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Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors
(1990)

(SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Burt Gummer: What have you people got against being prepared?

Perhaps because he didn’t really have the sensibility. Like many a once-bright big-screen hope, he’s now carving out a regular gig helming TV shows, and it was one of those genre blends that really did for him. Sci-fi comedy The Adventures of Pluto Nash, no less. After Tremors, which was tooled as an R-rated movie then hastily reconfigured as PG-13 (you can tell, although it was allegedly for language rather than the copious violence), he scored big with another desert-set comedy, City Slickers. And then floundered about uncertainly for the rest of the 1990s. Supernatural comic fantasy (uh-oh) Hearts and Souls bombed. So did speechwriter romcom Multiplicity. Mighty Joe Young did middling business (and cost a lot). It’s no surprise Underwood gave up. Ruben Fleischer’s career – which also started on a horror comedy – looked to be charting a similar trajectory until Venom. And who knows, in the wake of Uncharted, he may resume said trajectory.

Burt Gummer: I wouldn’t give you a gun if it was World War III!

Tremors originated with Brent Maddock and SS Wilson, who earned the screenplay credit and continued their association with the first three sequels. They developed the plot with pal Underwood, the Graboids eventually replacing their land sharks at his suggestion. Maddock and Wilson had previously scored big with the not-at-all racist Short Circuit movies and *batteries not included. And less so with everyone’s once-favourite TV dad turned Ghost Dad (Wild Wild West would be the real killer for them, though). You get a sense of their comedic territory, and when you look at some of the other quirky mid-budget fare that failed to catch a break thereafter – Lake Placid, Arachnophobia, Eight Legged FreaksTremors’ deft touch becomes all the more impressive. They blamed the marketing for the movie’s failure; certainly, I only heard of it the weekend of its US release (but was instantly graboided with a hankering to see it).

Burt Gummer: A few household chemicals in the proper proportions.

Underwood’s flair for the action and effects is definitely part of the formula for success. The budget was low, but the creature props look great, and the Jaws approach of “suggest don’t show” (until you do, at which point, it’s much better than Bruce) works effectively for the early kills. And indeed, for anything requiring someone or something to be sucked into or dragged across the ground.

Valentine McKee: Can you fly, you sucker? Can you fly?

As important, though, are the characters. And Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon make a supremely likeable couple of handymen, Earl Bass and Valentine McKee, on the verge of leaving Perfection, Nevada for good… until they find they can’t, owing to the Graboid incursion. Ward had a stellar 1990, with this and Miami Blues (less so Henry & June, perhaps, but it was nevertheless a trio of leads, and thus a level of success he wouldn’t have a sniff of again; I say success, it’s surely no coincidence that neither three were hits and he wasn’t exactly in demand for main protagonist duties after that). His easy-going earthiness makes a great foil for Bacon’s wirier hotshot (check out Ward’s early reaction to Bacon finally hitting a nail). The latter, naturally, has a love interest (Finn Carter’s grad science Student Rhonda, most notable for how shamelessly the makers ensure she loses her trousers), towards whom he must overcome his own particular hang ups about perfection (geddit).

Burt Gummer: Broke into the wrong goddamn rec room, didn’t you, you bastard!

There’s also Michael Gross, ex of Family Ties and providing a rare legit survivalist hero in the movies as Burt Gummer; he’d return to the role in all six sequels and the 2003 TV series, which is some dedication. Or desperation. Probably the most satisfying scene revolves around the carnage he and equally survivalist wife Heather (Reba McEntire) unleash on a hapless Graboid that bursts into their basement. As if it needs stressing, there are no concerns about conservation voiced here (something that would perversely blight Jurassic Park a few years later, and prevent it from having any real bite).

The writers have some fun with possible causes of the menace: “mutations caused by radiation”, the government built “a big surprise for the Russians”, and “I vote for outer space. No way these are local boys”. Meanwhile, Rhonda asserts there’s “nothing like it in the fossil record” (it being Caederus Mexicana). Which seems strange. Has she never encountered a Mongolian Death Worm?

Earl Bass: People? Hell, National Geographic.

Also present is genre favourite Victor Wong (to be seen in Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness in the previous few years), Ariana Richards (Jurassic Park) and Robert Jayne (stoner Johnny Applegate in the same year’s forgotten gem Meet the Applegates). Tremors builds with a sure pace and knows its territory, laying down a siege while killing off a few additional, assorted dispensable characters. There are just enough Graboids (four) that the threat delivers gradations of risk-reward along the way. And at just over ninety minutes, the movie also knows not to avoid bloat. It’s easy to see why Tremors has earned such cult appeal; there are even unapologetic advocates of some, if not all, of the sequels.


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