Imagine a movie that opens with Kevin Bacon standing on a ledge and peeing into a vast Nevada canyon. Inspiring, right? Yet it’s an opening that strangely fits “Tremors”, a goofy creature-feature comedy that barely made a dent in the box office back in 1990, but went on to earn a pretty big cult following over the next few years. Enough in fact to spawn at least five direct-to-video sequels and an ill-fated 2003 television series.
That indelible opening image introduces us to Bacon’s character, Valentine McKee (how’s that for a name). He and his older but not always wiser partner Earl Bassett (Fred Ward) are a couple of redneck “handymen” in the small town of Perfection, population 14. Val and Earl are basically jacks-of-all-trades, doing all sorts of odd-and-in jobs for the motley group of townsfolk. But the pair dreams of brushing off the dust of Perfection to strike it rich in the bigger town of Bixby.
But the boys have their plans interrupted by a pack of giant subterranean slug-like varmints who begin devouring residents and destroying the town. Val and Earl team alongside their fellow local eccentrics fight to fend off the underground beasts. In the process the two guys learn that maybe Perfection isn’t such a bad place after all.
The origin of “Tremors” is as amusing as the movie itself. Writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock came up with the idea while doing safety videos for the United States Navy. They shared their concept of “land sharks” with director Ron Underwood who was doing documentaries for National Geographic. They shopped it around soon getting Universal Pictures to distribute.
A big part of the fun comes from the wacky assortment of supporting characters. Finn Carter plays a grad-student named Rhonda. She’s out in the desert doing seismology studies when the big worms hit. Victor Wong plays Walter, the town’s lone store owner. But the best may be Michael Gross and Reba McEntire. They play Burt and Heather Gummer, a gun-loving couple who just happen to have their own “bunker” filled with firearms and explosives. Gross was just coming off the successful TV show “Family Ties” while Reba was (obviously) a beloved country singer. The two steal nearly every scene they’re in.
“Tremors” builds on its foundation of goofy, often foul-mouthed, banter (how it managed a PG-13 rating is beyond me) and modestly budgeted special effects that fall somewhere between cool and comically bad. But to be honest the effects are part of the film’s strangely infectious charm. The slugs themselves (designed by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis) are well conceived and Underwood has a lot of fun easing us and the characters into understanding what makes them tick. Three things are certain: they’re huge, they’re hungry, and they have a weakness (you know, because they always have to have a weakness).
Unashamedly silly and playfully irreverent, “Tremors” is born from plenty of inspiration while still carving out its own offbeat identity. It’s smartly made and you can’t help but see traces of old westerns, slice of 1950s sci-fi, maybe even a bit of satire. While I may not hold it in as high regard as it’s passionate cult following, I do see where their enthusiasm comes from. And after watching this 30-year-old movie again, it’s kinda surprising to see how well this kooky concoction still holds up.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS