Saturday, October 13, 2012

Tremors

Tremors (1990) is  a movie to cherish. I'm not saying that because it's the scariest monster ever made or because the creature effects are the most inventive or even because it's the funniest comedy horror produced. It is to be treasured because it balances on a narrow line few genre films are able to straddle; it works as an effective and exciting monster movie for kids while having a strong enough sense of humor and a charismatic cast to endear it to the older crowd. Simply put, Tremors is fun.

Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward respectively) are handymen in the small desert town of Perfection, Nev. The very day they decide to ditch town and move on to bigger prospects, strange things start happening. The town drunk is found on an electrical tower dead of dehydration, a farmer and his flock of sheep are slaughtered, and before long, the way out of the valley is cut off, trapping everyone from outside help. Val and Earl, along with seismology graduate student Rhonda (Finn Carter) soon discover giant, subterranean worm-like creatures are responsible, and they're heading straight for Perfection.

Twenty-two years, Tremors is a franchise that has grown to include two straight-to-video sequels, a prequel, and even a TV series. Along with the concept of graboids (the name a shop owner played by Victor Wong bestows upon them before becoming lunch) and the town of Perfection, we witness the creatures become scuttling ground critters and flying threats and back to worms again over the course of the series. Looking back, it's easy to forget just how fresh and energetic the original was. There's a genuine sense of discovery and mystery as our heroes find evidence of the monsters' rampage and are perplexed by the lack of explanation: what would keep a man up on a tower for three days to die of thirst, what could eat a farmer and entire flock of sheep, what's strong enough to bury a car, and why would it do? The clues just pile on, our heroes learn a little more about the danger with each encounter, and finally, the creatures literally burst on screen.

For the most of the movie, the graboids are kept off-screen, mostly suggested by their snake-like tongues poking and squirming out of the dirt or by their manipulation of objects as they move (most notably a line fence posts being knocked over as they chase Val and Earl and various dust clouds). In a sense, Tremors is a goofier, lighter land version of Jaws. Unlike other monster movies, most of Tremors is set during the day and out in the open, so while there is not much claustrophobia, we do get an effective sense of isolation in the middle of the desert.

The film also has fun with the graboids' method of attack. They hunt by sound and get people from under the ground, so climbing up on a rock or building will keep you safe. It's like an extreme version of the kids' game quicksand. Or if you remember to freeze and not make a sound while on dirt, they won't be able to find you. The methods the characters use to stay safe are a blast: pole-vaulting, tossing rocks, and even tossing out lit dynamite tied to a rope like they were fishing.

A large part of why the movie works so well is its cast. Bacon and Ward are excellent as the squabbling, not-always-too-bright duo of Val and Earl. Instead of being disbelieving skeptics, they embrace the graboid phenomenon, talking about these monsters as their ticket to the big time, provided they don't get eaten first, but when they chips are down, they take charge and save the day. They play off each other great and have some really funny lines and exchanges.

       - "Damn it, Valentine! I'm older and I'm wiser."
          "Yeah, well, you're half right."

       - "You ever seen anything like this before?"
         "Oh, yeah, Earl, we all knew about 'em. We just didn't tell you."

       - "Must be a million of them!"
         "Nope, just one."

Of course, you can't mention Tremors without mentioning Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as Burt and Heather Gummer, the resident gun nut survivalists. They play their roles so straight they're hilarious, and they give new meaning to the phrase "home defense" when one of the monsters bursts through their basement. Carter is also good as Rhonda. She's got the kind of thankless task of Val's love interest, but she has some fun with the scientist part, having to come up with explanations on the fly. Plus, she thankfully doesn't fit the stereotypical Hollywood leading lady mold. I also liked Victor Wong as the sneaky store owner Walter. Upon finding Val and Earl have caught a mysterious snake creature, he says, "I'll give you boys $5 for it."

Tremors has its share of blood and slime, but most of it comes from the graboids (there's a hilarious bit involving a blown graboid's guts raining down on people). The deaths themselves aren't too graphic apart from the characters pulled into the ground, a simple yet creepy notion. There's some profanity, but only one f-bomb. If anything, Tremors is a good introduction to the genre for younger audiences: not too scary, a good balance of excitement and laughs, and an education of how the small town under siege by monsters is done right. For the older crowd and people like me who grew up watching it on TV, Tremors remains something to feel affectionate toward.

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