Sometimes there’s nothing more reassuring than settling down and watching a good old homage. Call it nostalgia, or possibly my rapidly advancing age, but watching an old movie that lovingly references even older movies can just hit you right in the sweet spot like nothing else.
Possibly one of the best of these is Ron Underwood’s 1990 feelgood creature feature, Tremors, a movie that takes various tropes from killer animal movies (Jaws, mostly), mixes it with the kind of 50’s paranoia you’d get on a double feature back in the glory days of atomic monsters and mutated creatures and gives it an instantly loveable down to earth nature – or should that be down under the earth?
Blue collar handymen Earl Bassett and Valentine McKee are growing rapidly sick of gritting and eeking out a living as they do the odd jobs for the townsfolk in the tiny and dusty settlement known as Perfection, Nevada. The inhabitants mainly include simple folk trying to live the quiet life – not to mention a couple of survivalist gun-nuts, Burt and Heather Gummer – and Burt and Val finally make the decision to quit town and try and find a new way to make money. However, they may have waited one day too late as weird goings on start to occur in the desserts around town – the town drunk is found dead of dehydration halfway up an electrical pylon, a local rancher is found partially underground and torn to pieces, a couple of workmen get a nasty surprise when they drill into something fleshy lurking under the ground.
It seems that the town of Perfection has become home to a quartet of giant, man-eating, sandworms that burrow beneath the earth and yank their prey underground with snake-like tendrils and after chowing down on various people on the outskirts, they have decided to make the townsfolk their own personal buffet so Val, Earl and seismologist graduate student Rhonda have to play hero in order to survive.
Dubbed “Graboids”, a nail biting game of cat and mouse ensues as the people of Perfection match wits with these burrowing bastards who seem to be able to counteract every single plan that’s thrown in their path, be it ingenious methods of survival or Burt and Heather’s sizable gun stash.
If Val, Earl, Rhonda and everyone else is to avoid taking a one way trip six feer under through the bowels of a giant worm, they’re going to have to come up with a plan that’s going to counteract the predatory aspects and sheer muscle of a vast, bulky creature that can flip a trailer and has the appetite of a late life Orson Wells.
Much like the ragtag people who populate the town of Perfection, the secret to why Tremors has lasted so long as a cult masterpiece is because on top of it being incredibly resourceful and stunningly likeable, it’s just so fucking wholesome. Now, I realise that’s an odd recommendation for a film featuring giant carnivorous worms, but the fact that Tremors is chiefly concerned about being a well written, well cast adventure flick that pokes its trio of snarl snake tongues out at genre conventions why warmly embracing them, makes it wonderfully evergreen.
The characters are sublime and cast even better. I mean come on, Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as a double act of a couple of crusty, salt-of-the-earth good ol’ boys? What’s better than that? How about Family Ties’ Michael Gross playing against type and going for broke from behind a magnificent porn ‘tache as the character who would go on to carry the franchise for the next thirty years. Add to that Finn Carter, Reba McEntire (yep, that Reba McEntire) and Big Trouble In Little China’s Victor Wong and you have a cast of characters that go against the grain by making you not want to see them get eaten by marauding mollusc monsters – it’s such an obvious trick, but it works a treat and the tension is raised massively by the refreshing fact that you actually don’t want anyone to die. The characters are smart too, something that’s also stunningly rare on the ground in the world of monster movies (imagine what you’d get if people were smart enough to actually avoid the water in Jaws 3 – Dennis Quaid probably getting laid off, that’s what), but the fact that these guys keep scheming and planning to desperately keep one step ahead of the Graboids make you love them even more.
Of course, there’s the Graboids themselves, near perfect movie monsters who whizz around with Jaws-esque POV shots and whose appearance is given to us in stages, much like we got in Predator. After the first odd rumble here and there, we get people getting sucked underground and we think that the beasts are a swarm of horned, eyeless snakes, but as further reveals take place, we finally find out that holy shit, these things are actually the size of a bloody trailer and the practical effects are magnificently tactile with Stan Winston proteges Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis realising these bloated killing machines in various ingenious ways in the times before CGI.
The final feather in the cap that helps Tremors to rumble with the best of them is that it’s tremendously exciting; utilizing the kind of desperate, think-on-your-feet-or-you’ll-eaten kind of set pieces that pre-date Jurassic Park by three frickin’ years (theyeven both share actress Ariana Richards) and it also even finds time to subvert expectations. A perfect example is the moment when one of the Graboids bursts into the Gummer’s basement with the intention of having itself a redneck feast only for the married couple to bust out increasingly bigger calibre of guns to squish its stinky, wormy ass.
Despite being buried at the box office in the way that only a true cult classic can claim, Tremors has gone on to continue to attempt to rock our world with a string of sequels (and a TV show) that each all tunneled away from coming anywhere near a cinematic release. Yet while the Graboids continue to hunt in they’re various forms, the original has persevered for over thirty years by digging it’s own niche.
Never mind the name of the town – it’s the movie that’s perfection.