In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1990 and seven from 2000 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column). The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films that were among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
When you’re on the verge of welcoming a new human life into the world, emotions can run hot. So perhaps some slack can be cut to a then 32-year-old Kevin Norwood Bacon as he bemoaned his very involvement in Tremors to his pregnant wife, Kyra Sedgwick.
The 1980s began with Bacon getting skewered in the seminal slasher film Friday the 13th, evolved into dramatic ensemble work for Diner, and, with Footloose, established him as a feather-haired force of nature. But after the ill-advised bicycle-messenger movie Quicksilver, the ho-hum John Hughes dramedy She’s Having a Baby and Criminal Law, a thriller in which he (and not co-star Gary Oldman) was the stalking psychopath, Bacon’s career was reeling.
By the decade’s dusk, well … even you might question the path that brought you to headline a film about giant underground worms — colloquially called Graboids — that devour the denizens of a desert town. As only someone unaware that soulless payday swill like R.I.P.D. or Death Sentence awaited him could do, Bacon legitimately wondered: Had it really come to this?
In time, Bacon learned to stop worrying and love this bomb (which turned a paltry profit of $5 million), calling it one of his most enjoyable filming experiences. So did audiences … eventually; once it hit home video, Tremors became one of 1990’s most rented titles — purportedly tripling its $16 million box-office take. Perhaps people felt less shame shelling out a couple bucks for such a thing as Tremors than budgeting for a night out with a meal, parking and snacks.
Even for those who generally roll their eyes at creature features, it’s hard to not grin and give in to the buoyant, boisterous, bloody and, yes, brainy energy of Tremors. Along with the mid-budgeted Arachnophobia, it’s the sort of B-movie bedrock over which the more sophisticated and costly thrills of Jurassic Park would be built a few years later (and not just because it also co-stars Ariana Richards). You can also see its DNA recycled in the ’90s latter half in Deep Rising, Lake Placid, Anaconda and Deep Blue Sea.
As with Bacon, the 1980s had also been good to Tremors screenwriters Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson, thanks to the success of their work on sleeper hits like Short Circuit and *batteries not included. Maddock and Wilson hatched their concept for Tremors earlier in the 1980s, while working with director pal Ron Underwood on educational videos. While gathering footage atop a boulder, Maddock and Wilson wondered: What if there were large, hungry “land sharks” waiting for them down below? Alongside Underwood, they workshopped the idea into worms and landed a deal at Universal that allowed Underwood to make his feature-film debut.
Originally set for a November 1989 release, Tremors was slapped with an R-rating for language — prompting Underwood, Maddock and Wilson to cut back on the cursing for more commercial viability. Nothing like doing the TV censors’ work for them by inserting “motherhumper” on their behalf, right? Without that PG-13, though, Tremors would have never become a cottage industry for Maddock and Wilson.
There have since been five direct-to-video Tremors sequels and one prequel, all starring Michael Gross. He plays Burt Gummer, a prickly doomsday prepper turned Graboid expert. Gross apparently went right from the last episode of NBC’s landmark sitcom Family Ties into this, and it’s easy to see why Gross sought to prove his range by ditching dovish Steven Keaton for blowhard Burt. Safe to say probably even Gross is amazed that he’s gotten 30 years out of the part. (Maddock and Wilson initially pictured Chuck Norris and Linda Hamilton as the Gummers; instead, country singer Reba McEntire made her film debut as Burt’s wife, Heather.)
Wilson directed Gross in the second and fourth Tremors films — the latter an 1889-set prequel with Gross as Burt’s ancestor. Then Maddock directed him in the third. Maddock and Wilson went on to create a 2003 TV series (co-starring Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris) that premiered to huge ratings on the Sci-Fi Channel before fizzling out over the course of a single season.
Although a contemporary TV resurrection at SyFy — with Bacon and director Vincenzo Natali of Hannibal fame — never came to pass, Universal Pictures persists with Tremors through its 1440 division. It’s their straight-to-DVD arm that also cranks out sequels to such cash-cow franchises for the studio as … uh … Bulletproof and Jarhead. This is without any of the original players. Maddock and Wilson haven’t done any screen work since 2004. And after directing the Oscar-winning hit City Slickers a year after Tremors, Underwood found his opportunities similarly diminished — culminating in Eddie Murphy’s mega-budget sci-fi comedy atrocity The Adventures of Pluto Nash before a retreat to episodic TV.
In 2015, Universal 1440 relaunched Tremors with Jamie Kennedy starring opposite Gross. A forthcoming installment, Island Fury, will introduce Jon Heder (of Napoleon Dynamite) into the saga. Of all this, I’ve ventured only into 1996’s Tremors 2: Aftershocks, in which the visual effects are so bad that the Graboids seem to emerge with bodies already inside them and Bacon’s character is swapped for a dude who looks like a touring Sugar Ray keyboardist. Some intermittently inventive, and gross, evolutionary surprises are wasted on a perilously interminable setup. A giant man-eating worm movie shouldn’t need an hour to warm up.
Thankfully the OG is effervescent from the get-go and, at 95 minutes, the shortest in the series. From cockamamie camera placement to practical effects and editorial rhythms that sometimes recall Sam Raimi at his rowdiest, Tremors plays like a Weird Tales spin on those ubiquitous Bugle Boy jeans ads in the desert.
Valentine “Val” McKee (Bacon) and Earl Bassett (journeyman emeritus Fred Ward) are a coupla Coen-esque shitkickers more or less living out of their truck in Perfection, Nevada — established 1902, population 14. Their big dreams amount to one day getting in People magazine and peddling their wares in a town with a population that has at least one zero at the end. Said wares? A willingness to take on such menial handiwork as laying linoleum or garbage disposal — which is to say tossing someone’s garbage, not installing an appliance. Val and Earl’s motto? Plan ahead to avoid doing work right now. They always talk about leaving. But after one particularly eruptive septic snafu, the boys are ready to vamoose.
On their way out of town, they discover a fellow resident stiffened atop an electrical tower and clutching his rifle. Died of dehydration, the town doctor says … but why wouldn’t he climb down? Later that night, the doctor discovers why when he and his wife are dragged into the sand along with their station wagon (depicted as a hilarious miniature effect of disappearing lights).
The next day, Val and Earl find a pen full of shredded sheep and their shepherd’s head severed on the ground. Bacon’s reaction to discovering this decapitation — and his certainty that a serial killer has come to Perfection — is marvelous. It’s also emblematic of Tremors’ side-hustle from the creature stuff to elevate panic to a point where it does kind of feel like karmic retribution for Val and Earl trying to leave, casting them as something like odd-job Jobs. One of the few harsh profanities to stay in Tremors comes after Val and Earl dupe one Graboid into colliding with concrete, and Bacon sells it as a celebration of something that has gone right for a change. (Perhaps a well-edited-together inside goof on the PG-13, the typically cool, calm and collected Earl apologizes mid-swear and then keep cussing.)
Meanwhile, graduate student Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter) is in town to check her university’s seismology equipment — which hasn’t transmitted a peep for three years … until now. Of course, that’s because it’s not a small-town murderer but the giant, slimy Graboids tunneling underground. Their activities have also knocked out all phone lines and blocked the only road out of town. Are the Graboids a mutation? A Russian plot? Who cares? Tremors ditches the idea of allegorical anxieties to focus on a fun frenzy of feeding and fleeing.
Val, Earl and Rhonda take point in figuring a way out alongside the people of Perfection. That dwindling population includes Burt and Heather, introduced arguing authenticity of hollow-point bullets they’ve ordered from Walter Chang (Victor Wong of Big Trouble in Little China). Chang would appear to only run the town’s general store. Maddock and Wilson drop in some subtle sight gags that suggest he really runs the town. An entrepreneur undaunted by the possibility he could be swallowed whole, Chang continually attempts to cash in — coining the term Graboids and fashioning a ramshackle paid-photo stand with a sliced-off Graboid tongue.
Indeed, Maddock and Wilson give nearly all of the main and supporting characters believable quirks that go a long way toward sustaining a rooting interest. Burt and Heather are no exception. A grimmer, meaner film would paint them as buffoons bound for the beasts’ bellies rather than voices of reason who insist on teamwork as the only way to survive. Tremors neither condones nor condemns the Gummers’ heightened state of paranoia, instead employing it to set up a fantastic extended sequence where they unleash their considerable firepower on a Graboid.
At the midway point, Tremors grooves into a charmingly quaint, budget-conscious series of grotesqueries — from whole-body feedings to slime trails on vehicles and abrupt Graboid demises. (Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis do a fine job with the Graboids’ design.) Yes, someone punches a Graboid. Yes, the smartest one has a nickname — Stumpy, to be precise. Yes, one is blown up with a rainfall of industrial-sized viscera that looks to have been dipped in sweet potato purée.
What remains quintessentially cool about Tremors is its mercenary escalation of tactics on both sides. Stumpy ain’t dumb. Neither are the people of Perfection. Both of them keep pivoting to new countermeasures. You know Stumpy will be crushed like a rollercoaster-sized cream horn dropped from a mile up. But when that moment arrives, as it is with the rest of the film, it does so with more confidence and creativity than Bacon might have expected … but also the perfect amount of camp.