by ,

tremors_1_01Beyond its release date, Tremors contains several elements that date it as a product of the early 90s. There’s the fact that Kevin Bacon is solo-billed on the poster. There’s the casting of country singer Reba McEntire in a supporting role. But tellingly (and sadly), the thing that dates the film the most is its creature effects. Tremors is quite possibly the last major studio monster movie to feature 100% practical effects. It has been said elsewhere, but it bears repeating: puppets, miniatures, and animatronics give texture, presence, and weight to the universe of a film and the creatures therein. It’s one of the few modern extensions of a genre-film tradition that dates back more than half a century, so it’s no surprise that in build and tone, Tremors has the soul of a zippy 50s sci-fi b-picture.

Part of the reason Tremors feels like a throwback is its lean approach to narrative. All the characters and locations that have any importance in the story are introduced within the first ten minutes. The desert town is fleshed out quickly and efficiently, in part because the total local population is 14. Among them, there’s Val, a hot-headed young handyman played by Bacon in his weird post-Footloose/pre-JFK lost period. There’s also his older, no-bull partner in repairs (American national treasure Fred Ward), a fish-out-of-water grad student (TV lifer Finn Carter), an armed-to-the-gills survivalist couple (Michael Gross and the aforementioned McEntire), the eccentric general store owner (Victor Wong), and a handful of other residents. They’re all archetypes, sure, but their interactions feel more organic than those between usual stock characters. Clearly, loading the film with character actors and left-field picks was a canny way to give it some personality without making it too expository.

By limiting the amount of set-up required to build a cogent world, Tremors can then dedicate the bulk of its running time to practical problem-solving. It seems like an obvious gambit for this kind of movie to use, but its briskness and linearity give it incredible amounts of focus and momentum. As the protagonists of the film figure out what they’re dealing with, so do the monsters (or as they’re called in-universe, graboids). The accumulation of knowledge about the graboids by the humans, and vice versa, makes it feel more like a thriller than a horror film. Instead of going for straight scares, the movie evolves into a compelling game of blind man’s bluff. To the film’s credit, though, these discoveries feel earned. Everything that is set up in the film, even seemingly innocuous things like a busted freezer or a child playing with a pogo stick, is duly paid off. It’s not exactly challenging or complex, but it does feel extremely satisfying.

It’s also a funny film to boot. It revels in the excesses of its chosen genres (horror, action, thriller) with such gleeful abandon that it brings to mind the contemporaneous work of Sam Raimi. Not only does director Ron Underwood nick Raimi’s signature proto-Steadicam shots for the monster’s POV, but he also uses instance of graphic bloodletting as a springboard for jokes. One instance sees a construction worker accidentally injuring a still-underground graboid with a jackhammer. It’s not played for laughs, but the bright-red geyser of stage blood bubbling from the ground is certainly over-the-top enough to qualify as funny. Similarly, a scene where Gross and McEntire unload a comical amount of rounds into an intruding graboid that is punctuated with the firing of a very real antique 8-gauge elephant gun works the same angle. This is to say nothing of the funny, folksy repartee between Bacon and Ward (who incidentally have magnificent chemistry) over the course of the entire film.

The film plays like a distant cousin to a James Gunn’s Slither: both are alternately creepy and hilarious, and both take place in small towns where horrible things, most of them involving bugs, start happening to the citizenry. But where Slither‘s not-so-subtle subtext is about a very specific kind of toxic male longing, Tremors is more sneaky in theme. There’s a neat throughline in the film about the invisible forces that keep people in dead-end small town. In the case of Val and Earl, that invisible force is money. There’s a lot of bluster in the film from both of them about moving to the next town over and starting anew, but they invariably stay right where they are. Trauma and tunnel vision coming together to create entropy. That said, the movie is practically a paean to level-headedness and practicality. A hopeful message emerges from this gleeful piece of genre movie-making: if you think through the problem, you will find a way out.

The film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon.

Directed by Ron Underwood; written by Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson; starring Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire, and Victor Wong; 96 minutes.