Gather around, children. In the Before Times — before the Great Rona Pandemic ruined everything that brought us joy — we used to go into big, dark boxes with a bunch of strangers and watch moving pictures together! In those times, movies that didn’t get shown in the big stranger containers went direct to video, and everyone hated them because they were cheap or silly or starred Tara Reid. But now, everything is direct to video, which means that one of my most beloved direct-to-video franchises is just as legitimate as a Martin Scorsese film!
Let us rejoice in the small pleasures that Rona still allows us to have. Now, go and wash your hands, mask up and let me tell you about the best of the Tremors franchise, which began with the third best sandworm-based movie of all time. Afterwards, maybe you’ll catch Tremors: Shrieker Island which is due out this October as, you guessed it, a video-on-demand title.
Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell (2018)
The Law of Sequels necessarily implies diminishing returns, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at how widespread my disappointment was in the latest installment of Tremors. But I get disappointed a lot less in movies now. Why? Because the ones people say are so bad they’re good or are guilty pleasures are, well, just good pleasures. Movies are meant to entertain. And everything is going to shit, so if watching The Room for the 75th time is what brings you joy, just do it without apology.
But some movies aren’t for everyone, and in a way, maybe that’s what makes them special, too, in the way that your kids’ art projects aren’t for everyone. But each of us makes room on our brain refrigerators for even the worst technically executed labors of love … because that’s what love is.
A Cold Day isn’t for me, though. I don’t love it. And the disappointment just hits different after finding such tremendous comfort in the others.
What Tremors did well for so long was carving out originality within its own lore. Despite moving the narrative to a colder climate that puts series stalwart and doomsday prepare Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) next door to his most dreaded enemy — the government — A Cold Day seems to find the franchise experiencing self-doubt, opting to focus more on action sequences. The cost is that the filmmakers give up nearly everything that’s worked in the past in order to display quick-cut exposition scenes delivered with monotone emotions to get to the action quicker. This installment even washes its hands of the arctic premise pretty quickly.
Tremors, we love you for you. We loved you when the Graboids were fake-looking, rubber-tube monsters in the 1990s and all we really saw was moving sand. You don’t need CGI. You are beautiful just the way you are.
Tremors: The Series (2003)
During my latest rewatch, I thought it was such a shame that they didn’t try to make Tremors a TV show. The challenge would be in subverting the novelty of the story and trying to find a way to make it appealing over the long term.
But, lo! Observe! For 13 episodes, an attempt was made. Christopher Lloyd and Dean Norris make appearances, too! Also that kid who had a crush on Dharma from Dharma & Greg!
I’ll be honest, though. I made it halfway through the first episode and gave up. The 45-minute episodes were likely intentional to bring focus to the non-monster elements, but the pilot plods along without too much excitement and with too many contrived risks. While the series may have evolved, it most likely suffered from the dual-genre nature of its source material. Its reluctance in the first episode to pick a genre as a baseline left it feeling lost.
Tremors 3: Back to Perfection (2001)
The third installment may have bid adieu to Fred Ward, but it brought back a franchise record for repeat cast members from the first movie and, in many ways, is the spiritual successor to the original. The only reason Back to Perfection finds itself so low on this list is because of the absolute quality of story and lore in the remaining films.
The plot centers on Burt returning to Perfection, where he finds a complacent populace who’s sure that the worst of their experiences with the Graboids are over, complete with an outsider staging fake attacks to lure tourist dollars.
However, little do that know that El Blanco roams the territory — an overplayed reference to Moby Dick, but who cares? The film introduces Ass Blasters, answering humanity’s demand to put wings on everything, finds a natural way to explain their mechanisms and the overall Graboid reproduction process, and resolves the conflict in the most Tremors way possible — a potato gun.
Tremors 2: Aftershocks (1996)
Where many sequels falter, Aftershocks endures. The original film was only a minor hit, but the sequel was slated to feature the return of Kevin Bacon (who ultimately declined to film Apollo 13, big mistake) and Reba McEntire (who turned it down because she has a music career, I guess).
The budget was slashed by 75% and moved to direct-to-video, starting the rich tradition we still know today, but the original script was still used and Fred Ward shows up looking like someone I wouldn’t mind calling Daddy.
Shriekers — the above-ground offspring of Graboids — are introduced, serving two purposes. It sufficiently complicates matters for our heroes by exploiting all the strengths they used in the first movie, and it crystalizes the story while not being so complicated as to completely abandon the original premise. Most sequels just try to capitalize on what people liked most in the first film. Aftershocks is a labor of love and wants to do its own thing.
I love it. The writing is pretty clever, too, and it shows flashes of the best of the Tremors franchise. This is especially true when Burt shoots a high-powered gun that, while killing its target, also disables a vehicle. Horror and comedy both benefit from the use of irony, and Aftershocks satisfies while avoiding humorless schlock.
Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (2004)
OK. This is where the countdown gets interesting. The next two entries should not be so high on the list. Even Tremors fans probably start tuning out after Back to Perfection. But they tried something a little different here, looking at the whole from a different angle under a different light. So hopefully, it allows you to see Tremors for the first time.
I think you just need to find a space that’s comfortable and vulnerable, then just shut your eyes and go there and let The Legend Begins meet you on the other side.
The Legend Begins could have failed as horribly as a TV sitcom’s shark-jumping time-travel episode, but it doesn’t. It expands the lore of the series and has fun doing so.
Billy Drago plays the hired gun employed by Burt Gummer’s ancestor, Hiram (also played by Michael Gross), and it bodes well when even that hired gun, the least likable character in the group, gets enough good writing that his life means something to the viewer. It makes the risks in the plot seem risky.
The Legend Begins touches on honor, loyalty and the pitfalls of capitalism all while just having fun. Look at that gun! There’s a character named Big Horse Johnson for Chrissakes. The movie expands Tremors lore without making it feel like contrived exposition. (I’m looking at you, Cold Day.)
Tremors 5: Bloodlines (2015)
Yes, I think the Law of Sequels holds. Yes, this movie is one of two in the Tremors franchise that features Jamie Kennedy. Yes, this all doesn’t matter here. Tremors doesn’t ask for much, but it gives you everything you could want in its fifth installment.
Bloodlines is sadistic and raw. Tremors has always opted for the PG feel, even with direct-to-video releases. But there’s more blood per square inch in the aptly named Bloodlines than perhaps all the other movies combined. The best death? Villainous second banana Johan Breyer being felled by a flaming and rapidly descending African Ass Blaster.
Burt, with newly discovered son Travis B. Welker (Kennedy), heads to South Africa for the first non-New World adventure. The setting not only expands the scope of the Graboid mythos but ties it to the oral history of another culture in less-than-problematic ways. Surprisingly, Bloodlines could easily be watched with a neocolonial reading in mind as the duplicitious Erich Van Wyk seeks to exploit the wildlife of South Africa for monetary gain.
Maybe I came in with low expectations after The Legend Begins. But in many ways, Bloodlines expands where the original Tremors didn’t explore. The Graboids are disrupting lives in violent ways, both directly and by inviting poachers in. Burt and Travis’s relationship is a little forced, and it’s the only big-sized comedic relief in what had been a more subtle horror-comedy franchise, but the relationships of the supporting cast with each other more than make up for it. And Travis’s Pitch Black–esque battle with a monster in a guts-covered cave satiates those who have grown to enjoy the franchise’s lowbrow elements.
Tremors: The Series (2018)
Oh, my heart. What might have been. They did the impossible and got Kevin Bacon back. They got Kevin Bacon back as his original character, made it into a television series and it was beautifully shot, played up the horror, and it seemed like it was going to focus on Val and living in the past and …they just didn’t do it. They just left it. So now I have to deal with living with Shrieker Island, I guess.
Maybe it would have eventually sucked, too. As Spock said, “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”
That trailer, though. We can dream, friends. We can dream.
The original is nearly always going to be the best. It introduces the plot, the background, the characters and the rules. We have no specific expectations when we get started watching something new. But once the sequels start rolling in, we’ve been primed to expect what was unexpected in the first and must prepare for disappointment if the ideals we entered with aren’t met.
Tremors has a head start with its ability to be mysterious, and the movie almost starts off in the Stephen King sort of way. Or maybe even in the old monster movie sort of way, but the monster is evil bunnies or giant grasshoppers. By the end, this is The Floor is Lava: Nevada Edition.
For fans of the franchise, this isn’t just where it all began. This may have been what got us climbing up on furniture with siblings or what made us start a secret handshake or brief bet with a best friend or, I don’t know, maybe start listening to Reba McEntire’s catalog. This is the sort of movie, like Jurassic Park maybe — and I know how much MFJ readers love Jurassic Park — that encourages you to play pretend or major in science or go target shooting.
For all its shortcomings, there are always a couple of surprises in the Tremors franchise. Unlike some other things done in the ’90s and beyond, most of the jokes have aged well and sometimes the movies even manage to pass the Bechdel Test (if only briefly). The franchise could have easily been another forgotten, multi-sequel cavalcade of direct-to-video camp. But instead, it keeps flexing like a Graboid churning through Nevada sands.
I can’t wait for the next one.