’s filmography. On one hand, it has all the hallmarks of a classic Weinstein production: excessive blood and violence, dark and irreverent humor, and a strange sadistic fascination with race and gender relations that overshadows the whole film. On the other hand, the film truly ups the ante and turns all of these narrative dials up to eleven, telling a disturbing story of slavery, interracial violence, and greed to illuminate the depravity of the human condition in the antebellum south in new and inventive ways. Somewhere wavering between these two elements lies the true spirit of Django Unchained: a movie that both screams characteristic Tarantino and yet still constantly surprises audiences with its unorthodox approach to the cowboy film category.
Part Spaghetti Western and part Blaxploitation narrative, Tarantino’s Django Unchained births a new genre with its unique portrayal of American life, dubbed by Tarantino as “the Southern.” While the film’s plot isn’t as complex as a majority of Tarantino’s work, Django Unchained relies heavily on the incredibly strong performances from its all-star cast of characters. Following up his Academy Award-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds, Christopher Waltz nails his role as the whimsical and enigmatic Dr. King Shultz, earning himself another piece of hardware for Best Supporting Actor for his talent. Jamie Foxx also does a spectacular job of selling the almost cartoonish superhuman character of Django, being both sternly humorous and deadly serious when the situation requires to bring life to one of the darkest of Tarantino’s creations. Even the interplay between the unlikely duo of Samuel L Jackson and Leonardo Di Caprio serves to elevate the film, and the pair make memorable villains that serve the narrative well.
Although it was relatively controversial with the media because of its subject matter, Django Unchained achieves its goal of making audiences incredibly uncomfortable by viscerally articulating the violence and depravity of Southern slavery in film. Through his portrayal of Django, Tarantino effectively counters this racial trauma with full force, creating a brutal and nuanced character that comes to epitomize the revenge that the audience craves for the wrongs of the past. Within this struggle lies the heart of the narrative, reminding viewers that the wrongs of the past are always present in the social fabric of today and that even fantasy retribution can’t fully cleanse the sins of the South’s forefathers. Watching from cozy California, the film feels like an odd history book fever dream, but from a theater in Mississippi, Django must feel like something else altogether. (Ty Davidson)
7) Kill Bill: Vol. 2
Although Quentin Tarantino intended Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2 to release as a single film, there are distinct differences between the two volumes. Where Vol. 1 was a very visceral, action-packed film, the second half of the Bride’s quest for revenge opts for a slower, more meditative approach. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is a film that likes to linger on the tragedy of the story; instead of flashing back into an action-heavy backstory, the film dedicates nearly half an hour to Bud’s miserable life after the Vipers’ failed assassination attempt on the Bride.
Through Budd, Kill: Bill Vol. 2 eases into some much-needed emotional reality after the bombastic back-half of Vol. 1. Budd becomes endearing in a way that O-Ren wasn’t, something both Elle and Bill ultimately share. Vol. 1 may have had one great villain through O-Ren Ishii, but Vol. 2 features Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and Bill Caradine acting against Uma Thurman in one of her best roles.
The more introspective approach on storytelling doesn’t mean Vol. 2 isn’t devoid of action either. While nothing’s quite as exciting as the Bride’s final duel with O-Ren at the end of Vol. 1 — let alone her massacre of the Crazy 88 — the Bride squaring off against Elle is a magnificently claustrophobic battle, and flashback scenes detailing the Bride’s training help to keep the action a constant presence without needing to elevate the stakes as often as the first film.
When it comes down to it, however, it’s the finale that makes Kill Bill: Vol. 2 such an incredible conclusion to the Bride’s story. Where the first film ends in an epic sword fight, the second ends with a quiet conversation — the dissection of a relationship, of history, and the duality of man. It’s a philosophical note to end such an intense film on, but it’s to Kill Bill‘s credit, remembering that it’s characters who drive the action. (Renan Fontes)
6) Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
In 1994, Quentin Tarantino performed an act of cinematic resurrection by casting a thoroughly washed-up John Travolta in Pulp Fiction and revitalizing his career (if only for a time). It was confirmation that Travolta still had all his talent intact — he just needed the right filmmaker to unlock it. Prior to his latest film, Quentin Tarantino was, if not as down in the dumps as Travolta, at least in a serious and deepening slump. Inglourious Basterds was formally stunning and graced with wondrous lead performances, but the film was flippant in its portrayal of one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th Century. Its revenge narrative was as tasteless as it was thrilling. Django Unchained suffered from a similar lack of introspection, but this time the compelling characters he’d become known for never quite materialized. By the time he made his horror Western/chamber revenge film The Hateful Eight, Tarantino seemed to be relying on pure sadism to fuel his vision.
With the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it becomes clear that latter-day Tarantino needed a better director all along — in this case, a better version of himself. It doesn’t hurt that he’s jettisoned the now-tired revenge plots, despite telling a story that could easily have been converted into a tale of vengeance. But Once Upon a Time also marks the first time since at least Kill Bill — and maybe Jackie Brown — that Tarantino makes his audience feel deeply connected to his characters, and moved by their hopes and failures.
The film reunites him with both Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, sharing leading roles as, respectively, a formerly successful TV actor whose career has floundered just as he tries to ascend to making films, and his trusty stunt double whose sense of devotion prevents him from becoming bitter at his subordinate status. Margot Robbie fills out the edges of the film as Sharon Tate, fresh off her star-making turn in Valley of the Dolls. Even further on the margins are the festering followers of Charles Manson, who is glimpsed only once.
Once Upon a Time impeccably blends the pleasures of a Tarantino hangout film with a mounting sense of dread, minus the tiring speechifying (which even Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown suffer from in hindsight). There’s also a measurable dose of loss pervading the movie — for a bygone glamorous Hollywood felt by the industry in 1969, for the seemingly limitless possibilities of that area by present-day Tarantino, and for Tate, who would be brutally murdered by Manson’s followers on August 9, 1969. All are gone now. It’ll be a terrible folly if Tarantino sticks to his plan to stop making movies after his tenth feature, but if he had decided to call it quits early and stop after Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it wouldn’t have been a half-bad way to go. (Brian Marks)
5) Jackie Brown
There are few experiences greater for a cinephile than seeing a director they previously knew to be a master produce a follow-up that expands their already considerable talents in stunning new ways. Jackie Brown is just such a film, one that capitalizes on the promise of Pulp Fiction while proving that Quentin Tarantino wasn’t a one-trick pony.
Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1992 crime novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown is a film at war with its own contemporary setting. The movie takes place in 1995, yet it’s filled with vintage cars, outfits, and mannerisms harkening back to the 1970s — Tarantino’s favorite decade for cinema. To a certain extent, it’s intentional and reflects the time-warp status of Los Angeles’ South Bay at the time, but someone watching an isolated scene who wasn’t already familiar with the movie might have trouble pinpointing exactly what decade it was trying to approximate.
As he had rescued John Travolta’s career, Tarantino gave two other ‘70s icons their biggest roles in decades. Pam Grier, of Blaxploitation classics Coffy and Foxy Brown, stars as the eponymous character. She’s a middle-aged single woman who barely makes ends meet as a flight attendant for a third-rate budget airline that flies from LA to Mexico. In order to pad her earnings, she smuggles cash for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a drug runner branching out in gun sales. But when an errant bag of cocaine puts Jackie on the radar of the LAPD and the ATF, she enlists bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to double-cross all involved parties.
After the formal inventiveness of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino wisely chose to adopt a more conservative approach to this crime story. Had he continued in the vein of that previous film, with its short story–like chapters, shifting protagonists, and fantastical touches (the glowing briefcase, Uma Thurman’s air drawn–square), it might have signaled that he was incapable of telling a compelling story without the techniques — that they were crutches rather than garnishes. Aside from some deceptive editing in the bravura mall sequence, he mostly plays it safe. Of course, “safe” for Tarantino still includes complicated shots, expressionistic framing, compelling performances, and virtuosic (if overly verbose) dialog.
What makes Jackie Brown not just an excellent film but one of Tarantino’s best is the obvious compassion he displays toward Jackie. Her fears about having to start over might seem mundane compared to the problems of his other leading characters, but the everyday nature of those struggles makes her more real than any of Tarantino’s other leads.
His newest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, seems closest in structure and tone to Jackie Brown, which, not coincidentally, is why it’s such an improvement over his other recent films. Whether or not Jackie Brown influenced him anew, here’s hoping he never forgets its lessons. (Brian Marks)
4) Reservoir Dogs
Featuring a tightly woven script, clever directorial style, cracking dialogue and a superb cast who populate his picture as morally ambiguous criminals, Reservoir Dogs is a testosterone meltdown that gleefully immerses itself in love of outlaws, profanity, violence and pop culture. It’s aggressive, intelligent, visceral and unforgettable. Decades years later, perhaps what stands out most is Tarantino’s camera work. There is not a single dull shot in the movie, from the opening scene continuously circulating the breakfast club, to the slow-motion Wild Bunch credit sequence, to the brilliant pan-away during the cutting of the ear, and thereafter when the camera follows Blonde outside the warehouse to his car, and back inside again. There’s a method to Tarantino’s style; every frame is calculated, and every line of dialogue serves to set the action in motion. The film never slows down, and Tarantino makes great use of dozens of long tracking shots. Even more impressive is that the film boasts a timeless quality since it is unclear as to what decade they’re in. From the pop tunes from the ’70s to the 60’s black and white suits and skinny ties, to the 80’s automobiles, Reservoir Dogs may as well take place in some strange parallel universe. A small, offbeat, extremely well-crafted crime caper with terrific surprises sprinkled over top.
At once a tribute to traditional notions of trust, loyalty, honour, and professionalism, and a stylish, ironic pastiche inspired by the likes of Woo, Peckinpah, Melville, Ringo Lam, Kurosawa and many more, Reservoir Dogs may have not been original but it is raw and a one-of-a-kind, and has since been often imitated. (Ricky D)
3) Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Exploding onto the scene as the first part of Quentin Tarantino‘s 4th film, the hyper-stylized Kill Bill was his most ambitious and audacious film yet. The film follows Uma Thurman as The Bride, a betrayed ex-assassin on the hunt for the four comrades, and their leader, who tried to kill her on her wedding day. As The Bride herself later says, she roars, rampages, and gets bloody satisfaction (emphasis on the bloody).
Packed with the snappy dialog, memorable characters, and brutal violence that have come to trademark Tarantino’s films, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is also home to some of the best fight scenes in the history of action filmmaking. Particularly impressive is the frenetic climax, which sees The Bride face off against 88 sword-wielding criminals in a Japanese bar.
Basically, QT’s love letter to some of his favorite samurai action films, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 nonetheless succeeds as its own beast, and is still fondly remembered as one of his best films. (Mike Worby)
2) Inglourious Basterds
Kicking off with a “Once upon a time…in Nazi-occupied France,” Inglorious Basterds lets viewers know right away that this isn’t really a World War II movie — it’s a Tarantino playland fantasy, where the good guys are cool, steely knights, and the bad guys are rotten, devious ogres to be beaten, shot, torched, and dynamited in spectacular fashion. Yes, it’s in many ways a movie about movies, but it’s also a work of gleeful imagination. Aldo Raine, Shosanna, Archie, the Bear Jew, Bridget von Hammersmark, Hans, and Frederick Zoller are wielded like toys by a director and script that on the surface wants little more than to show good utterly destroying evil in the most awesome and satisfying ways. Which it totally does.
Of course, part of getting to that sweet release is the masterful way in which Tarantino builds up and draws out suspense, often using lengthy conversation duels to withhold longer than seems possible, until finally unleashing his absurd violence in gushing massacres that more than satiate the audience’s need for closure. As usual, the stream of dialogue isn’t just there for pacing or self-indulgence, but creates rich, distinct characters that can then (probably) die in unforgettable ways — like in a tavern standoff involving incorrect hand signals, “speaking the King’s,” and a pistol to the groin.
No, Inglourious Basterds isn’t revisionist history. It’s not even historical fiction. It’s pure fairy tale, with darkness and light, feats of depravity and derring-do, and a cast of heroes and villains who all know their place in the story, and are only too happy to fulfill such with a wink and a smirk. It’s wonderfully fantastical entertainment, filled with the kind of vicarious thrills that kids used to get with G.I. Joes, and might just be the most fun you can have watching Hitler explode. (Patrick Murphy)
1) Pulp Fiction
A sensation that helped draw attention to and shape independent cinema in the 90s, Pulp Fiction might not always work as a sum of its parts, but boy have those parts been engrained into the moviegoing consciousness. Taratino’s L.A. crime opus is full of meandering conversations, gruesome encounters, and moments of supercool quirkiness that seem completely besides the point — until you realize that they are the point.
Mixing various intersecting stories via a jumbled-up chronology that serves the film’s dime-novel tone, Pulp Fiction takes a leisurely stroll across the seedier parts of town, never getting too anxious to stop and chat for a game of eeny, meeny, miney, moe in the prison-like basement of a perverted pawn shop, a discussion on bedroom furniture when needing to clean up brains and skull from the back seat of a car before Bonnie gets home, or praise for a tasty burger when mopping up a deal gone sour. There are very few awkward silences here; Pulp Fiction is often a symphony of gab. That constant flow sometimes overpowers a budding visual style that eschews the darkness of its subject matter for bright colors and sunny days, but those who pay attention to such things will notice some inventive staging and techniques.
Still, the stories of Vincent, Mia, Marsellus, Butch, and Jules are all about the spoken song. Full of memorable rhythms and shockingly violent punctuation, that symphony never gets old. Since then, Tarantino has certainly gone on to create bolder visions with a more confidant hand at the director’s helm, but despite that increased ambition and polish, few have managed to achieve the iconic status granted to this groundbreaking film. Pulp Fiction injected a shot of adrenaline into the heart of indie filmmaking, courted controversy and acclaim, and inspired a bevy of wannabes, all aiming to be as cool. Few have achieved such. (Patrick Murphy)
‘Weathering With You’ Isn’t Quite the Storm It Wanted to Be
Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You delivers a gorgeous film that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it wanted to.
Climate change and global warming have been topics of concern and discussion for years now, with melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures being some of many signs. Director Makoto Shinkai — acclaimed the world over for his 2016 work Your Name — aims to show just how at the mercy humans are to the weather with his newest animated film, Weathering With You. Although he presents a visually stunning depiction of Mother Nature in all her various moods, Weathering With You ultimately lacks the storming power it seeks to bear upon its audience.
Tokyo has been having a particularly rainy year, seeing precipitation almost every day and nary a sight of the sun or clear blue skies. It’s during this unusual time that high school boy Hodaka arrives in the metropolis seeking escape from the suffocating life he had on his island. The young teenager naturally has trouble finding his bearings on his own in the oftentimes unforgiving hustle and bustle of the city. It’s in these early scenes that Weathering With You has some of its strongest moments, depicting the uglier side of Japanese society not often seen in anime, while also highlighting Hodaka’s strength of character to make it on his own.
As Hodaka gradually carves out his own place in the city, he eventually has an encounter with a young girl named Hina. Matching her sunny and cheerful disposition, Hina has the ability to make it stop raining and have the sunshine in very localized spots by praying to the sky. In a place where the rain never ceases, it’s easy to see why Hodaka latches onto Hina to use for the greater good (while also making a little pocket change along the way).
“The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air caught by the leftover humidity.”
Gloomy skies and damp grounds can take their toll on one’s mood and psyche, which someone who lives in such a climate can surely relate to. Even the briefest moments of sunshine revitalize us and give a glimpse of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hodaka and Hina’s “100% Sunshine Girl” services to those in need of that light boldly underscore that fact, and make for a strong argument for how the weather affects us all beyond its objective physicality, along with providing some much-appreciated levity to the story.
That power of weather is beautifully illustrated by CoMix Wave Films’ stupendous animation efforts. The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air, caught by the leftover humidity. Tokyo itself isn’t to be outdone either, with its streets running the gamut between peaceful neighborhoods to grimy and dark back alleys with dilapidated buildings. The animation is punctuated by the return of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who create numerous memorable tracks to complement the wild swings in mood that weather can elicit.
That makes it all the more unfortunate, however, that the greater narrative is so weak.
The progression of Weathering With You is made painfully obvious right from the outset of the story — so much so that it’s hard to wonder if it’s actually the set-up for a bait-and-switch. As a result, much of the first half of the film is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, making it difficult to really settle in and become intimate with its characters.
This would be less of an issue if the cast had smaller interactions that were a delight to watch, but they fall short in that regard as well. All of the characters have a charm to them for sure — with Hina’s younger elementary school brother, Nagi, putting modern playboys to shame being a particular standout — but the story never quite makes a compelling case as to why they are as close as they are, especially Hina and Hodaka. They’re fun enough to watch be together, but don’t quite make that emotional attachment with the viewer that the story wants to create.
That lack of an emotional connection is distinctly felt in Weathering With You’s second act, when unnecessary confrontations and bizarre plot directions converge to create an artificial sense of stakes amidst a central conflict that would have been fine on its own. What’s meant to strengthen the impression of the characters’ bonds instead cheapens it, undermining the already faulty progress the first half did make. The result is a narrative that’s hard to care about, although its ending does leave the viewer with some potentially interesting questions to ponder.
Weathering With You is far from a bad movie, however. It has a clear direction and vision with a message to say about our climate crisis. The characters are endearing enough, and there are a handful of heartfelt scenes because of that. It also cannot be understated just how drop-dead gorgeous the animation is. The story, however, is simply too straightforward for its own good, resulting in an experience that is at times enjoyable, and at others plain boring.
And that’s only when being judged in a vacuum on the movie’s own merits. When compared to Shinkai’s recent masterpiece that is Your Name, it’s hard to see Weathering With You as anything but a disappointing follow-up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest weakness, but fortunately, it’s one that Shinkai’s next work won’t have, and we can still look forward to it because of that fact.
Let’s Remember Why ‘Tremors’ is a Beloved Cult Hit
The monster movie that breaks new ground.
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.
- Ricky D
The Career of Tony Scott and His Influence on the Film Industry
In the late 1970s and 1980s, composer Giorgio Moroder was often accused of trying to replace the orchestral movie soundtrack with high-energy, synthesizer-heavy disco-pop laid on with a trowel in movies like Thank God It’s Friday (1978), Flashdance (1983), Scarface (1983), and Top Gun (1986). I remember a magazine story on Moroder which quoted one of his many critics as saying, “The day the music died, Giorgio Moroder was brought in for questioning.”
I think some people had the same opinion about movies and Tony Scott. Full disclosure: I’m one of them. But it would be greatly unfair to Scott, who died in 2012, not to admit that, for good or for ill, his 1980s feature work had an enormous impact on commercial filmmaking.
The younger brother of Ridley Scott by seven years, he was gifted – like his brother – with an outrageously good eye; a taste for the visual strong enough to earn him his master’s degree from London’s Royal College of Art (which he’d attended on scholarship no less). But painting didn’t pay well, so he joined with his brother in Ridley Scott Associates where, from the 1970s into the 1980s, he applied that eye to moving pictures, directing thousands of commercials, some of them still-talked-about all-time classics in the U.K.
His first feature was the visually sumptuous, dramatically wispy attempt at erotic vampirica, The Hunger (1983), and it was such a lambasted flop it’s a surprise Scott’s feature career didn’t end right there. But three years later, producer Jerry Bruckheimer tapped him to direct Top Gun and movies would never be the same.
It was a perfect marriage of sensibilities (along with Michael Bay, Scott would remain one of Bruckheimer’s go-to directors). Bruckheimer, whose youthful interest in photography had led him to his own career in commercials before turning to movies, had the same affinity for striking imagery as Scott.
The timing of the union was just right, too. MTV was only five years old, and the non-stop near-abstract visuals of music video were not only still hypnotically novel, but on their way to becoming the defining visual sensibility for a new movie-going generation. With Giorgio Moroder (another ideal wedding of sensibilities) supplying a Pop’s Top Ten-nish soundtrack, Scott put together montages that were, essentially, music videos woven into the narrative of the film (some critics carped that the whole movie was little more than an extended music video).
Striking visuals, a pulsing, toe-tapping score, and a super-patriotic story that made a hero of a young, cocky, mouthy, go-my-own-way fighter jock made for a flick which hit a big, fat sweet spot with MTV’s first generation of ticket-buyers: Top Gun scored a whopping $176.7 million domestic. I did the math: at today’s ticket prices, that would translate to almost $390 million. Love it or hate it, you have to respect that kind of box office muscle.
Top Gun set the template for Scott: high-octane visuals, rapid-fire editing (often at the hands of Chris Lebenzon), an MTV-friendly soundtrack, and a story simple enough to absorb without having to pay too much attention.
It also set the template for so many of the box office winners of the next few decades, movies that moved fast, piled on the action, featured characters who were often little more than catchphrases with biceps, offered music video fodder (at least back when MTV still played music videos), and where plausibility – even under Hollywood’s extremely elastic definition of the concept – was irrelevant. Think Lethal Weapon, Speed (1994), Twister (1996), and anything by Michael Bay.
Though his brother Ridley often took the same rap of favoring looks over substance, their styles, though both highly visual, were strikingly different.
Ridley’s films — good and bad – play out like classical music: stately, elegant, unrushed, somber.
Tony’s movies are rock ‘n’ roll: fast, loud, exhausting, sometimes painfully bright.
It’s hard to imagine Tony doing something as subdued as Ridley’s Napoleonic-era The Duelists (1977), or even pulling off the brooding sci-fi Gothicism of Alien (1979). By the same token, Ridley would have seemed a poor fit for Top Gun or all the running back and forth in Crimson Tide (1995).
Despite being regularly slammed for his storytelling, Scott did care about plot and character. Explaining the failure of Days of Thunder (1990) – Top Gun cloned to the NASCAR circuit – Scott diagnosed the problem as having started production without a finished script. “(You) always have to get a story,” he said, “and you’ve got to get character first…”
But it wasn’t a sentiment that quite squared with his execution. In an Entertainment Weekly story about a trending flimsiness in big-screen storytelling, The Fan (1996) screenwriter Phoef Sutton told the story of shooting the movie’s climactic baseball game in a torrential downpour. Sutton and others tried to argue Scott out of it pointing out that baseball games are called on account of such weather. The rain stayed. Said Sutton: “…I don’t think Tony cared about the plausibility of it.”
In his later years, he seemed to be trying to reach for the kind of substance his early films were often accused of lacking, but he remained better at taking a good picture than giving it meaning. Enemy of the State (1998) was entertaining enough, but it was like Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) with the poetry removed and replaced with explosions and chases; Spy Game (2001) was an anemic John LeCarre wannabe; The Taking of Pelham 123 replaced the local color which had made the original so memorable with a needlessly busy yet flavorless plot.
Like his brother, Tony also produced, and in those projects, one could sense an ambition to do something of substance. There were such laudable efforts as the HBO movie RKO 281 (1999) about Orson Welles’ fight to make Citizen Kane; The Gathering Storm (2002), another HBO feature, this about Churchill’s attempts to prep England for WW II; Gettysburg (2001), a cable documentary about one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War; and the lovely, elegiac (if sadly little-seen) Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Though Scott would continue to turn out some respectable earners in his later years (Déjà vu , The Taking of Pelham 123, Unstoppable ), after the 1980s, he’d never hit Top Gun heights again, and, in fact, after Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) only ever crossed the $100 million domestic mark one more time with Enemy of the State (1998). Perhaps the problem was that Scott’s eye-tickling rat-a-tat-tat style had, by the 1990s, become so widely copied that his often dramatically weak films had little else to offer; the trendsetter had become just another member of the pack.
But give him this. Few filmmakers make a lasting impact. Most directors and most films come and go, cinematic mayflies fluttering around the box office for a few weeks before disappearing. The same can’t be said of Tony Scott. Love ‘im or hate ‘im, it’ll be a long time before anyone forgets him.
– Bill Mesce
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