Tremors (1990)

Posted: July 29, 2014 in Movie Review
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Tremors (1990)

Director: Ron Underwood

Starring: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire

For years, I had long regarded the creature features from the 1950’s as a rather silly, not particularly scary subgenre of horror. That was until the first time I saw the gi-ants from 1954’s “Them!” Before then, the primitive special effects of the time (not to mention some seriously lame storylines) prevented me from taking that stuff seriously. “Them!” was different. The characters made me believe they were being hunted by abnormally sized ants, created in the wake of  U.S. nuclear testing. For me, “Them!” is the standard-bearer of those types of films. I’m also not blind to the influence that the creature feature still has to this day. Setting aside the plethora of crap churned out by Syfy (formerly the Sci-Fi Channel), there have been several notable movies over the years which have been made in the spirit of those silly monster flicks. The one that most will probably think of first is Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster “Jaws.” The killer shark in that movie taught its potential victims to seek higher, or at least drier ground if they expected to survive. The tension those scenes create is recalled by 1990’s “Tremors,” with the danger coming not from the waters of a fictional island, but from underground in the Nevada desert.

Handymen Val McKee (Kevin Bacon) and Earl Basset (Fred Ward) have had just about enough of their crappy jobs, and leave the town of Perfection, Nevada (population: 14) for nearby Bixby. There, they discover what they believe to be the handywork of a serial killer, as a few of Bixby’s residents are found dead, their remains mutilated, as though they’d been chewed up. They return to Perfection where they warn two road workers of their discovery. It doesn’t make any difference, because the men are sucked underground immediately after Val and Earl leave. The two have it in mind to alert the authorities in Bixby, noting that Perfection’s phone lines are down, but a rock slide now blocks their path.

Val and Earl discover the source of the problem while riding on horseback, as they are both thrown from their rides when the horses sense danger. Sure enough, a giant sandworm erupts from the ground and chases Val and Earl, but the monster kills itself by ramming into a concrete wall while pursuing them. Seems they can’t see us, but they can sense us due to the vibrations our movements cause. It’s a pity the soundtrack doesn’t take advantage of this by including “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys. I suppose it would have clashed too much with the country music sprinkled throughout.

Joined by Rhonda (Finn Carter), a seismologist, their victory is short-lived when she informs them of her readings which indicate three more creatures. Joining forces with survivalist couple Burt and Heather Gummer (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire), the group uses several tactics… including staying high up on rooftops and making use of Burt’s arsenal of explosives… to avoid, lure and eventually defeat the remaining monsters. It turns out to be easier said than done, as the creatures may appear stupid at first, but they do adapt quickly.

Kevin Bacon, Philadelphia-born and raised, could never be confused for a good 0l’ Southern boy. Even so, while his accent is unconvincing, Bacon more than makes up for it with his leading man skills. He makes Val easy to get behind as the hero of this story, even during the scene when he first meets Rhonda. Val has a narrow vision when it comes to his “ideal woman.” If she’s not blonde, tall and well-endowed, he’s disappointed. Rhonda is none of these things, but she’s very pretty, VERY smart (always a plus!), and it’s only Val who doesn’t seem to notice when she takes a liking to him.

The breakout character of this movie, by far, is Michael Gross’s Burt. His level of paranoia would cause a lot of people to stare in disbelief (and possibly laugh) under normal circumstances, but his precautionary nature ends up saving more than just his own life. Doesn’t hurt that he’s absolutely hilarious. All of the best lines go to him. Michael Gross has always been an underrated actor, and Burt could not be any further from his role as Michael J. Fox’s dad on TV’s “Family Ties.” Seems that somebody paid attention to his work here, because Michael Gross eventually takes over as the franchise lead and is the one actor that stars in both of the sequels, the prequel and the short-lived TV series that followed. It’s a shame that actor/singer Reba McEntire does not return after this one, because she also is a delight.

As monster movies go, “Tremors” is quite excellent. It never takes itself too seriously, and although the graboids do occasionally leave a bloody mess, the movie is not excessively gory. This silly creature feature thrives thanks to a terrific cast and great moments of suspense. Like all of the very best of the genre, it takes its time in revealing the monster. “Jaws” would never have become the monster hit (no pun intended) that it was if the very fake shark had been shown throughout. “Them!” would not have half its potency unless you wait until halfway to have the frightening scene where the gi-ant crawls up over the hill to scare the wits out of actress Joan Weldon. Likewise, “Tremors” works because we know there’s something terrible creeping up from under the earth and eating people, but we don’t need to see the graboids until it’s time for Kevin Bacon & Co. to go toe to tentacle with them. What we know for sure is that, when the moment of truth arrives, our heroes are gonna need a bigger GMC truck.

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