Tremors: examining its straight-to-DVD sequels

The 1990 cult classic monster movie Tremors has spawned four sequels (with another on the way) but are they any good?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This article contains spoilers for the assorted Tremors movies.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hates Tremors. In fact, while I was watching these sequels I ran a quick poll online asking people to choose their favourite 90s monster movie and Tremors won in an absolute landslide – leaving even the much-beloved Gremlins 2 in the dust.

The original cost a rather humble $11 million to make and made $5 million profit at the box office. Not a huge amount, but its subsequent popularity on home release and TV means that, 26 years later, we’ve just received word that a sixth instalment has gone into production. It seems the Tremors love is still very much alive and kicking (or should that be ‘squirming’?).

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Kevin Bacon – who has at no point made a return to the series, but also hasn’t ruled it out – starred as Valentine ‘Val’ McKee in the 1990 monster western; a handyman who is desperate to leave the tiny settlement of Perfection, Nevada with his grumpy partner Earl Basset (Fred Ward) and move on to bigger and better things, only to find his departure thwarted by a collection of bloodthirsty underground worm creatures – dubbed ‘Graboids’ by the local general store owner.

It’s an extremely simple story that becomes a lot more fun when you add the other residents of Perfection into the mix. There’s the annoying teenager who’s never happier than when he’s pranking people out of sheer boredom, the cute graduate student who just happens to be conducting tests in the area and who repeatedly, but earnestly, puts Val in his place, and of course Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) – the paranoid, moustachioed survivalist whose house happens to be stocked to the gills with all the guns and ammo they’ll need to defeat the encroaching, man-eating, underground threat.

It’s a tight 96 minutes of harmless desert fun and it has rather accidentally stood the test of time thanks to its remote location of Perfection, which even now probably wouldn’t have the cell signal needed to call for help easily. At the end of the film there’s no lingering need for a sequel, but here we are anyway – four deep down a rather unusual path.

S.S. Wilson – who co-wrote the original’s screenplay with Brent Maddock – stayed on for the sequels in various capacities, either writing or directing, until the fifth instalment. His continuing involvement brings an innate authenticity and charm to Tremors 2-4 that they may not have had in other hands. You can practically hear the conversations taking place behind the camera while you’re watching – “yeah, but that’s not canon in the Tremors-verse”, “Burt would never say that” – so, however small the budget and restrictive the special effects might be, you never feel far removed from the original’s atmosphere.

Tremors 5? Well, that’s different, but we’ll come back to that later…

 

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Tremors 2: Aftershocks

Six years after the release of the first film, a Kevin Bacon-less Fred Ward is back in the S.S. Wilson-directed Tremors 2 and he’s headed to Mexico, where Graboids have been spotted gobbling up employees underneath an oil field. Having squandered the cash he earned from his fame in the original film, Ward’s Earl Basset is keen to collect on the $50,000-a-head Graboid bounty offered by the oil refinery boss – so keen that he’s even willing to take on a new young partner in the form of True Blood’s Chris Gartin (a substandard replacement for Bacon; a Facon, if you will).

The absence of Bacon weighs heavily on the first half of Aftershocks and Ward himself doesn’t seem entirely happy with reprising the role of Basset, but the tone of the film – unevenly vacillating between wacky and too wacky – improves massively upon the reintroduction of Michael Gross’ gun-crazy Burt Gummer, and it’s easy to see why he took over the franchise completely after the second film, even if the character tends to work better as a supporting role.

The film, which was originally supposed to be filmed in Australia on a $17 million budget, saw its budget slashed to just $4 million after the studio lost interest and cast and crew took massive pay cuts to bring the resulting footage straight to DVD.

Aftershocks introduces a new species of Graboid to the franchise (‘Shriekers’) who can walk around on land; a sort of half-velociraptor with a Graboid upper half. However, due to the aforementioned budget constraints, the animatronic puppets the filmmakers could afford do very little else but waddle in place menacingly and it’s up to the editing to make it appear as though they’re any kind of advancing threat to the cast – with varying results.

All in all, the second film is a fairly disappointing follow up to the original, but it does a decent job of continuing the Tremors mythology. We now know that the Graboids are evolving and aren’t endemic to Perfection, which gives the franchise free rein to change the location up whenever the script calls for it, but the initial response can’t have been overly positive because the third film is called….

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Tremors 3: Back To Perfection

Brent Maddock, the co-writer of the first two films, directs this third instalment of the Tremors franchise, which sees a return to the small mining settlement of Perfection, Nevada. The tiny town has become a kind of crap tourist trap celebrating the events of the first film, and even though it’s been 11 years since the last sighting of a Graboid, that’s “no reason to lower your guard,” says Burt Gummer – who is very much now the star of the show.

We start out familiarising ourselves with a few reappearing characters – including Jurassic Park’s Ariana Richards – and a few new ones, before the inevitable return of the Graboids, both in standard, Shrieker and a new half-dragon mutant form called Ass-Blasters, who blast gas out of their ass. I probably didn’t need to clarify that.

The new breed of Graboids are pretty poorly animated, and despite a $2 million budget increase from the first sequel you can tell that they’re trying to make every penny count with a slightly more complicated story and a bigger pool of characters in play.

One by one, and sometimes a few at a time, the residents of Perfection are attacked by all three types of Graboid until Burt finally unloads his munitions stash on them – but even that’s not enough to clear the deck.

The third film certainly works better than the second and benefits from a wider range of interactions in between monster fights, but Burt’s salacious way of discussing his munitions dips into fetishistic territory and is mildly disturbing at times, becoming a sort of oblique nod to the American obsession with weaponry and the country’s own history of conflict with indigenous peoples. Setting its faults aside, though, Aftershocks is way better than it has any right to be.

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Tremors 4: The Legend Begins

Picking up the DVD of the fourth film in the Tremors franchise, I actually found myself staring agape at the front cover. Yes, in this film we’re going Back To The Future (3) and catching up with Perfection’s original settlers and mine workers in a prequel.

Michael Gross is back to play his own great-grandfather, Hiram Gummer, and the main joke in play is that he is nothing like his great-grandson. Hiram is incredibly prim and proper – not to mention manipulative and careless – and doesn’t even know how to fire a gun. The character’s arc, whilst inevitably helping the poor residents of Perfection to fend off some original Graboids, is purely to get to the final scene where he enjoys target practice with an old school Gatling gun. I honestly didn’t think the gun stuff could get any weirder, but S.S. Wilson, who bowed out of the franchise after directing The Legend Begins, had to go and surprise me.

A budget cut from 3 but not quite as low as 2, the fourth film plays with more of the creature effects from the original and does fairly well with them visually, but the story itself is lacklustre and we don’t get much out of it, mythology-wise, other than that the Graboids have been around for a while. This is reflected in my notes from watching the film, where I’ve simply written “Old Burt learns how to use a gun” and then written “next: Tremors 5, the one with Jamie Kennedy from Scream” underneath.

 

Tremors 5: Bloodlines

A.K.A. the one with Jamie Kennedy from Scream. Welp.

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There’s a new crew on board for Bloodlines and it shows in every possible way. S.S. Wilson is long gone from the creative process, but Michael Gross still stars as Burt Gummer and he clearly maintains the ethos and tone of the character with a dogged determination.

This time, we catch up with Burt living large as the star of his own survivalist TV series. Assigned with a new cameraman (Kennedy), he reluctantly agrees to help when approached by a clearly evil moustache-twirler who claims Graboids are terrorising a desert community in South Africa. Kennedy quips and busts Burt’s ass throughout the overseas mission, where they encounter another new species of Graboid which has detachable and sentient tentacles.

Bloodlines is directed by Don Michael Paul, the man behind Jarhead 2 (“wait, there was a Jarhead 2?!”) and Kindergarten Cop 2 (“oh, come on, you are definitely making this up now”) and he does a decent enough job with what certainly feels like a bigger budget (the effects are at least way more competent than previous outings), but the ramped up violence and addition of Jamie Kennedy as Burt Gummer’s illegitimate son makes the whole thing a little hard to swallow. For example, it would be hard to imagine S.S. Wilson signing off on a scene where Kennedy leers at a local South African woman and describes her as looking like a “caramel macchiato”.

It really comes across like the studio said “ok, we’ll sign off on another Tremors sequel, IF you Sharknado it up a little” and if your response to that is “well, I love the Sharknado films actually” then Tremors 5 (and 6) could be exactly what you’re after, but if you find the charm of the first four films in any way endearing, they might leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

Naturally, we’ll update this article when Tremors 6 turns up. In the meantime, I’m watching all the Bring It On sequels next. Expect that article in due course…