Artwork by edgarascensao on DeviantArt
The year is 1989 and Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson finally have their screenplay. The two men – established purveyors of family-friendly science-fiction with 1986’s Short Circuit and 1987’s *batteries not included – have been kicking around a script based on Wilson’s idea of land sharks; during one desert hike, he suddenly became obsessed with the idea that he couldn’t leave the rock he stood on, and jotted that idea down for future development. A few years go by and Maddock and Wilson have put everything on paper and are determined to produce the film themselves.
In a brief introduction to the shooting script for Tremors, Maddock wrote about his goals for Tremors:
Our crafty little plan was to fashion a low- enough-budget idea that a studio would actually allow us to produce and, even less likely to happen, allow Ron Underwood, our old filmmaking partner from our educational film days, to direct (…) Inspired by 50s monster movies such as Them and Tarantula, we decided to put a twist in the old formula. What if the guys who usually get killed in the first reel (sacrificed to demonstrate the deadly threat of that film’s particular creature) were, instead, our leads?
Despite its “low-enough-budget” premise, Tremors was something of a gamble for almost everyone involved in the project.
Like the film’s two lovable losers, many of the people involved in Tremors wanted to prove that they had more to offer than their track record suggested. Ron Underwood didn’t want to direct educational television shows for the rest of his career; Maddock and Wilson wanted a producer credit and an opportunity to see one of their scripts through to completion. Most contemporary reviews of Tremors are quick to point it out as a departure for Reba McIntire and Michael Gross – the latter attempting to retire his “wimpy” dad image from the long-running Family Ties television series – and an opportunity for Executive Producer Gale Anne Hurd to establish herself independently of James Cameron after their divorce.
By any measurement the film was a success. Tremors was released on January 19, 1990, raised over sixteen million dollars off a ten million budget, and opened to generally favorable reviews. When the film was released on VHS that summer, it reportedly tripled its box office, ensuring its place as a cult classic and spawning three direct-to-video follow-ups (and a short-lived television series in 2003). Wilson and Maddock would reunite with Underwood for 1993’s Heart and Souls and get their crack at an honest-to-goodness blockbuster with 1999’s Wild Wild West. Twenty-five years after the franchise debuted, there seems to be no slowing it down: a fifth film starring Michael Gross and Jamie Kennedy is set for a DVD release this October and an unauthorized history of the Tremors franchise will also come out at some point this year. Even Kevin Bacon – notoriously reticent on the subject of Tremors — recently re-watched the film and admitted he’s thinking about making a sequel.
And yet, as we gear up for the film’s silver jubilee, it’s worth taking a moment and asking ourselves. What makes Tremors so special? Why is the rare hybrid-horror film that everyone can agree on?
While it doesn’t speak to the film’s longevity, Tremors certainly benefitted a bit from a weak playing field during its initial release. A November 1990 article of The Globe and Mail highlighted the year as disappointing for horror films, noting that only 95 were released as opposed to the total of 169 from two years prior. As the article points out, it was also the first time since 1984 that no films in the Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Friday the 13th series were released, creating a void in the established horror properties. This opened the door for hybrid horror films to fill the gap. Using IMDb keywords as our guide, two of the highest-grossing horror-comedies of all time were released in the summer of 1990. Gremlins 2 and Arachnophobia exceeded the gross of Tremors by tens of millions, but did so in a more advantageous time slot: Tremors was the second-highest grossing film of January 1990, beating additional horror classics such as John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead (note to self – was January 1990 the best month for horror releases ever?). And as mentioned before, while the box office returns were fine, the movie really took off on VHS, cracking the top ten in rentals according to trade magazine Video Insider (just ahead of the permanently-relevant Back to the Future Part II).
As a modernization of atomic-era creature features – one could easily picture a production meeting where the name Worms! was discussed, complete with exclamation point – Tremors manages to balance the square-jawed terror of the 1950s with the gruff antiheroes of contemporary action films. Val and Earl are not the type to survive a monster movie. In most films from the 1950s – where the real hero is an urbane Peter Graves-type, not the unwashed local militia – Val and Earl would be dead by the end of the first reel. They would be the first to encounter the creatures, the first to scream head-on into a zooming camera. In some films, they may actually be responsible for the carnage that follows, accidentally kicking off an interstellar invasion or mass uprising from the creatures’ subterranean lair. In Tremors, neither Val nor Earl seem particularly well suited to save the day, but they are heroes defined by their endurance. Classic horror characters survive due to their intelligence or prowess; these characters, like John McLane before them, simply hang in there a little bit longer than the other guy.
And while the film may aspire to 1950s camp, the crew of Tremors made sure that the graboids posed a believable threat to their actors. Tom Woodruff, Jr. – the designer and makeup artist who previously worked on the Predator, Aliens, and Terminator franchises – created monsters with a real sense of physical presence, while Underwood filled in the blanks with some impressive bits of practical effects. Poles explode from the ground, the earth shifts and moves under the characters’ feet; this was the golden era of practical effects, and Tremors is a low-budget movie shot to look like a Hollywood blockbuster. There is more than a little Spielberg in Underwood’s film, with the director using ground-level tracking shots liberally and letting the worst of the violence occur off the screen. Underwood also seems to be encouraging Michael Gross’s inspired send-up of Robert Shaw. Baseball cap, mustache, sideburns, and off-the-grid survivor mentality: Gross’s Burt Gummer is Quint for the modern America, where owning a private arsenal of guns is somehow less of a social faux pas than running your nails slowly down a chalkboard.
But these nods to contemporary cinema are just the window dressings, the ways in which Tremors keeps the motor turned up to high. The real appeal of the film is the chemistry between its two leads. Fred Ward is the stoic veteran, the character actor who has seen his chances come and go more than he cares to remember. Kevin Bacon is the young stud, the man in the prime of his youth who is only vaguely aware that his window is closing fast. Both actors are excellent in their respective roles; they give Val and Earl a lived-in effect, a sense of having been performing this tightrope act with obsolescence for longer than either care to remember. The rules they live by are both self-imposed and ironclad. In the final conflict with a graboid, Earl is less upset at the prospect of death than he is at having the integrity of their rock-paper-scissors match compromised. The comedy is self-evident, but Ward and Bacon sell the horror in Tremors through their grounded reactions, the half-baked ways in which they try and defeat the creatures.
This is the last point in the film’s favor: you can argue whether Tremors is one of the best B-horror movie of the past twenty-five years, but its broad humor and hybrid approach undoubtedly made it one of the first horror films for a generation of genre fans. I still remember watching Tremors II when I was twelve years old. It was the first horror film I saw without explicit permission from my parents and it scared the crap out of me – something my family members are all-too happy to remind me of to this day – but it also made me recognize that there was this entire new genre of films out there, films that were not too dissimilar from the action movies that I loved but had an altogether different effect on me. Tremors may have been one of the first popular mainstream horror-comedies; it may have been the first to use home video sales as a viable market; it may have been the launch of the first great convention favorite (Michael Gross) of the 1990s. None of that will over hold a candle to it being our first, period.
Happy twenty-fifth anniversary to the Tremors franchise. I’m ready for the reboot whenever you are.
Artwork by edgarascensao on DeviantArt.