In 1990, a small-budget horror comedy took the perennial Jaws template, right down to the iconic poster art and replaced that film’s sleepy coastal village and giant shark with a landlocked valley in the American southwest and a handful of Frank Herbert-esque sandworms.
Tremors made modest returns at the box office, enough to cover its small cost, anyway, but was anything but a blockbuster. And yet, twenty-odd years later, there are no less than three Tremors sequels (two direct-to-video, one TV movie) and one short-lived Tremors Sci-Fi Channel series. During the expansion of the Tremors mythology, the sandworms of the original attacked Mexico, learned to fly and visited the 19th century, for some reason. But in the beginning, there were merely four monsters, one impossibly isolated town and a ragtag group determined to make it out alive.
So what happened in between? How has a micro-budgeted B-movie become a franchise spanning close to 15 years? The answer can be found in the years following Tremors’ limited success in theatres, when it picked up steam on VHS and became, if not exactly a cult-classic, at least a late-night staple for a certain generation whose nostalgia for the original made it profitable for expansion four times over.
And after all these years, how does the original hold-up? Probably about as well as you’d expect. In aping the Jaws formula, Tremors is never as artful as Steven Spielberg’s horror classic, but it manages to build suspense in the same ways: by largely keeping the monsters hidden from the audience, allowing shifting ground and snake-like appendages to hint at a deeper horror.
Tremors opens with Valentine (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward), two laborers letting their general inertia keep them stuck in a town they dislike, doing work they despise. Right as they decide they’ve finally had enough of Perfection, Nevada (population: 35), they meet precocious seismology student Rhonda (Finn Carter), investigating a recent spate of unusual seismic activity and soon begin discovering corpses littered around town.
As Earl wryly notes, it eventually becomes apparent the boys waited “one God damn day too long” to leave Perfection. The only road out of the valley is blocked by boulders and there’s no vehicle that can traverse the rocky mountains surrounding it. Meanwhile, strange snake carcasses are appearing in the dirt, people are turning up missing and station wagons are found buried in the ground.
When the giant sandworms causing all the commotion are finally seen, they amazingly live up to expectations. All beaks, jaws and slithering tongues, they resemble an H.R. Giger creature, yet still seem plausible and recognizably terran. It’s never explained what created the monsters in the first place (Val guesses the government is behind them, a “big surprise for Russia”), but they never feel out of place in the barren desert that is Tremors’ setting.
The worms are also expertly crafted, another element that keeps the film from looking as dated as even its own sequels. Where future installments would replace the puppetry of the original with CGI creatures and effects, Tremors’ scares are decidedly hand-crafted, from the tangible feeling of the worms themselves to their underground movement, portrayed not by bubbling CGI landscapes but rippling boards on a front porch.
There are details that leave the indelible stamp of 1990 on Tremors, of course. The early scenes are almost always bookended by terrible young-country vamping and Bacon sports a ridiculous southern accent and matching mullet throughout the film. Despite this, he’s still able to carry the story with an easy charm even the most unflattering haircut can’t hide and he’s aided by the more low-key Ward, with whom he establishes a believable chemistry filled with telling details of an apparent lifetime of idling.
Val and Earl are completely codependent on each other: cooking together, living together and settling all disagreements with games of rock, paper, scissors Val always loses. It’s easy to see how these two have kept each other from ever leaving Perfection or pursuing any kind of future. If either weren’t there, the other would have left long ago.
And like a platonic Brokeback Mountain, they seem to bicker constantly only because it wouldn’t be appropriate to show their reliance on each other in any other way. Incidentally, there is a token love story thrown in the mix, as Val begins the film hoping to find his blonde haired ideal woman and is immediately disappointed when the visiting female seismologist turns out to be merely an attractive brunette.
That Val eventually falls for her anyway is both predictable and unnecessary, a relationship that seems awkwardly shoe-horned into a film that doesn’t really need, or even particularly want, a romance. Apparently his ability to fall for a pretty girl by the end of the film counts as character growth, although judging by the way the relationship closes the film after mostly being ignored altogether, it could just have easily come from writer’s block – as if the screenwriters couldn’t think of any other way to wrap things up.
Val, Earl and Rhonda are joined in their fight for survival by a couple of gun nuts played by Michael Gross (the only actor who would continue through the Tremors series for each of its sequels) and platinum selling country musician Reba McEntire, who would follow her acting debut in Tremors with a number of film roles and an eventual sitcom. These gun-toters, apparently attracted to Perfection precisely because it’s the most isolated place they could find, manage to save the day with their homemade dynamite and an entire wall of guns, all of which are evidently left loaded at all times.
Their presence and status as de facto heroes, make Tremors something of a red state version of Jaws, a difference felt not only in the swapping of the northeast for the southwest, but in the aforementioned music cues and the reveling, even celebration, of dirt and grit.
It’s easy to see, then, why Tremors made an impact. It may be the same old Jaws formula, but it’s been flipped on its head, not just in setting, but in its very villains and protagonists. There are opportunities missed – the isolation of Perfection seems tailor-made for some sociological breakdown that never comes – and the third act tends to drag as it runs out of ways to keep the characters stranded, but Tremors hits its marks while retaining a unique aesthetic all its own, and never quite crosses the line into ridiculous. It may not be a great film, but as far as Jaws knock-offs go (giant snakes, giant crocodiles, giant spiders, et. al.), it comes closest to recreating the magic.