The bittersweet nature of the direct to video sequels that assaulted movie fans during the 90’s was the very epitome of a double-edged blade – sure, you got to return to meet characters and situations that you loved the first time around, but the price you had to pay was greatly reduced budgets and a suspicious no-show of original actors.
Everyone was at it, even Disney with their Aladdin sequels and Little Mermaid spin-offs, but for every time you would hear of a cult classic getting a belated follow up, you’d get Arnold Vosloo wrapped in bandages claimed that he was Darkman.
However, the return of the Tremors franchise in 1996 proved to be oddly reassuring, especially as the first movie was a pitch perfect homage of giant monster movies that threw in genuine laughs and thrills with its loving tone and quirky characters – but would the return of original writers Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson (with the later directing) manage to offset a Kevin Bacon-shaped hole in proceedings?
More of those human scoffing sandworms known as Graboids have resurfaced in Mexico and have been chowing down on the workers of an oil field owned by Carlos Ortega, so his big plan is to call in someone with prior worm knowledge to act as an exterminator for those stinky, underground bastards. Due to Valentine McKee (and thus Kevin Bacon) being unavailable, Ortega calls upon a down on his luck Earl Bassett to help him out and as the crusty cuss has blown all the Graboid money he earn on a shitty ostrich ranch, he reluctantly agrees – $50,000 per Graboid isn’t to be sniffed at.
Teaming up with taxi driver and Graboid fanboy Grady, Earl attacks his new day job with gusto, plowing through the giant worm population by blowing them up with dynamite loaded remote control cars, but after getting up to the usual hijinks one does when slaughtering huge subterranean predators, Earl finds that his wormy nemesis’ have a new trick up their metaphorical sleeves.
The first is that the Graboid’s numbers are far greater than they first thought, but that’s easily counteracted by calling in Earl’s old survivalist buddy, Burt Gummer and his vast arsenal to help out – but the second secret the monsters are hiding is that they have a weirdly complicated life cycle that’s about to change the rules of the game.
After finding the husk of a hollowed out Graboid, Earl, Bert Grady and geologist Kate Reilly realise they now have to deal with a swarm of creatures they dub Shriekers, quick, chicken-legged bastards that race around like Velociraptors and hunt using heat like the Predator. Can our motley crew of worm whompers survive this new breed of maneater by pitting their wits against these voracious creatures that seems to thwart them at every turn?
A more cynical person (such as myself back in the 90’s) could write off Tremors 2 as a shameless, cheap cash-in, but if you stop to offer the movie some respect, it’s actually an endearing, above average entry in the realms of sequels that had no intention of ever seeing the light of a cinema projector.
The main reason that Aftershocks works as well as it does is mainly thanks to the return of the screenwriters behind the original, which provides some much needed tonal continuity from the first movie. Part of Tremors’ charm was its resourceful and down to earth charm as the original cast had to constantly think on their feet to avoid getting digested thirty feet under the ground and the sequel takes great pains to try and recapture that can-do spirit that enchanted me so much in 1990. At one point Michael Gross’ Burt proudly states that he’s “Doing what I can with what I got.” and it’s a fitting metaphor for the film in general, as the movie has to think on its feet on order to offset it’s lack of funds and the occasional iffy CGI shot. Yes, EE poster boy Kevin Bacon is nowhere to be found – sweetly written out after marrying Rhonda and settling down – but the craggy nature of Fred Ward and furture franchise inheritor Michael Gross is more than enough to keep things afloat with their sizable character actor charisma. Similarly Helen Shaver and Christopher Gartin (amusingly leaning into his “new guy” status) settle in fine as new faces and its genuinely nice to see a movie like this have so many leading roles for middle-aged characters – even though it would have been nice if one of the Mexican characters had actually survived…
As the film takes a leisurely pace while unfurling its story, its packed with neat little set pieces that involve various running gags (Earl continues settling decisions with rock/paper/scissors), nifty problem solving (soaking some clothes in boiling water and hauling it out on a washing line is used to draw the Shriekers away) and some reassuring character humour (an exhausted Burt remarks “I am completely out of ammo. That’s never happened to me before.”) but every now and then the budget restrictions make themselves known – only eight names in the cast list?
Still, while the classic Graboids are reduced somewhat to blubbery cannon fodder, the introduction of the Shriekers manage to make things nicely different as their Jurassic Park-style attacks are a subtle change-up to the first movie’s Jaws-in-dirt monster attacks. The creature design is fun too, as the little buggers shift from bulky invertebrates to gawky bipeds, they still retain their trademark bony snouts and prehencile tongues and while the big finish involves nothing more than locking a door and setting a bomb, it’s still a quietly entertaining journey that takes your goodwill and rewards it with lots of monster action, witty characters and some killer gags – the best of which is a marvelously throwaway image of Gummer having the head of the Graboid he killed last movie stuffed and mounted in his den.
An admittedly noticable step down from the first movie, Tremors 2 still has enough humour and wit to dig a little deeper that your average direct to video sequel to result in a movie that’s far more enjoyable than has any right to be and be worthy enough to worm it’s way into your heart.