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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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Tremors (1990, Ron Underwood)

When I first rediscovered Tremors, around 1995, it was on laserdisc. In the 1990s, Universal was one of the finest laserdisc companies, probably the finest. They put out a special edition of Tremors and, remembering that I liked it when I saw it on video (everyone saw Tremors on video), I bought it. Probably from the expensive place next to this movie theater… laserdiscs were hard to find in suburbia. At that time, somewhat due to the mad-love for their laserdiscs, but also because Universal still made generally acceptable films back then, I actually believed Tremors was a willful decision–a film to invoke fond memories of Universal’s 1950s sci-fi films. Tonight, I watched Tremors over It Came From Outer Space, also set in the desert….

Tremors, quite nicely, holds up. Perfectly acted, amazingly well-constructed, it’s a shame the team behind it hasn’t gone on to more. They actually went on to more Tremors, during Universal’s 1990s direct-to-video rush… Sequels that are all right. The first film being made for cheap probably didn’t hurt the following films from being cheap either.

I’ve had Robert McKee on the brain all day, reading him for the first time today, all about the deconstruction of a scene. Tremors doesn’t work like that. It has some scenes, sure, lots of them, but it’s mostly action and it’s almost all in one setting. I’m not going to sit around and pick at it–it’s too good–but, for me, thinking about McKee, it’s interesting. I’m reading McKee for fiction writing and McKee writes for screenwriting. So how come he doesn’t work for Tremors? It is–arguably–one of the more lastingly popular films to emerge in the last fifteen years….

Anyway, if you haven’t seen it in awhile, check it out again. I always watch Tremors after dark, though. Don’t know why, it’s just one of those films that you watch after dark.

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).