Tremors (1990)

Author: J.T. Jeans
Submitted by: J.T. Jeans   Date : 2008-02-27 12:48

Written by: Brent Maddock & S.S. Wilson
Directed by: Ron Underwood
Produced by: Gale Anne Hurd

Reviewed by: J.T. Jeans

This review contains MODERATE SPOILERS for the film Tremors.

This review has been a long time coming, not least of all because I've had to put it off repeatedly over the previous week due to illness (I simply couldn't bring myself to write at length when I felt as though a good strong trachea puncture was my best bet for breathing normally again).

Recent illness aside, a review of Tremors is something I've wanted to write for some time now, but I've never felt that I was impartial enough to write one that was fair and clinical. My feelings for the film are quite strong because it single handedly secured my undying love for the giant creature sub genre, surpassing even JAWS -- the former mistress of my affections for all things vis--vis giant critters nibbling on hapless humans.

Obviously this review is heavily biased, so if you're looking for a levelheaded examination of the film's strengths and weaknesses... well, you're probably better off looking elsewhere. There are very few things that I feel the film did wrong.

First, a little background: when I initially discovered Tremors, I must have been 11 or 12 years old. This was after the film's theatrical run but long before it was released on VHS. I must have taped it on HBO or Showtime. I can't remember which. The thing is, I didn't tape it on purpose -- I set the VCR to record another film that I wanted to see (Howard the Duck, I do believe) and the thing recorded through the night, snagging Tremors in the process. So the next day I was reviewing the tape and decided to let it play from one end to the other.

At the time, I wasn't quite the horror fan I became in later years, and despite the blatantly comedic elements in the film, the concept of Graboids scared me absolutely witless! I think I spent two or three days being paranoid about going into my front yard (a giant section of the yard was covered by soft white sand. I discovered plenty of fleas and ants lurking beneath that sand over the years, but thankfully no Graboids.)

The fact that the film scared me something fierce didn't stop me watching it again that weekend, and again the following week, and again the next weekend. By the end of the month I was hooked right and proper, and my love of the giant monster sub genre was set firmly in place.

As I grew up, Tremors became a very important film to me. It's one of those films that I fall back on when life looks bleak. It's a reminder of my childhood; of a time when life was simpler, and the only things I worried about were the demons in my dreams and the monsters under the sand.

For me, Tremors is comfort cinema at its finest.

Anyhoo, on to the nitty-gritty: the film opens with small town handymen Valentine McKee (Kevin Bacon) and Earl Bassett (Fred Ward) camped out on the fringes of Perfection, Nevada, a geographically isolated ex-mining town that is inhabited by a scant fourteen citizens. Val and Earl spend their days doing odd jobs for various town folk, in this case building a barbwire fence. While on the job, they discuss their future in Perfection and whether or not they're living up to their full potential.

On the way back into town -- their intention being to sort out Nester's (Richard Marcus) garbage dump -- they encounter a graduate student named Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter) who, due to odd readings that are inconsistent with the terrain, believes that the university's seismology equipment has gone lemon.

Throughout the course of the day, we learn that while Val and Earl do have the desire to achieve bigger and better things, they continue to stagnate in Perfection due to good ol' fashion fickleness. As Val tells Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) early in the film: "We plan ahead, that way we don't do anything right now." It perfectly sums up the duo's situation -- they look to the future without taking the time to live in the now. After all, why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?

But in the wake of an overly intimate encounter with a busted septic tank, Val and Earl finally muster the motivation to pack up their kit and head for nearby Bixby, sights set firmly on building a better tomorrow in a bona fide city.

Unfortunately, subterranean beasties with a penchant for soft pink flesh throw the proverbial monkey wrench into Val and Earl's departure plans, and in doing so force them to become the ad hoc defenders of the (slowly dwindling) denizens of Perfection Valley.

Tremors has its tongue very firmly planted in its cheek, and that's a good thing. The concept of giant monster burrowing through the Earth and plucking unlucky bipedals like berries from a bushel is absolutely bonkers. It's Wacko Jacko. It's the sort of thing you read in pulpy sci-fi/horror anthology. And that's the point.

S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock originally devised the concept under the title Land Shark, but after seeing an SNL skit featuring a comedic character by the same name, they ditched the title before ultimately shelving the concept entirely.

Some years later, after successfully selling the script for Short Circuit, Wilson and Maddock tweaked the Land Shark concept considerably, wrote a script, and pitched the idea to Gale Anne Hurd. Blessedly, Hurd got what it was Wilson and Maddock were trying to do and agreed to produce. Ron Underwood was drafted to direct, and through a series of fortunate encounters Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross and Reba McEntire joined the cast. The rest, as they say, is history.

The thing that differentiates Tremors from other self-aware genre films is that the movie is actually quite scary. When asked to describe the film in a single sentence, the first thing that comes to my mind is "JAWS in the desert." Granted, it doesn't quite have the same sort of gravitas as JAWS -- which is probably to do with the fantastical nature of the Graboids vs. the reality-based dramatization of a rogue shark -- but the idea of underground monsters that hunt us by the sound of our footsteps is quite a scary thought.

Another similarity is in the presentation of the creature. Ron Underwood's deliberate decision not to show the creature right away is reminiscent of Spielberg's decision to do the same in JAWS -- we see very little of the Graboids until about 30 minutes into the film, and what we do see is fleeting glimpses of slimy snake-like creatures which, as we later learn, are barely the tip of the iceberg. I remember being absolutely mortified when the true nature of the beast was revealed for the first time.

In terms of carnage, there's very little. The film relies more on building tension (and the occasional jump scare) rather than on gore, although there are a couple of moments that are suitably wet (particularly when it comes to the demise of the monsters). There's nothing really hardcore -- the film is rated PG-13, after all -- but it's certainly gorier than any of the later sequels. There's also a complete lack of T and A, so if you're looking to get tantalized by female flesh, you're better off checking out another film.

Changing things up for a moment -- and since this is a personally driven review -- I need to have a bit of a rant about the film's soundtrack.

Ernest Troost was initially hired to write the score for the film. Indeed, he's the only one to get on-screen credit for the job of composing the film's incidentals. What few people realize is that much of Troost's music was rejected. Entire motifs and character themes are either keyed down or abandoned altogether. Those of you who have purchased the promotional score will know what I'm talking about -- even the very first track on the CD is almost entirely unfamiliar material, composed for a sequence that was cut out of the film at an early stage of production. There's some good stuff on the disc, but it doesn't quite have the same oomph as what is heard in the film.

So where are the familiar cues that were actually used in the film? The answer is a pretty simple one -- damn near the entire second half of the film features music written by Robert Folk. But as Troost produced the soundtrack album, none of Folk's work is present. This means that the familiar Graboid motif (featuring powerful orchestra over synthy metallic sounds and off-key harmonica) is missing entirely.

In the film, Folk's motifs are interwoven pretty seamlessly with Troost's -- one minute you're hearing superb horror tunes composed by Folk, the next you're hearing a peppy pole vaulting motif written by Troost. It works well.

While none of Folk's score is available on the Tremors promotional CD, Folk released a compilation album that features a 17-minute suite from the film. Unfortunately, this album was also a promotional CD and has long since gone out of print. Search as I might, I can't find hide nor hair of it. I e-mailed Folk about it and was informed that snagging a copy off a collector was probably my only option.

It's pretty rough when the film's composer no longer has access to the CD himself.

For those of you who remember the score fondly, click here to hear a nearly 2 minute clip of Folk's Tremors score, as provided on his personal web page. It's a shame that we'll likely never see that 17-minute suite released for commercial sale.

Tremors is a film that failed to do major bank for Universal Studios, and as a result the sequels all went DTV. On a budget of $11 million, the film only pulled a domestic gross of $16.6 million, and it sat around collecting dust for nearly six years before it saw release on home video.

Today it has a small yet faithful cult following, but the majority of hardcore horror fans seem to discredit it on the basis that it has a very self-aware sense of humor. They're not wrong about that, either -- the film is completely unashamed of the fact that it's a throwback to the giant monster films of the 1950s and 1960s, but despite its roots in a genre known for a considerable amount of pedestrian output, the film manages to be funny, tense and frightening all at the same time.

Despite some budget limitations and occasionally shaky effects work, Tremors truly is one of the classic unsung treasures of horror. The film has been released as a single DVD, in an Attack Pack Edition (which collects all of the films together on two discs at a stunningly affordable price), and has recently been released on HD-DVD (with a Blu-ray release looking very likely in the wake of HD-DVD's demise).

If you happen to stumble across a copy in Wal-Mart or Best Buy, definitely pick it up. It's Essential!

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