Tremors (1990) ****½
It’s flicks like this that make me ask, “what the fuck is wrong with the people making horror/monster movies today.” Tremors is a film very much in the style that currently has a stranglehold on the industry-- it’s self-aware, self-satirizing, and concerned every bit as much with making its audience laugh as with giving it that monster movie adrenalin rush-- but unlike the vast majority of similar films being made today, Tremors doesn’t suck syphilitic moose-cock. Far from it. In fact, I’d say this is a top contender for the title of best monster movie of the 1990s.
The plot here is straight out of the 50’s. One day, a pair of freelance handymen named Val (Kevin Bacon, from Stir of Echoes and Flatliners) and Earl (Fred Ward, whose career encompasses everything from the much-ballyhooed The Right Stuff to the justly forgotten Timerider) finally get sufficiently fed up with their lot as hired laborers in the hole-in-the-Earth Southwestern desert hamlet of Perfection that they pack up their truck and head for Bigsby, the closest thing to a real town in the area. But the gods are not with these two this day, for every time they try to leave, evidence of bad craziness brings them back. First, they discover the body of the town drunk perched in a high-tension electrical tower, his Winchester rifle clutched in his dead hands. When Perfection’s doctor gets a look at him, he pronounces the cause of death dehydration-- the man literally sat in that tower until he died of thirst! Now that’s pretty bad, but their next attempt to skip town turns up something even worse. As Val and Earl drive past the land of a local small-hold rancher, they notice that something has turned his entire flock of sheep into lamb-burgers. Worse yet, while the two handymen poke around the rancher’s property looking for him, they find his severed head half-buried in the sand underneath his hat. When Val and Earl rush back to Perfection to warn their neighbors that a killer is on the loose, they learn that the phone at Walter Chang’s general store (apparently the only one in town) is dead, so they get back into their truck to fetch help from Bigsby. This third and final time, they find the only road out of Perfection blocked by rubble at the point where they had seen roadwork being done earlier. A cursory look around turns up one of the workers’ helmets, filled with blood and what look to be pieces of brain. After a brief struggle to free the truck from something that had snagged the undercarriage as they turned it around, Val and Earl return again whence they came.
Back at Chang’s market, it is revealed what the truck had gotten hung up on. Wrapped around its rear axle and dragging on the road for a good three feet behind the truck is the front half of a carcass. What kind of carcass? Well, that’s a good question. It kind of looks like a really huge snake (like python huge), except that it doesn’t have any scales, its teeth are all wrong, and the shape of its eyeless head bears little resemblance to anything on Earth (maybe if hagfish had jaws...). Perfection’s resident survivalist gun-nut, Burt (Michael Gross), makes the connection between the mystery serpent and the death of the rancher and his sheep, and it also seems a likely explanation for the dead drunk-- if a bunch of these things came after you, you’d probably climb up the nearest electrical tower, too, and you’d probably stay up there until you were sure they were gone.
Meanwhile, a seismology grad-student named Rhonda (Finn Carter, who went on to star in Sweet Justice, a latter-day entry in the female vigilante genre) has been getting some funny readings on her seismographs. At first, she thinks they might be the result of mining activity-- drilling or blasting-- but nothing like that is going on anywhere near Perfection. Hmmm... We got to see the set-ups for both the attack on the ranch and the one on the road crew. In the first case, it looked like whatever got the old rancher hit him from below, and just before the road crew was killed, the man operating the pneumatic drill stuck its bit into something soft under the road-- something that bled. (This is a great scene.) You think there might be a connection? Oh yeah. And if we required any further confirmation, the movie supplies it in the form of a night attack on the town doctor and his wife, who are killed by three snake-things like the one that grabbed onto Val and Earl’s truck. Not only do the monsters kill the couple, they drag the mid-80’s Ford Country Squire station wagon in which the woman sought shelter into the fucking ground. Now, those cars weigh in at about 4700 pounds. Do you think a python-sized creature, even three of them, would be strong enough to pull it into the ground? And do you think that python-sized creatures, even hundreds of them, would set off a seismograph as they burrowed through the earth?
If you said no, give yourself a gold star. The day after the doctor and his wife are killed, Val and Earl go to look for them, and find their buried car. Just about the time they’re asking each other the same questions I just asked you, they get attacked themselves, and we finally get a good look at what’s been troubling Perfection. Those snake-things are only the monster’s tongues (it’s got three of them, and by the way, am I the only one who finds himself wondering if anyone involved in the creation of Tremors ever saw Enemy Mine?); the creature itself rather resembles a scaled-down version of the sandworms from Dune. It’s about 25, maybe 30 feet long, eyeless, with a tripartite jaw and hundreds of little appendages protruding from its skin which it uses to push itself through the earth. It’s also fucking fast, faster than a man can run, and the only way Val and Earl manage to escape it is by leading it into the concrete wall of an irrigation culvert. The monster apparently didn’t sense the change in the composition of the material in front of it (or couldn’t turn itself away fast enough when it did), and it hits the wall hard enough to punch a hole clear through it, pulping its own head in the process. In and of itself, this is good news, but it isn’t long before Rhonda rains on everybody’s parade by pointing out that her seismograph readings suggest that three more of the creatures remain.
Rhonda’s interpretation of the data is right on the money. The rest of the film, in which the residents of Perfection find themselves besieged by the monster worms (dubbed “graboids” by Chang) could be used as a textbook on the proper way to combine modern filmmaking techniques with retro-monster-movie subject matter. It also conclusively proves that self-mocking monster movies don’t have to be as bad as most people make them. Part of the trick is that director Ron Underwood never forgets that he is making a monster movie first and a satire of monster movies second. Equally important is the fact that Underwood was blessed with a script that does not mistake bad-ass one-liners for wit. When Tremors tries to be funny, it is, and it never resorts to the sort of clowning that the later Nightmare on Elm Street films, or even The Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, do. Even those characters who are basically broadly-drawn caricatures (Burt and his wife, for instance) are never allowed to become ridiculous, and the movie as a whole displays a marked intelligence at every step of the way. Possibly my favorite scenes are those in which Tremors pokes fun at the conventions of its genre in a manner so understated that it would be easy not to notice what was going on. In one scene, the assembled townspeople of Perfection badger Rhonda for an explanation of the monsters’ origin. She has no idea what the things are, or where they could have come from, but that isn’t good enough for her audience. (“You mean you don’t even have a name for them?!” one character exclaims in incredulous disgust, while another chimes in with, “I thought you were a scientist!”) In an earlier, equally satisfying moment, Rhonda, Val, and Earl (trapped on a boulder by one of the monsters) brainstorm for exactly the sort of ideas that the citizens of Perfection want to hear in the aforementioned scene. They hit all the usual explanations (radiation, toxic waste, aliens, bio-weapons, survival from prehistoric time), each of them shooting down their own suggestions the moment they are made. This scene points to something else that the makers of Tremors knew that their peers would do well to learn-- ultimately, it doesn’t matter where the monsters come from, only that they’re here now. Unless you’ve got something up your sleeve that we’ve really never seen before (like Larry Cohen did in The Stuff), or you’re trying to make a point (as in Godzilla: King of the Monsters or Prophecy), it doesn’t pay to spend time belaboring your monster’s origin. What I’m really getting at is this: if you ever get sick of Anaconda and its kin, you would do well to revisit this movie and remind yourself what target it is that those inferior flicks are aiming at and missing. And if you’re one of those who still hasn’t seen Tremors, do yourself a favor and rectify that situation soon.