Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Recent Watches: Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (2004)

Prequels are not usually well regarded in nerdy fandoms. On paper, learning more about a character’s past could be fascinating. However, more often then not, prequels just tell us things we already now. “Tremors 4: The Legend Begins” even saddles itself with a lame, generic subtitle. However, the title is actually apt in this scenario. The fourth film reveals that the events of the first film were not the first encounter with the Graboids. Considering the species is millions of years old, it makes sense that they would have squirmed out of the ground at some point before the early nineties. By going so far back into the past, “Tremors 4” brings something new to the series without sacrificing what makes it special.

In 1889, the small mining community of what was then known as Rejection, Nevada, was shaken. Numerous miners have died strangely, causing most of the townsfolk to flee. Essentially, only the Chinese family that runs the local shop, the hotel owner, an Indian and a Mexican, and a handful of miners are left in Rejection. Hiram Gummer, the mine’s owner, shows up to figure out what the heck is going on. Soon, the residents discover the monstrous worms responsible for the deaths. They have to band together to defeat the creatures, for the sake of their lives and their home town.

The “Tremors” series has always been based in Nevada, providing a western atmosphere. So making a film in the series that is literally a western isn’t a bad idea. The film has fun contrasting traditional western tropes with the expected Graboids shenanigans. The Chang family is shown to have roots in the town, filling the role of the traditional Asian shop owners. A telegraph plays a key role in one scene. Without concrete foundations to protect them, the main characters are more exposed to the monsters. One sequence has a Graboid slowly pulling thick wooden planks out of a building with its tongues. Most obviously, an old fashioned gunslinger, Black Hand Kelly played by veteran B-movie actor Billy Drago, is an important supporting character. His jangling spurs get him in trouble and, yes, we get to see a cowboy shoot at a Graboid. There’s a certain pulpy glee to that.

As established in my previous reviews, what makes the “Tremors” franchise so lovable is its cast of characters. Removing that cast presents a problem for “The Legend Begins.” I’m not a huge fan of the trope of a famous character having an identical ancestor. However, ‘Tremors 4” has fun with this set-up, while introducing a new batch of lovable characters. Michael Gross, by now the face of the franchise, returns as Burt Gummer’s great-grandfather. Hiram Gummer is the exact opposite of his great-grandson. He’s a foppish dandy, dressed in a fine suit and bowler hat with a gold stopwatch and diamond cup links. At first, he’s a boorish louse, even stealing the youngest kid’s cake. This gives Gummer an expected character arc of loosening up and no longer being a jerk. There’s even a protracted moment where he leaves town before returning at the very end, deciding to defend his new home. Yet Gross is great in the part and seems to relish playing a different sort of character. Hiram does not share his great-grandson’s love of firearms… At least until the movie’s incredibly charming final scene. (He does share his great-grandson’s affinity for redheads though.)

The supporting cast is fun too and equally full of fun callbacks to the franchise’s history. The Changs, despite not entirely rejecting Asian stereotypes, are a lovable bunch. Kid Fu Yien, played by Sam Ly, is probably the most fun of the lot. His conversations with Gummer are very entertaining. But I also liked the superstitious Lu Wan, played by Lydia Look, and her relaxed husband Pyong Lien, played by Ming Lo. Juan Pedilla may or may not be an ancestor of part one’s Miguel. Either way, he’s a fun character, especially his line about the Alamo. Sara Botsford as Christine has solid chemistry with Gross. Their slap-slap-kiss is fun to watch. My two favorite characters in the the film are Black Hand Kelly, played by Billy Drago doing his usual marvelous thing, and August Schellenberg as Tecopa, the town’s local Indian. Tecopa is a warm, pleasant presence and that’s mostly thanks to Schellenberg’s fatherly persona.

By this point in the series, it was tradition that each new “Tremors” movie feature a new form of the series’ monster. “Aftershocks” beget Shriekers. “Back to Perfection” beget Ass-blasters. “The Legend Begins” gets back to basic, featuring only the Graboids. Unlike the CGI heavy part three, the monsters are mostly brought to life through old fashion creature effects. (There is still some CGI but it’s not horribly distracting.) Referenced for the first time since the original is the worms’ pungent odor. The Graboids are given some fun stuff to do, like bursting through floorboards or dragging miners around. Despite its back to basic approaches, “Tremors 4” can’t resist throwing in something like a new evolution. We see baby Graboids, which are sort of adorable. They leap into the air like flying fish, snatching people’s limbs and pulling them under. This is one of the best sequences in the film.

“Tremors 4” climaxes with a showdown between the film’s heroes and the subterranean troubles. This is surprisingly intense, considering how low-stakes the movies always kind of are. It also extends the old west atmosphere. Because of its period setting, part four can’t dispose of the monsters with machine guns and high explosives. This requires some creativity on the writers’ behalves. One graboid is taken out with an enormous punt gun, which was a real thing. Another is dispatched with clever use of a long saw. Lastly, a good old fashion steam engine is used to finish off the final Graboid, but probably not in the way you’d expect.

I wouldn’t have guessed it going in but “Tremors 4: The Legend Begins” might be the second best film in the series. Its loads of fun and delivers on everything we expect from a “Tremors” movie. Yet it also does enough things differently, adding a sense of fun and creativity to the proceedings. As the series has done from the beginning, potential gimmickry is deflected by clever execution, a likable cast, and a sense of sincere fun. [7/10]

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