Looking Back At TREMORS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At TREMORS

Martin Rayburn feels the earth move.
In 2020 the seventh film in the long-running Tremors franchise was released. SEVEN movies! That's quite some achievement (regardless of the quality of some of these sequels) and that's not even mentioning the TV series. It all began back in 1990 with a low-budget sleeper hit which found an audience when eventually released on VHS. A film which mashed-up genres, harking back to the 1950s monster b-movies of the day, delivering pulse-pounding excitement and a true Hollywood-style happy ending. To this day the original Tremors remains the best of the bunch, not just within its own franchise but of the larger knowing creature features that followed, and it still delivers a ground-shaking experience three decades on.

Tremors sees Valentine Mckee (Kevin Bacon) and Earl Bassett (Fred Ward), two handymen "trapped" in the small town of Perfection, Nevada with dreams of making it big, finally decide to leave the dead-end town behind. But, like those 1950s monster-style b-movies, the discovery of dead bodies, both human and animal, and a huge boulder inexplicably blocking the exit road to freedom, all act as a McGuffin to keep them there for just a while longer. Long enough to become heroes and save the day.
Also in town to study the strange seismic activity is Rhonda (Finn Carter), a grad student who helps Mckee and Bassett discover that both the deaths and the odd vibrations in the ground are connected. The cause? Giant 30-foot worms! Trapping the townspeople of Perfection, including gun-happy, WWIII-prepared couple Burt and Heather Gummer (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire), who when watched today feel very much like a stereotypical MAGA couple played in the most knowing way to great effect. The rest of the film becomes a desperate scramble to outsmart the worms and get out of the town alive.

Clearly inspired by those 1950s monster movies, Tremors quite wisely plays itself as a comedy, preferring laughs over scares. A wise decision since if the film took itself seriously it just wouldn't have worked in the era of release. Fortunately the laughs aren't cheap, rather the result of witty dialogue and new twists on the old monster subgenre. Along with the script, the great chemistry between Bacon and Ward brings much of the humour to the film, especially when going through the motions of a pair of best friends with little education but plenty of smarts piecing things together. It's solely down to the two actors that this works so well, in the hands of another couple it could've gone horribly cringe-worthily wrong.

It's not all light hearted fun and games though. Director Ron Underwood gives the film a lightning pace; frenetic and exciting in tone, the 95 minutes seems to just fly past. And even though about half the film consists of running around and "get off the ground" moments, it doesn't feel repetitive nor become tiresome or dull for a single moment. The combination of the witty script, excellent performers, action, suspense and its simple but effective premise keeps you engaged throughout. It's also low on the gore, aside from a couple of semi-graphical moments, which works to its advantage as it differentiates itself from many of the other cult creature feature movies of the day.
Given that Tremors was released in 1990, it comes from an era largely pre-dating CGI effects, and this is a definite plus for the realisation of the worms. The special effects are fun, with the worms well-rendered and convincing. One they emerge from the ground it's incredibly effective, but perhaps more impressive is the clever use of worm-POV shots, particularly the ones that actually feature the camera wading through the dirt. It's a two-fold affect as it is clearly cheaper to shoot but really makes you as a viewer feel part of the action. Kudos to Underwood and his team for utilising that strategy.

Perhaps Tremors biggest strength though is one I alluded to earlier; it's the characters that make this film as highly entertaining as it is. As said before, Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward's chemistry is natural and they deliver some of their best acting in their careers. Bacon clearly went on to much greater things but it's actually a shame that Ward never went on to reach the same heights of stardom; he sure as hell had the charisma and acting skill for it. Through movies like The Right Stuff, Escape From Alkatraz, and Southern Comfort, he seemed to be headed for leading man status and decades of stardom, a career trajectory that plateaued in 1990 with this and Henry and June. He's joined by Finn Carter, who is also very good as Rhonda, and it's also a little unfortunate her career hasn't gone far since this, outside of a string of guest-appearances on the standard network television circuit. She and Bacon also have some nice chemistry, which further establishes Tremors as a film that also works partially as a romance (a good feat, considering it's not even striving to be one). The other standouts are Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as the gun-toting couple, Burt and Heather Gummer. Gross clearly best known at the time for Family Ties, he'd go on to anchor many of the sequels to Tremors. McEntire is one of those enviable people who are so versatile and likeable they were always destined for stardom and she's as strong an actress as she is a singer, with pitch-perfect timing for both comedy and song. Playing off her screen husband Gross, the two are a lot of fun together, with one of the highlights of the film being an hilarious scene involving the them trying to kill one of the giant worms in their basement.
Although Tremors wasn't much of a box office success it went on to have strong life on home video, to the point where it even inspired other knowingly creature features such as Anaconda, Lake Placid, and Deep Blue Sea. Some did better financially, but none of them manage to reach the heights of Tremors. Perhaps because their scripts weren't as witty, their characters weren't as likable, their monsters weren't as memorable and their production wasn't so considered, thus leaving this film as the benchmark modern day b-movie creature feature even more than 30 years since its release.

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