October Horrorshow: Tremors

I’ve written about this before, but my old man had an affinity for bad cinema. Especially the sci-fi variety. It didn’t matter what it was or how bad it was. If it had something to do with space or monsters, he had a hard time looking away. Good sci-fi got the wheels turning, while bad sci-fi brought out his guttural chuckling and whooping. If it was too bad to be funny, then came groans and profanity. Hmm...kind of like me.

I remember when Tremors came out, way back in 1990. I went to see it with the old man. We were expecting some real garbage, only worth watching for mirth and schadenfreude, but, as happens more often than one would think, it turned out that the shitty movie wasn’t shitty. As a matter of fact, Tremors is quite good.

Directed by Ron Underwood, Tremors follows the residents of lonely Perfection, Nevada — an isolated outpost somewhere in the Silver State. The setting is great. In real life, middle of nowhere Nevada is a sight to behold. So many people have tried to make a go of it there, and when they finally gave up, the trail of detritus they leave behind is fascinating. Sun and wind scorched, there’s little water to aid corrosion. For someone like me who finds beauty in civilizational remains, the high desert of the American west is a treasure trove.

And the places that people still occupy can be even more fascinating. All alone out in the desert, far from not just the prying eyes of society but also from real opportunity, it’s a mystery how people get by, but they do, in their way. Junk piles up and properties take on a haggard look, but decades go by and places like Perfection hang on.

Perfection isn’t real. It’s just a set, but I’ve seen plenty of places on some long, long drives in the desert that are real, and are completely interchangeable with Perfection. But, the whole point of Perfection isn’t to showcase the strangeness of the desert; it’s to provide an isolated locale for monster attacks. And the filmmakers came up with some good ones.

The town of Perfection, population fourteen, has come under attack by prehistoric monsters that live underground and hunt prey by the vibrations they make walking around on the surface. They’re sort of like gigantic worms with snakes for tongues and jaws like a bony bird of prey. They’ve been previously unknown, but when they start to eat some people here and there, the townsfolk decide they have to flee before things get worse. But, the only road out of the valley in which the town is located is blocked by a landslide. So, tough luck.

The two main characters of the film are Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward), a pair of Laurel and Hardy local handymen who will take on any job, no matter how dirty or disgusting. It’d be tempting to call them a couple of losers, except for the fact that the townsfolk seem to depend on them for just about everything. And when the shit hits the fan, these two are not only the first to grasp the situation, but react with poise and leadership. It also helps that they’re a funny pair together.

Other residents in town include the owner of the general store, Walter Chang (Victor Wong), a grad student in the area to monitor seismographs, Rhona (Finn Carter), and Burt and Heather Gummer (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire). Those two are a pair every bit as interesting as Val and Earl. They’re a pair of survivalists that have chosen to live in Perfection precisely because of its isolation and defensible nature. They have a basement full of guns and provisions, all ready to ride out World War III, should it come. Strangely enough, this couple is much more relevant in today’s political climate than they were twenty years ago. Gross and McEntire toy around with the idea of being paranoid gun nuts to effect, totally embracing the joke. They came pretty damned close to outshining Val and Earl as the stars of the film.

As for those two, Bacon and Ward played off of each other well. Ward was a little overmatched by Bacon, who really shined as Val, but it didn’t matter. After all, Tremors is as much a comedy as it is a monster flick. A little bit of comedic timing does much to gloss over some flat deliveries.

Tremors is one of those films that, on its surface, has just a preposterous premise, but manages to pull it off. Reign of Fire tried and missed. Night of the Lepus certainly fell short. But Tremors made it work. Who knew?