TREMORS begins with a man peeing off a cliff and ends with a freeze-framed kiss set to a Reba McEntire song. A) Movies that commence with urination are a very limited sub-genre, best represented by WATERWORLD — appropriately enough — and B) If movies concluding in Reba McEntire tunes are their own genre, I’m not the guy to ask. But these two bullet points would seem to disqualify TREMORS from being considered a horror movie with much real capacity to shock or disturb. It’s more of a good old-fashioned creature-feature – albeit a PG-13 creature feature where the monsters are a little less cartoonish than the human beings they are looking to eat up.
Believe it or not, I only recently watched TREMORS for the first time. I’ve always been aware of it, at least since it hit home video and found its huge cult popularity, but I guess I had no idea exactly how popular it’s become. Until a few minutes before sitting down to write about it, I didn’t know that there have been three sequels (the latter two direct-to-video) and a TV show, which ran for one season of 13 episodes on the Sci Fi Channel (back before SciFi douched itself up into “SyFy”). I hope you’ll forgive my ignorance as we proceed.
TREMORS stars Kevin Bacon as a young man named Valentine McKee, and it is he whom we are first introduced during his private moment. The peeing, I mean. Both the cliff and the peeing are elements that will return later in the movie. TREMORS remains one of the few horror movies I have seen that takes the time to address the details of bathrooming during a monster siege. Sometimes you just have to go pee, no matter how inconvenient the timing. Sometimes nature calls, even while nature is attacking.
Back to the set-up: Val and his buddy Earl Basset (the great character actor Fred Ward) are handymen for a tiny Nevada town called Perfection. They’re frustrated with their going-nowhere existence and are just about to blow town for good when they recognize an old man who is at the top of an electrical tower, seemingly hanging on for dear life. Turns out the old man died up there. The guys wonder what could have scared him so bad that he climbed a tower and stayed up there so long he died of dehydration.
One of the coolest things about this movie is that the main characters find out almost immediately what exactly is happening (it’s almost as if they saw the theatrical poster!), and from there the movie is a constantly-inventive string of set-pieces that find them trying to stay alive while the ground is literally being pulled away from their feet. The Graboids are a group of carnivorous worms that travel underground, burrowing up to the surface to swallow up their prey, which is almost always humans, occasionally sheep. There are only four Graboids in this movie, but obviously there are more underneath the earth, or there would never have been enough for three sequels and a TV show.
According to the movie’s Wikipedia page, the town of Perfection only has fourteen residents, and half of those fourteen are eaten up in the early goings. Then we’re left with a potential menu that includes Val, Earl, a visiting geology student/ potential love interest named Rhonda, a guy named Nestor who is so likely to get eaten that in high school he was voted Most Likely To Get Eaten, a supremely obnoxious teenager named Melvin, a mother in purple overalls (purple overalls?) and her young daughter (Ariana Richards from JURASSIC PARK). Don’t let me end this paragraph without mentioning the extended cameo by one of my favorite character actors of all time, Victor Wong (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, THE GOLDEN CHILD, PRINCE OF DARKNESS.)
One thing I’m not happy about — MAJOR SPOILER ALERT — is that Victor Wong is one of the few notable characters to get eaten up. In this movie, he plays the Vincent Gardenia role from LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS — that is, he’s the lovably cranky old man who owns the store and is eventually swallowed by a creature which looks like a cross between a penis and a vagina. Unlike Mister Mushnik, however, he doesn’t even get much of a chance to sing. Meanwhile, the little girl who annoys everyone by hopping around provoking the Graboids on a creaky rusty pogo stick makes it all the way through to the end. I mean, I know this is a PG-13 but even Spielberg had the balls to let Alex Kintner get chomped. It’s not like I actively wanted to see a kid get eaten (well, maybe if it were Melvin), but I’d rather see that happen if the price of sparing children is going to be losing Victor Wong.
The only way I can justify Victor Wong’s death in TREMORS is to imagine it as an unofficial sequel to BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, wherein his character Egg Shen from that movie, in exile from San Francisco, moves his store to Perfection, Nevada, where he once again comes in contact with that unearthly subterranean beast he had always been previously been able to vanquish.
- “You will come out no more.”
Anyway, that’s as close to writing fan fiction as I’ll ever get, and I’m moving on now, because I haven’t even gotten to the franchise’s marquee character: His name is Burt Gummer, and he is played by fan-favorite Michael Gross, otherwise best known as the dad from TV’s “Family Ties“. After TREMORS, you will believe that a man best known for playing a soft-spoken, liberal-leaning paterfamilias on a 1980s sitcom found new fame by playing a ranting, raving survivalist gun nut in a series of monster movies about subterranean creatures which look like a cross between a penis and a vagina.
Burt and his wife Heather (the aforementioned Reba McEntire) are actually pretty entertaining characters, particularly in a scene where they double-handedly defeat one of the Graboids after it chews into their rec room. The two of them maintain their composure as they turn towards the buffet of handguns, rifles, and automatic weapons hanging on the wall, and spend what seems like five minutes of screen time pouring rounds into the monster until it finally sputters out. The Gummers are Sarah Palin’s kind of Americans. They’re ugly-American gun-nut assholes. But they’re so durn lovable! Shucks!
It got me thinking, how in movies there are some archetypes that are made out to be likable when they probably wouldn’t be in real life. This happens a lot in horror movies. In this case, Michael Gross’s Bert Gummer is certainly one of the more memorable characters in TREMORS, and in fact he went on to take over the franchise from stars Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward (“Michael Gross In: TREMORS 4: THE LEGEND BEGINS!!!“), but you wouldn’t be so happy if he were your next-door neighbor, and you really wouldn’t be happy if he were setting public policy. But on screen, he’s a good guy to know. Such is the strange, wonderful, democratic magic of movies. I mean, if these things made any sense, Arnold Schwarzenegger wouldn’t ever have become a star. Don’t look to me for explanations. But that’s beside the point. This is not the kind of thing where the hungry worm creatures turn out to be a profound social allegory.
Gummer/Gummer Campaign Photo, 2020
TREMORS is a lot of fun. I’d say it well deserves the popularity it enjoys. It’s a barnstormer, silly and raucous. The tone is set from the start, by the lively and profane lead performances by Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward — and how is it that Fred Ward hasn’t ever been cast in a Coen Brothers movie, by the way? — and continues through an energetic pace set by director Ron Underwood, who is now a TV director (kind of a waste). The Graboids are great monster villains, and the various ways in which they’re thwarted by our heroes are creative and funny. The movie isn’t scary for a minute, but not all monster movies have to be created equally on that front. I’ll take high energy and fun characters over moodiness and despair most days of the week. Definitely on a Thursday night.
TREMORS is playing at midnight in Los Angeles, courtesy of Cinefamily’s month-long United States Of Horror celebration.
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