Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, February 23, 2015

Recent Watches: Tremors (1990)

The early nineties was the last hurrah for the traditional monster movie. By the end of the decade, the latex and robotic monstrosity, so beloved by fanboys like myself, would be entirely replaced with computer-generated creatures. Arriving in this environment was “Tremors,” a clever throwback to creature features released during the dying days of the slasher film. The film was a minor commercial hit upon release but would, through repeated cable airings (Seemed like the Sci-Fi Channel showed the movie on a near weekly basis at one point), develop a faithful cult audience. I’ve watched the movie a lot over the years. “Tremors” is the definition of a cozy summer favorite, a movie I can watch at any time and that always puts a smile on my face.

“Tremors” takes place in Perfection, Nevada, an ironically named little town in the middle of the desert. It’s isolated from the rest of the world and seemingly populated solely by a ragtag collection of rednecks, weirdos, and people passing through. Valentine and his heterosexual life partner Earl fall into the final category, as the would-be businessmen are headed out of Perfection. However, their vacation plans are interrupted by the mysterious deaths of several local residents. The responsible party is a suddenly emerged species of giant subterranean worms that sense by sound, sped through the dirt like rockets, and devour their pray with prehensile tongues. Now the dispersant population of Perfection has to work together to survive the invading monsters from below.

The biggest attribute “Tremors” has is it’s a super likable cast. Though Val and Earl are clearly the heroes of the picture, it’s an ensemble cast with a diverse selection of characters. Kevin Bacon, still poised for major stardom at the time, is amusing as Valentine, bringing plenty of roguish charm to the part. He has especially good chemistry with Fred Ward, another failed movie star who found better work as a character actor. Ward chums it up as a blue collar guy who dreams of being a cowboy and is constantly chastising himself for his bad language. The unexpected breakout character of “Tremors’ would be Burt Gummer, played by Michael Gross. Gross, still best known at the time as the ex-hippy dad on “Family Ties,” was cast against type as an extreme survivalist type. Gross is a blast in the part, making Burt’s extreme political beliefs and extensive firearm collection charming rather then off-putting. It’s not horribly shocking that the budding “Tremors” franchise would build itself around him. Reba MacEntire, still unproven as an actor at the time, is solid as Burt’s patient wife. Her best moment shows her talking Burt down from an argument. Reba is a natural in the part. A typically eccentric Victor Wong is great, as are Bobby Jacoby as annoying kid Melvin, Ariana Richards as new-age-y mom Nancy, and Tony Genaro as token Hispanic guy Miguel. The weak link in the cast is Finn Carter as Bacon’s love interest and the brains of the outfit, Rhonda. And even Carter is still pretty likable. The back-and-forth between the cast is really what makes “Tremors” shine.

It would be charitable to call “Tremors” a horror movie. Instead, its better describe as a monster movie, a distinct label. The underground dwelling threats of “Tremors” are a clever creation. There had been giant worms in fiction before, most notably in “Dune,” but we’d never seen a whole movie devoted to them as the primary threat before. Taking a cue from “Jaws,” “Tremors’ is cagey about its monsters at first. (It even uses “Jaws’” patented monster POV-shots at one point) In the beginning, we only see the aftermath of their attacks. Like a dead body stranded in a telephone pole, sheep sucked under, a decapitated head left in a field. The creatures are proceeded by a puff of dirt fired from the ground. The most traditional horror moment is when the worm sucks a car under the ground, the drivers still inside. They are clever creation and the movie bolsters them by treating them in a clever, interesting fashion. (Screenwriter S. S. Wilson specializes in clever creations like this, as in the short “Recorded Live,” “*batteries not included,” the “Short Circuit” movies, and, uh, “Wild Wild West.”)

When the beasties, later saddled with the goofy moniker “Graboids,” do pop their heads out, they are impressive creations. The prehensile tongues are topped off with nasty little heads, with mouths full of teeth. The movie, and the trailers and posters bolsters this, makes you think these are the monsters are first. Soon enough, the whole Graboid is revealed. They are giant worms, covered with feelers and topped off with a snapping, tri-sected mouth. They hunt by sound, a novel idea that lends itself to several suspenseful scenes. Cleverly, the film never bothers to give the Graboids an origin. They’re here now and that’s all that matters. Fans love these things and they really filled the “giant killer worm” niche all monster kids didn’t know they needed filling.

“Tremors” has a lot of good, funny ideas and uses most of them. The middle section creates some okay suspense, as the remaining residents of Perfection climb up on roofs and attempt to make as little sound as possible. The confrontation in Burt’s gun-filled basement is one of the best moments in the film, that escalates fantastically while giving us a great look at the monster. The Graboids aren’t just dumb monsters and prove harder to outsmart then expected. The finale, which has the heroes on a rock pitching home-made bombs into the desert, is a good time. That the film’s survivors constantly have to think up new ways to kill off the creatures shows how smart and inventive “Tremors” is capable of. It maintains that humor as it goes too, always being breezy and relatable. (My favorite line? “What’s that for?” “For my cannon,” stated matter-of-factly.)

Calling “Tremors” a masterpiece is presumptuous. It really isn’t. Instead, it’s a pleasant, funny, smart, well cast, easily rewatched creature feature. Considering its humble attributes, I’m surprised I’ve come to love this movie as much as I do. Really, some cool monsters, a decent cast, one or two funny lines, and some amusing ideas are all we monster fans ask for. That was enough to turn “Tremors” into a beloved cult classic. [8/10]

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