It has been called a “cult classic,” indeed, an “instant cult classic.” Hardly any critic panned it, and many applauded it. Some say they can’t turn the channel when it finds its way onto the small screen.
Granted, it’s no Rocky Horror Picture Show, with midnight showings and campy sing- and dance-alongs. It’s not a film that has spawned conventions, like the Lebowski Fest, where festival-goers deck out in tattered Cowichan cardigan sweaters (from Pendleton) à la the Dude or fishing vests as sported by Walter Sobchak and call lines from the film back and forth. But it is a cult classic nonetheless, with a devoted and loyal following.
The story is simple: four monster worms, 30 feet long, with no senses but the highly tuned ability to descry the slightest movement above ground, descend on a little town in Nevada called Perfection (population 14 and shrinking). The monsters, dubbed “graboids” by the locals — “We discovered them. We should name them,” cries one — travel exclusively underground but occasionally erupt through the surface to pull humans and other entities into their beak-like maws with serpentine tongues that lunge out and grab hold of victims. The townspeople, led by two “handymen” — Valentine McKee (Kevin Bacon) and Earl Bassett (Fred Ward) — and a seismology student, Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter), league together to outwit the monsters and save themselves from becoming worm scat.
Sound like fun? The movie is a cross between throwback 1950s monster movies and movies that mock throwback 1950s monster movies. It’s a creature feature that’s scary and funny, exciting and endearing. It’s what you used to see at the drive-in or on late-night fright-night TV, but better. It is truly one of the great B-movie monster flicks, and it beats in quality all the movies with giant ants, giant leeches, giant spiders, and giant rabbits put together.
It’s Tremors, and it’s 30 years old this year.
A late bloomer, Tremors didn’t exactly torch the box office. It made its bones in the aisles of Blockbuster — indeed, the first sequel didn’t roll out until six years after the original. But since that time its sequels (and one prequel) have been a staple in the straight-to-video world. In Tremors 2 the graboids evolve into “shriekers,” small, quick bipeds attracted to heat rather than sound, and Tremors 3 features another variant graboid, one that flies and blasts fire out of its butt, called, creatively, an Ass-blaster. The fourth installment is the origins epic, a return to 1889 and Rejection (Perfection before it became Perfection), a silver-mining town that goes under; baby graboids named “dirt dragons” make their appearance in that one. Tremors 5 moves to South Africa, where the graboids have detachable tentacles that operate independently of the mother graboid, and Tremors 6 finds the gang taking down a new graboid threat, in the Arctic.
They had a 30-year reunion of the original cast and crew, in Lone Pine, California, near the Alabama Hills, an exterior much favored in old Westerns, where Perfection was constructed and the movie filmed. Some “creatives” attended, but only one character showed his face — Michael Gross, famed as the liberal, bleeding-heart dad of Family Ties metamorphosed in this film into an uber-survivalist (talk about growth as a character!) with one of the great names in all of moviedom, Burt Gummer, who, with his wife, Heather (Reba McEntire), hole up in an indestructible hilltop fortress just outside of town and tool around Perfection in an SUV with the personalized license plate “UZI 4U.”
If you love Tremors, you almost have to love Michael Gross — he’s in all six of the movies. As for the other characters in the original movie — there’s not a one you won’t like, not a one you secretly hope gets pulled in by a graboid tentacle and eaten (well, except maybe for Melvin, played by Bobby Jacoby, the town’s smart-alecky kid).
Especially likable are the rednecks Val and Earl. The first time I saw the movie, and the setting — a little desert town, isolated — I expected stereotypical country males as envisioned by Hollywood: chauvinistic, misogynistic, probably bigoted, perhaps even predacious. And yet these two guys are polite, respectful, very decorous in their interactions with the opposite sex, and especially the film’s understated love interest, Rhonda. There’s no sex; there are no dirty jokes; the women act with modesty and are treated with respect; the only kiss in the movie comes as the final credits roll.
The movie features no “bad guys” whatsoever. There is no hatred among characters, no ill intent, no greed, no power struggle. All human energies are marshaled against the film’s true enemy, the worms. Plus, the movie gives us unforced racial diversity — a Mexican (Tony Genaro), who seems to be in the movie only to deliver funny lines, and a Chinese merchant (Victor Wong), who runs Perfection’s only commercial enterprise, a general store, and is taken down by a graboid in a scene that pays firsthand homage to Quint’s demise in Jaws.
All but two sets are outside. All of the movie is seeable — it’s not set at night; it’s not set in the rain; viewers never have to strain to see what’s going on; the monsters’ terror is not cloaked in twilight indistinction. Everything happens in the bright Nevada sunshine, except for one nighttime scene where a graboid sucks down the town’s doctor and his wife … and their car.
What about these graboids? Do they shiver the spine? À la Jaws, the monsters don’t physically appear until well into the movie. They’re hinted at plenty, though, and when the first one bursts from the ground about a half hour into the film, it is formidable, and scary. Only one scene bears the marks of fakery, and it has its own allure. One of the worms heads at full speed toward the cinder-block wall of survivalist Gummer’s basement armory, attracted by the grinding of a shell case polisher. The ensuing fusillade, in which Burt and Heather unleash an arsenal of weapons, culminating with two blasts from an elephant gun whose recoil practically sends Burt through the opposite wall, is a highlight of the movie. As is Burt’s sockdolager, directed toward the expired graboid, whose beak hangs lifelessly from a hole in the cinder blocks: “Broke into the wrong gol-durned rec room, didn’t ya?”
Sadly, there is no physical residue of production, no abandoned set to attract fans, no memory lane down which to cruise in an attempt to recapture the Perfection magic. A trip to Lone Pine, California, two years ago, which included a drive around the Alabama Hills, the setting for the movie, yielded but one vaguely familiar location. Perfection itself was built for the movie and torn down shortly after filming wrapped. The rock outcropping on which the surviving band was marooned toward the end of the film was a movie set. Even the cliff face through which the final graboid’s tumescent torso plunges to a splattering death on the rocks below was created with CGI.
The set for the original Tremors may be gone, but the franchise remains. Look for Tremors: Shrieker Island, the seventh film of the series, coming soon to a streaming service near you.