Monday, June 17, 2013

Broke into the wrong goddamn rec room, didn't ya, you bastard!

When I asked my friends recently to vote for a horror series for me to review, Tremors (can one call it a trilogy?)* won by a decent margin. After rewatching it, I have to insist that, while Tremors is very good and one of the best giant monster movies, it's barely a horror movie. Perhaps it's because I watched movies like Alien and Jaws when I was very young, but even as a kid, when I saw Tremors after those movies, I never found it scary. I suspect that director Ron Underwood and screenwriters S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock weren't really trying to frighten audiences; for a movie about giant worms attacking the residents of a small desert town, Tremors is actually very lighthearted, even gentle.

What Tremors is is a Hawksian siege movie in the vein of Rio Bravo, El Dorado and Rio Lobo, movies about unlikely heroes banding together to protect their towns from outlaws; Tremors simply substitutes "Graboids," as one character dubs them, for outlaws. Our heroes are Earl (Fred Ward) and Val (Kevin Bacon), two hired hands who are attacked by the Graboids on a work site and try to warn, then protect, the nearby town of Perfection, Nevada. Earl and Val are the kind of male protagonists we don't see much of any more in studio movies, even genre movies; they're grizzled, vulgar, unshaven and a bit dim. If Tremors were made today, it might star The Rock and Vin Diesel, who, despite their impressive physiques, can't compare with a chainsmoking Fred Ward for pure manliness. This was the same year Ward played Henry Miller, making Ward's 1990 about as good a year as any actor has had. Bacon is good too, even though Tremors is one of the least useful tools in Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, unless you like to go through Reba McEntire just to make things interesting. But I digress. The point is, Val and Earl sleep in their truck and eat baloney and beans for breakfast, and they embody a long-absent and much-needed representation of masculinity in film - shit kickers who rise to the occasion.

I'm stretching here to get about a thousand words out of Tremors, but bear with me. John Carpenter also used the Rio Bravo template, most famously in Assault on Precinct 13 but also in genre movies like Prince of Darkness and, of course, his remake of Hawks' The Thing From Another World. Tremors owes a lot to Carpenter in the way that it blends a Western aesthetic with Creature Feature thrills (it also features Victor Wong, who was in Prince of Darkness and Big Trouble in Little China). Where Tremors departs from Carpenter is also why I don't consider it a horror movie. In Carpenter's movies, the progragonists isolated together against an external threat causes them to gradually (or, in the case of The Thing, rapidly) turn against each other. There's very little interpersonal conflict in the town of Perfection, Nevada, even after the shit hits the fan. Everybody cooperates on plans to defeat the Graboids and escape, and unlike, say, the characters in Night of the Living Dead, nobody is jockeying for alpha male status. In another movie, the survivalist gun nuts played by McEntire and Michael Gross would be in conflict with the other characters, but aside from some mild teasing and one brief standoff between Gross and Bacon, everybody gets along famously. It seems antithetical to the entire history of post-1960s horror movies to not use that setup and, especially, two very conservative supporting characters to interject sociopolitical subtext into the movie. Underwood doesn't seem to have any interest in that; indeed, Tremors seems to be completely free of subtext. The Graboids represent Graboids.

If that weren't reason enough to not classify Tremors as a horror movie, there's the also the very low body count to consider - only one of the main characters is killed, along with a handful of peripheral characters in the first 20 minutes. While a movie like Jaws, even after countless viewings, can still make my heart race from Chief Brody just barely defeating the shark in the nick of time, there's very little suspense as to whether Earl, Val and the rest of Perfection will defeat the Graboids - at one pont, Val actually punches one in the face. The filmmakers clearly didn't have any desire to wring suspense out of the possible deaths of its characters.

However, they do clearly have a blast showing off their huge, animatronic sandworm effects, and even 23 years later, the Graboids still look pretty slick. The effects team included two of KNB's co-founders, Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman, and the creatures were designed by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis, who worked on Aliens and all of the subsequent movies in that series. Their work on Tremors, which was released a year before T2 and the practical-to-CGI paradigm shift, represents one of the last great all-practical productions. Both the large Graboids and the smaller heads that emerge, like the xenomorph, from the creatures' gaping maws are surprisingly believable - amazing how helpful dirt and K-Y Jelly are in selling a creature effect. While Tremors was a throwback even in 1990, its low-key pleasures are even easier to appreciate today, as the "bigger = better" mentality dominates megabudget popcorn movies more than ever. What Tremors lacks in scale, it makes up for tenfold in character. Replayed constantly on cable in the early '90s, it's a nostalgia staple for many, many people my age; luckily, unlike too many of the movies we loved as kids, Tremors holds up.

*I've learned that Tremors cannot be called a trilogy because of the existence of Tremors 4, which I was not aware of until now. God help me.

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