Tremors (1990)

Rating: A

Dir: Ron Underwood
Star: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross

I ended up having to check four different genre boxes for this one, which may be a record: action, comedy, horror and SF. What’s even more remarkable is that it works very well in at least three of those categories. The exception might be science fiction: it relies a little too much on hand-waving, as regard to the origin of the species. Various theories are put forward – “I vote for outer space. No way these are local boys” – but the writers, very consciously, opted to leave things unexplained. That’s a small complaint though, because the movie is such a barnstorming success in all the other genres.

I think the key is simply the characters, which come to life as a combination of good writing and good performances. I’m hard pushed to think of another movie with such a good ensemble set. Aliens might be about the closest, in terms of creating memorable roles in just a few lines. What this also has in common with Cameron’s classic is the relentlessly quotable nature of the dialogue. I think those two films, along with Shaun of the Dead, are probably the movies whose lines are most often to be heard echoing around the halls of Film Blitz Towers. Have a few samples of why that’s the case.

  • “Yeah, well, I’m a victim of circumstance.” “I thought you called it your pecker.”
  • “We plan ahead. That way we don’t do anything right now. Earl explained it to me.”
  • “Here’s some Swiss cheese and some bullets.”
  • “Oh, sure, Earl. Everybody knows about them. We just didn’t tell you.”
  • “Running’s not a plan. Now, running’s what you do when a plan fails.”
  • “-oids… I like snakeoids.”
  • “This valley is just one long smorgasbord.”
  • “Broke into the wrong goddamn rec room didn’t you, you bastard?”
  • “A few household chemicals in the proper proportion.”
  • “Cannon fuse.” “What the hell you use it for?” “My cannon.”

Put simply, these are characters you would want to spend time with. Earl Bassett (Ward) and Valentine McKee (Bacon) have an easy-going relationship born of long familiarity, evident in their friendly banter. They are blue collar heroes, of the kind not often seen in Hollywood. But they’re positively Commies beside the husband and wife couple of Burt (Gross) and Heather Gummer (Reba McEntire). Hardcore redneck survivalists depicted as actual people, rather than lampooned as knuckle-dragging cretins? Truly, the nineties was a different time. Gross somehow parlayed this supporting role into starring in six more movies and a TV series – albeit none as good as the original. Still, not bad for the dad in Family Ties.

There is a delicious sense of escalation on the side of the monsters too. Initially, we don’t know what they are. Then is seems like they’re snake-sized underground creatures. It’s not until the first one is dispatched (technically, dispatching itself by running head-first into a concrete canal wall) that we and the heroes can appreciate their size and bizarre nature. Yet they continue to surprise, quickly learning to counter the town’s efforts to defend against them. This keeps things fresh for the whole running-time, and it helps that the special effects very good too. They use a lovely mix of hand puppets, miniatures and full-scale creatures in a way that’s almost seamless. It certainly doesn’t look over thirty years old.

There’s hardly a slack moment to be found. I guess I did roll my eyes at the romance between Valentine and seismology student Rhonda LeBeck (Carter). As a character, she’s fine. But this is not a film that needs to check yet another genre box, and the chemistry is underwhelming. It’s not a significant flaw – a couple of minutes of screen time at most. But it still feels bolted on, and it is the case that the kiss between them at the end, was only added in response to test screening reactions. Everything else is as near perfect as it gets, and I was wondering why we never heard much more from director Underwood after this and City Slickers. Turns out he then directed a series of box-office flops, peaking with one of the biggest bombs of all-time, The Adventures of Pluto Nash. That’ll derail anyone’s career.

Original review [6] Wonderfully gloopy monster movie provides us with another new way to cook spam: spam-in-a-vallry, an allusion made concrete when one character says, “This valley’s one long smorgasbord”. The inhabitants of Perfection, Nevada (pop.14 – no, make that 13. Oh, now 12…) are under attack by giant worms: wisely, there’s no attempt as justification or explanation. “Them’s not local boys for sure”, being all we have time for. The rest of the film is just as unpretentious, social comment being restricted to a husband and wife survivalist team (car registration UZI 4U). Likable characters and a lot of orange slime add to the ambience – it’s really tough to think of anything that would make this film any better as sheer entertainment. Even the ’15’ certificate is on the lenient side! 9/10