Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Recent Watches: Tremors II: Aftershocks (1996)

In the nineties, video stores were at the peak of their popularity. At the same time, the horror genre was experiencing a lull. These combined factors allowed unexpected genre successes to grow into straight-to-video franchises. That’s how they made ten “Puppet Master” movies. Knowing all this, it’s still surprising that a sequel to “Tremors” didn’t come until 1996. Originally planned for a theatrical release on the strengths of the script, the film suffered budget cut-backs, location shifts, and production turnarounds, explaining the six year delay. It’s just as well. Considering the first film found its audience through rentals and television screenings, “Tremors II: Aftershocks” was destined for the video market.

In the aftermath of the first film, Earl Bassett, Valentine, and the giant worm monsters of Perfection, Nevada, gained a level of fame. However, Valentine ran off and Earl squandered what exposure he achieved. Six years later, he’s bitter and washed-up. That’s when an oil company from Mexico, themselves having a Graboid problem, enlist Earl to clear out the pests. Teaming up with young buck Grady, geologist Kate, and old friend Burt, Earl heads to Mexico, hoping to make some cash monster-hunting. The Graboids have some surprises in store though, changing the game.

The first third of “Tremors II” is about as good a sequel as fans could have asked for. Putting Earl back at zero gives him a new goal. Instead of trying to make it out of this crappy town, he’s looking for that “second chance” at success and happiness. The change of scenery, from the American desert to the green rolling hills of Mexico, was a nice touch too. The early scenes, of Earl and Grady blasting worms with remote control cars, is a good time, recapturing the sense of Southern-fried fun the first film had. Series creator S. S. Wilson is in the director’s chair this time and maintains the original’s inventive streak. There’s plenty of fun sequences here. A graboid grabs a truck by a chain, dragging it around the area. One worm swallowed a radio, so his appearance is proceeded by muffled music playing from underground. A small, funny moment has an off-screen coyote meeting a nasty fate. One of the things that made the first one fun – a breezy sense of humor and a willingness to explore the central premise – makes this sequel fun too.

The cast was such an important part of the first “Tremor’s” success. There were some losses for this sequel. Kevin Bacon was never coming back, that was certain. Reba McEntire probably didn’t have any place in a straight-to-video monster movie either. Both characters’ absences are noted, the film writing them out in smart ways. Luckily, “Aftershocks” brings back several key cast members. Fred Ward steps into the lead role. Earl is as much of a cowboy as before, being introduced here by lassoing an ostrich. Ward has lost none of his rascally charm, easily carrying the film. Most importantly, Michael Gross returns as Burt Gummer. It’s good to see Burt again. His introduction, watching war footage on a TV while a graboid head is mounted on the wall, says so much about the character. He gets some of the funniest moments in the film, such as his repeated bitching that he was not properly briefed for this adventure and had no way to know certain details. Gross remains the franchise’s MVP.

Luckily, and surprisingly, the new characters introduced in “Tremors II” are nearly as charming as the returning cast members. To make up for the lack of Bacon, Chris Gartin as Grady is brought in. Though the relationship they have is similar, Earl and Grady have a different back-and-forth. Grady is a fanboy of Earl and Burt’s shenanigans and excited by the monsters and worm blasting. The age appropriate love interest introduced for Earl is Kate, played by Helen Shaver. Shaver is cute and, despite delivering some blatant exposition, remains charming and engaging. In the final lap, when the four main characters are banding together to survive the monster attack, “Aftershocks” creates the same ensemble-driven sense of whimsical fun and adventure the first had. (The cast is extremely tight. There’s less then ten actors credited on the film’s IMDb page.)

The biggest change part two makes is to the monsters themselves. And that’s a change I don’t know how I feel about. The Graboids are revealed as the first form in a biological life cycle. The giant worms violently give birth, exploding from the inside-out, to smaller two-legged monsters. Eventually dubbed Shriekers, these monsters have a completely different physiology then the Graboids. They’re small and bipedal, with a velociraptor-style physique. The iconic Graboid-style head is kept but the creatures’ navigated different. They seek by heat, with cool sensory organs on their heads. They reproduce quickly, spitting up babies after eating enough. It removes the film’s central gimmick, less “tremors” then “pack hunters.” The Shriekers are cool looking. Watching them explode or get torn apart is fun too. However, they aren’t as novel or engaging as the Graboids. The puppet effects remain top notch. Yet shaky CGI is used several times to bring the creatures to life. That hasn’t aged well. I admire the filmmakers for deciding to do something different. That change also makes “Aftershocks” a little less pure then the first.

Still, the movie is way better then a six-years-later, direct-to-video sequel had any right to be. The result is a little less polished but the film smartly keeps what’s important about the first film. That being the charm, a creative sense of fun, monsters, and a likable cast of characters. I’m a fan. This one was endlessly replayed on cable back in the day too. Like the first, I’ve seen it many times. Somehow, its small charms remain intact. [7/10]

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