Tremors is a movie that shouldn’t have worked. It was originally going to be called Land Shark for goodness sake! It is the blueprint for any number of schlocky B-movies commonly found on the Syfy channel and DVD bargain bins (often enjoyable, but not actually good). A couple of hapless ne’er do wells trade good-natured ribbing until things go wrong and they find the heroes that were in their hearts the whole time? That, my friends, ought to be a recipe for disaster.
But Tremors isn’t a disaster. Far from it. Somehow the comedy and the action and the horror all work together to make something truly memorable and enjoyable. The story, for those of who have been living under a rock your whole life (i.e. actual graboids probably) goes a little something like this: two handymen in the remote Nevada town of Perfection encounter a pack of giant killer worms, and they have to figure out how to escape with their lives.
The plot is relatively simple, but like many survival and horror movies, the thing that pulls you in is the identification with the heroes’ dilemma. There’s something that clicks once you realize that these monsters could be anywhere, and that any movement on loose soil could draw their attention and bring them up underneath our protagonists. It’s like playing The Floor is Lava with the whole world, and you can’t help but get drawn into the game with them.
It’s that audience participation that lends itself to part of Tremors’ charm. You want to figure this problem out too, you start to imagine what you would do if the graboids were lurking outside your home. Could you distract them somehow? Walk really quietly so they couldn’t track you? Lure them into some kind of trap?
But you wouldn’t get so drawn into this situation if you couldn’t identify with the characters who are going through it in the film, and that is where Tremors really shines. Val and Earl aren’t exactly what you would call “deep” or “complex” characters, they’re just a couple of good-old-boys who have gotten themselves into a situation way over their heads, but they’re played so charmingly by Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward that you really start to buy into their stupid banter and harebrained schemes. Of course easily the most memorable character is Burt Gummer, another wacky survivalist type that could come across as one-note. But actor Michael Gross plays Burt with such conviction and heart, that even by the disappointing fifth film in the series he’s still captivating.
The third piece of the puzzle is the incredible creature effects on display. Tremors hit screens in 1990, just three short years before Steven Spielberg would change the world of monsters movies forever (for better or worse) with his stunning computer generated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. The graboids represent the best of what is possible with practical effects, a stunning mixture of miniature puppets and full-sized models meld seamlessly with the action on screen to present unique and terrifying monsters.
Tremors isn’t a deep movie. And on the face of it, it shouldn’t be a good movie. But it is. Because we identify with the heroes and the peril they’re in. Because the creature effects are second to none. Sometimes when you least expect it, a movie that could have been called Land Shark turns out to be absolutely brilliant.
Albert lives in Florida where the humidity has driven him halfway to madness, and his children have finished the job. He is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.
To hear more of our thoughts on Tremors check out Episode 177 of the Human Echoes Podcast.