A devilishly enjoyable creature feature, Tremors has understandably endured as a cult classic over the decades on account of its solid blend of comedy, horror, believable special effects and shrewd writing. In a nutshell, Tremors is a throwback to the B-grade monsters movies of old, but with a contemporary feel and a more agreeable tone. Director Ron Underwood also achieves the coveted “afternoon matinee” charm, rendering this a flat-out fun motion picture no matter your mood. It’s one of few films that achieves an ideal balance of comedy and horror, and it’s also one of the best PG-13, family-friendly horrors you will ever see.
A pair of hillbilly handymen, Valentine McKee (Kevin Bacon) and Earl Bassett (Fred Ward) make their living carrying out various jobs here and there. Heading into the flyspeck town of Perfection, Nevada in search of work, they meet graduation student Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter), an expert in seismology who begins recording some strange readings underground. People soon begin to go missing and a few dead bodies show up, putting the locals on edge. Investigating the matter, McKee and Bassett discover an array of giant wormlike creatures called Graboids living under the ground, with sharp teeth and huge, gaping maws. Able to take down cars and break into structures, the denizens of Perfection – including gun-toting hillbilly couple Burt (Michael Gross) and Heather (Reba McEntire) – are forced to hide on the roofs of any available building, seeking a way to destroy the threat or escape to safer pastures before they fall victim to starvation, dehydration or Graboid consumption.
Rather than simply imitating their influences, screenwriters S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock improve upon ’50s creature features by introducing interesting and resourceful characters. None of the folks here are as brainless as one would expect from the genre: they actually grow to learn about the Graboids, and start thinking and strategising, much like normal people would do in such a situation. Added to this, the dialogue is strong throughout, full of witty bantering and clever exchanges. Especially strong is the amusing interplay between McKee and Bassett. The pair feel like long-time friends, and the script gives them quirks to heighten their personality (they solve arguments with games of “Rock, Paper, Scissors”). Another strong element of Tremors is that it doesn’t feel the need to reveal everything about these giant worms, leaving their origins a complete mystery. Most monster movies are saddled with tiresome exposition, but Tremors is played with more smarts. Rhonda may be the trademark scientist of the piece, but her theories are terse and the discussions make sense. Consequently, the film is endowed with a snappy pace.
Tremors also transcends the monster movie genre by creating real tension and employing a sense of creativity in shot construction. Underwood does not show the big menaces immediately, instead using Jaws-like POV shots, building curiosity about the worms. The monsters are revealed slowly, too; Underwood teases us with fleeting glimpses at first before giving us the full picture. And when the creatures do emerge, they look highly convincing. The Graboids were executed through practical animatronics, giving them a tangible disposition than computers cannot replicate. Better yet, the illusion still stands today. Underwood also gets the tone right; Tremors is silly and funny, but not a dumb parody. The film has a sense of humour, but the narrative is taken seriously as well. The Graboids do post a threat, leading to some intense confrontational sequences and shocking kills. It’s the fun-loving sensibility which gives the picture its charm, derived from the amusing chatter and a few awesomely ridiculous scenes (Burt and Heather do not take kindly to a monster intruding into their firearm-laden basement).
Cast chemistry represents another strong asset of Tremors, as the actors give admirable life to the delightful screenplay. Front and centre are Bacon and Ward, who make for a great comedic team, bouncing off one another beautifully. The pair’s repartee keeps the film fun to watch throughout, and it’s hard to imagine any other actors being this effective. However, Bacon and Ward are pretty much shown up by Michael Gross, who was given the best character and the best dialogue to sink his teeth into. Equally good is country singer McEntire, making her film debut here as Burt’s feisty wife. Young Ariana Richards also appears here, getting off rather easy compared to what she was about to go through in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park just three years later.
Naturally, Tremors has its flaws – some of the music is a bit chintzy, a pole vaulting sequence feels a bit awkward, and a kiss before the end credits is cheesy as hell – but it holds up surprisingly well for an early ’90s creature feature (it’s aged far more gracefully than Anaconda). It might not have been much of a box office hit when initially released, but it picked up steam as people discovered it on home video and cable TV, leading to a handful of sequels and a television show. This is due to the fact that Tremors is hard to dislike, assuming you enjoy having a good time. Without being an award winner, it’s a dynamite comedy-horror which is worth your time and never gets old.