Tremors (United States, 1990)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Tremors is one of those rare motion pictures that fails during its theatrical run but finds new life on video. Examples of this can be found dotted throughout the VHS/DVD era of cinema (post-1983) but few are as dramatic as in this case. It's not hard to see why Tremors ultimately became a success. It's a decent monster movie with tolerable special effects and a fair amount of tension during the action scenes. It also has a strong sense of humor and never takes itself too seriously. Horror/comedies often tread too far to one side or the other of that fine line; Tremors walks it like a tightrope. We jump when we're supposed to jump and laugh when we're supposed to laugh (not the other way around). Perhaps the biggest question about this movie is why it took a video release before the public embraced it.

Audiences "found" Tremors in their living rooms, where it became one of early home video's biggest success stories. After making only $17M at the box office, it more than tripled that total on VHS. People rented and bought it. The film's newfound popularity resulted in three forgettable straight-to-video sequels and one short-lived television series (that lasted 13 episodes during the 2003 season). Aside from Michael Gross, who appeared in every Tremors movie and the TV series, there wasn't much continuity and director Ron Underwood, whose career fizzled after a few early-1990s successes (including City Slickers) was only involved in the first installment.

Tremors takes place in the little town of Perfection, which looks like something left over from the Old West. It's isolated, with only one road leading to civilization, and boasts a population of 14 residents (fewer by the end of the movie). Everyone knows everyone else's business - not that anyone has much business for everyone else to know. The biggest news in Perfection is the arrival of grad student Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter) to take seismology readings in the desert. She may not be the prettiest girl around, but she's enough to catch the attention of laconic handyman Earl Bassett (Fred Ward) and his tomcat cohort, Val McKee (Kevin Bacon). No sooner has Rhonda arrived, however, than other people start disappearing - or ending up dead. It soon becomes apparent that there's something under the ground and it appreciates the taste of human flesh. Rhonda checks her readings and determines that there are four of them, which dampens the enthusiasm resulting when Earl and Val kill one of the behemoths by inadvertently luring it to crash headlong into a concrete barrier.

Taking Tremors seriously is an exercise in futility. It's a tongue-in-cheek script and the actors play it that way. But things never venture into open camp. There's tension in the action scenes and, while the characters are broadly drawn, they're likeable enough that we want them to make it. The belated success of Tremors resulted in a lot of copycats but none of them - not even the film's direct sequels - captured the mix of humor, action/adventure, and gore with the same deftness exhibited by Underwood. As one looks across the large number of failed Tremors wannabes, this underrated aspect becomes more impressive.

It's a nice cast for a small-budget production. Kevin Bacon is the biggest star; however, while he may have his own game, he's not the kind of actor who can "open" a movie. He throws both his 100-watt smile and his one-liners around to equally good effect. Fred Ward, more gruff and reserved, is effective as Bacon's foil. Finn Carter, who would eventually become a career television guest star, does what she can with the underwritten love interest role. The film might have been more intriguing had there been an opportunity to develop the chemistry between Bacon and Carter. The Big Moment kiss ends up feeling a little out-of-place.

Michael Gross and Reba McEntire play gun-loving survivalists and steal every scene they're in. They also have the best one-liners. At the time, Gross was relatively popular as a result of his recurring role as Michael J. Fox's father in Family Ties (which had gone off the air less than a year before Tremors was released). McEntire, of course, was known for her singing. (This was her acting debut.) Bobby Jacoby (a.k.a. Robert Jayne - as he would later become known) plays an annoying kid who's probably the only one in town we hope the "graboids" eat. Finally, there's Ariana Richards as Pefection's youngest resident. Considering what Richards would be chased by in three years in Jurassic Park, she gets off easily here.

Tremors didn't have a large budget which meant that the available funds for special effects were limited. However, considering these restrictions, the filmmakers did a solid job of making the "graboids" genuinely menacing. Borrowing a page from Steven Spielberg's Jaws, Tremors limits how much we see of the beasties, at least while they're alive. They burrow under ground and stick their snake-like tongues out from under the sand but their gargantuan, cone-shaped bodies stay buried. It's a credit to the way the movie was assembled that we never once question the reality of the creatures. There's never an instance when we're pointing at the screen and laughing at something that is obviously a bunch of rubber.

There's a lot of action during the film's final third as the characters become the hunted. They have bombs and guns at their disposal (thanks to the Gross and McEntire characters) and a recognition that while graboids can collapse houses, they can't get to anyone who has reached the safety of a rock outcropping. The dilemma: how to achieve the safety represented by the nearby mountains which don't seem so near when there's a massive, smelly, ugly thing giving chase from beneath… Proving he's good for more than a smile and a quip, Val puts his life at risk in a suspenseful sequence where we're sure he's a goner. The movie as a whole is like that: a little action, a little gore, then a joke to ease the tension.

People remember Tremors fondly because, while the movie has enough edge-of-the-seat moments, it also gives viewers an opportunity to relax. The characters are all likeable; there are no uncomfortable factions, power-struggles, or two-legged villains. The humans don't do stupid things in the name of greed; survival is their lone goal. There's nothing new in Tremors; it borrows liberally from many of the monster movies - both great and not-so-great - that were popular earlier in the century. Despite having been designed as a one-off motion picture, the existence of three sequels is testimony to its belated but continuing popularity. To this day, 18 years after it reached multiplex screens and was hardly seen by anyone, Tremors remains a fresh and engaging experience.

Tremors (United States, 1990)

Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 1990-01-19
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1