It’s Jaws on Land: ‘Tremors’ Retrospective
Original Film Poster
They're Under the Ground
When I was younger I had no idea what I was looking at. All I remembered was looking at a gigantic earthworm smashing itself to death through a hard wall and Kevin Bacon playing with its tail. After learning of what the film was, I fell in love with it and hailed it as a classic. That film is the comedy horror Tremors, which came out in 1990 and was directed by Ron Underwood.
The plot of Tremors revolves around the desert town of Perfection. Two handymen discover strange happenings, including people dying in unusual places around the time when bizarre seismic activity begins happening. The reason for these events are soon discovered when the culprits are revealed to be four gigantic earthworms. As the creatures hunt the townspeople, they must escape and find a way to stop the creatures.
The two main protagonist are the two handymen, Val and Earl, played by Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward respectively. They tire of their jobs as handymen so they decide to leave Perfection. The time when they attempt to leave is when the strange events begin to take place. They find two people dead under different circumstances. A little later a rockslide blocks the only road out of town and Val and Earl’s truck gets mysteriously hung from underneath. When they return to town they and the town’s people discover that a strange, snake-like creature has attached itself to the wheels’ axel.
Greedy store owner Walter Chang, played by Victor Wong, takes the creature’s remains and uses it as an easy way to make money by having people pay to take pictures with it. Meanwhile, since the main road is closed, Val and Earl have to take an alternate way out. They are given horses to use as transportation and set out the next day.
Shortly after discovering the local doctor’s sunken car, the duo’s horses are attacked by more of the snake-like creatures. It’s soon revealed that the creatures are actually tentacle-like tongues connected to a much larger creature. A gigantic earthworm erupts out of the ground that chases the duo. They take refuge in a concrete aqueduct where the creature dies after slamming into a stone wall. The two, along with a graduate student they met earlier named Rhonda, played by Finn Carter, examine the creature, which is later referred to as a graboid. After learning that there are three more graboids around the area, they are soon attacked by another one. They take refuge on a cluster of boulders and use poles to vault over to Rhonda’s truck and make their way back to Perfection.
As they return to town the graboids follow them and immediately destroy the store and attack the townspeople. They are forced to take shelter in high areas, such as rooftops and tall poles. After enduring the attacks, the survivors use available resources to both escape the town and fight back against the graboids.
The film has a small condensed cast. The town of Perfection is rather small itself, in fact there is less than 20 people. Actually, besides the origins of the graboids, the main question the film raises is how do the people in the town function? There are two minors, where do they go to school? The town’s income is also questionable, although most of it seems to revolve around the local store. On the note of questions, the graboids are underground and are blind, but when the camera shows them trailing others in first person the camera is above ground. How?
Here’s the rest of the cast. As mentioned, Val and Earl are the main protagonist. They get tired of their job and when they attempt to leave, shenanigans happen. Both Val and Earl have a natural chemistry that makes them seem like old buddies. It really does feel like they’ve known each other for years. Val is the one who uses his brain more and thinks things out while Val is the impulsive one with a loose tongue. They do play the occasional game of rock, paper, scissors to settle decisions.
Rhonda is the graduate student the duo run into around the time they discover the two dead bodies. She scans the desert of Perfection and learns of the strange seismic activity.
Bobby Jacoby plays Melvin, who loves to joke and irritate the others. He does become quite serious when the creatures arrive in town. He is also one of two minors in town alongside Mindy, played by Ariana Richards. She’s mostly seen on a pogo stick and lives in town with her mother, Nancy, played by Charlotte Steward.
By far the most memorable character is Burt, played by Michael Gross. He’s a survivalist who turned his house into a safe haven, including turning his basement into a bomb shelter. He’s got a loose tongue similar to Val and is somewhat energetic. Due to his survivalist nature he is pretty much always prepared for any situation. The main thing he has are guns, which really come in handy halfway through the film. He’s also developed his own set of dynamite which also comes in handy later. His wife Heather is played by Reba McEntire in her first movie roll. While she has similar interest as Burt she’s nowhere as memorable.
Now for the creatures themselves. The graboids, as mentioned before, are giant 30 foot earthworms that serve as the film’s antagonists. They have durable bodies, especially their armored heads to help break through the ground. Their bodies are covered in tiny protrusions that allow the graboids to tunnel through the ground at high speeds. They are extremely powerful, able to hold moving vehicles, move trailer homes, move buildings off their foundations, and can burst through solid objects such as wood and brick walls. Their soft insides can even withstand a barrage of gunfire before falling. Another of their unique features is their tongues, which resemble snakes with horns. They each have mouths and wrap around the graboids’ prey like tentacles. They hold onto prey either by biting with their mouths or digging their horns in and retract back inside the graboid along with their prey.
The graboids are completely blind and don’t even have eyes. They track their prey by sounds and sensing vibrations in the ground, which the survivors exploit several times throughout the film. While they are very durable they are far from indestructible. As shown with the first graboid, they can’t burrow through super-hard material, such as concrete. Another thing is that they do have a degree of intelligence, such as digging traps for prey.
While not really necessary to the film’s plot, it is left unknown as to the origins of the graboids. There’s a scene where Val and Earl hypothesize where the graboids’ originated, from government experiments to being aliens. There are sequels to the film that do touch more upon the graboids’ background.
All of the effects for the graboids were done using practical effects. The film crew created both full models and miniatures that blend in well with the film, however if you look closely you can tell where the scenes with the miniatures were used.
While the film is a cross between horror and comedy, the whimsical music that plays makes it often feel like both an adventure film and a western film. There are elements of those genres, especially the scenes when they’re outside the town. Reba McEntire even sung a song for the film’s soundtrack, Why Not Tonight.
Overall, Tremors is an extremely highly recommended film. It’s definitely one of those films that everyone should see at least once in their life. It’s a 90s classic that paved the way for monster movies in that era. There’s much appreciation for the practical effects used in the film and the cast has good chemistry together. There are so many memorable scenes that make the entire film memorable. Despite the comedy there are tense moments that pull you to the edge of your seat.
As mentioned, there are quite a number of sequels. At the time of this retrospective a sixth installment is scheduled to air soon on Syfy. There was also a short-lived television Tremors show. While less of the original cast appears in the sequels and show, Burt, who became the series’ breakout character returns for both, with Michael Gross reprising his role. It should be noted, with a declining budget the sequels and show rely more on CGI instead of the practical effects from the first.
But in all, this film will leave a positive impression. Who would have thought a film about giant earthworms would be so entertaining?
Original Film Trailer
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