Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward star in TREMORS, directed by Ron Underwood for Universal Pictures.

Tremors (1990, Ron Underwood)

Tremors is a unique film. Even with the derivative setting–the isolated desert town reminds of 1950s Universal sci-fi pictures–and whole “Jaws with giant worms” aspect, it’s a monster slash thriller slash comedy. It starts a comedy and ends one, with S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock’s script full of comedic dialogue, in addition to all the thriller elements. The attention to character is important, but the entire production is high on itself. From casting Michael Gross, who–at this point in his career–was singularly familiar as the “Family Ties” dad, as a survivalist to the ornate effects (the use of miniatures is incredibly well done), it’s certainly under appreciated (and I make this statement about a film popular enough on video to spawn a television series thirteen years after first release).

Wilson and Maddock’s script is economical–if it weren’t for director Underwood’s use of crane shots and the special effects, one would think Tremors was an independent production. The film runs a little over ninety minutes and I’d guess the monsters are hinted at, then revealed, then encountered in the first twenty. Maybe twenty-three. But in the same amount of time, the script introduces all of the film’s characters and establishes the rather important rapport between Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward. Bacon’s probably the lead (since he’s the one incompetently romancing Finn Carter to humorous effect), but Ward’s just as important. Their back and forth makes Tremors enjoyable.

The characters–not just Gross and Reba McEntire’s survivalists, but also Victor Wong’s store owner and Bobby Jacoby’s incredibly obnoxious teenager (the film never really addresses how Jacoby’s living on his own or where his parents are, which gets a little distracting on repeat viewings)–are all perfect. They’re fun to spend time with (Tremors is one of those Tarantino “hang out” movies).

Underwood keeps his camera moving a lot of the time, creating a frantic tone. The viewer and the characters discover things at the same pace and Underwood facilitates it well. In the quieter, static scenes, Underwood’s comedic touches come out. But he can also get in the grandiose landscape–Tremors occasionally feels like a Western, or at least like it’s supposed to feel a little like a Western. Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski and composer Ernest Troost really help Underwood in making Tremors feel bigger than a lower budgeted, ninety minute monster movie. The film really draws the viewer in and holds him or her for the running time.

Tremors is a modern classic. It occurs to me the “modern classic” might not be based so much on box office gross or artistic import, but on rental returns. Tremors was a video hit. Strangely, DVD hits don’t produce “modern classics,” as Netflix has stamped out the communal video store atmosphere where film discovery could still occur.

But Tremors is a good film and it’s more important for its quality than its footnote in film history (even if it’s got one of the last PG-13 uses of the f-word).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Underwood; screenplay by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, based on a story by Wilson, Maddock and Underwood; director of photography, Alexander Gruszynski; edited by O. Nicholas Brown; music by Ernest Troost; production designer, Ivo Cristante; produced by Maddock and Wilson; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Kevin Bacon (Valentine McKee), Fred Ward (Earl Bassett), Finn Carter (Rhonda LeBeck), Michael Gross (Burt Gummer), Reba McEntire (Heather Gummer), Bobby Jacoby (Melvin Plug), Charlotte Stewart (Nancy Sterngood), Tony Genaro (Miguel), Ariana Richards (Mindy Sterngood), Richard Marcus (Nestor), Victor Wong (Walter Chang), Sunshine Parker (Edgar), Michael Dan Wagner (Old Fred), Conrad Bachmann (Dr. Jim) and Bibi Besch (Megan).


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