Tremors (1990): Monster Movie Fun Perfection

An early 90s creature feature with a great cast and a fantastically wild plot. Imaginative, tense, scary fun.

Tremors (1990): Monster Movie Fun Perfection

An early 90s creature feature with a great cast and a fantastically wild plot. Massive predatory worms of an unknown biological nature, or monsters that move like worms underneath the surface of the ground, have started to attack the desert town of Perfection. Their origin is unknown, and there’s not much time to argue the point. The monsters are blind, but fast-moving and extremely sensitive to sound vibrations. The only sure course of action is to climb on top of rocks, or up an electricity pylon, and wait them out somewhere safely above the surface.

Unfortunately, these are patient monsters. If you remain atop that pylon waiting for the coast to clear you will only end up dying of thirst (a fate that tragically befalls one of Perfection’s 14 inhabitants). On the other hand, and unlike many monster films, the powers of the monsters, called Graboids, have clearly defined limits. They are very much mortal: running one into a brick wall might be enough to kill it. They are also limited in quantity, so there’s a real battle to be waged, to kill all four before the town runs out of ideas & ammo. The townspeople are able to put up a good fight using a combination of wits, community spirit, and the limited resources at their disposal. There’s a tug-of-war going on, humans versus monsters, and it’s not clear which side is stronger. It’s like a big game of rock-paper-scissors — a game our two leads, Valentine McKee and Earl Bass, play frequently.

The acting is great, with a humourous and spirited tone across the board. This is Kevin Bacon at his finest: defiant, lighthearted, and relatable. The principals are all great, in fact, maxing out the entertainment value from the story. This is a case where the film could have been mediocre, done the wrong way. Instead, all of its pieces are firing together and working to create a synergy. The film exceeds what is reasonable to expect from it. It wasn’t a commercial success in the box office, but is a gem to look back on today.

Photographically the movie looks great, too. It uses the tones of the desert landscape and rural America/diner locations to create a colour palette and aesthetic that is highly cinematic and dreamy. Like an updated Western, with rich colours and beatifully soft light. It’s a feast for the eyes.

The effects are fantastic, and delightfully free from CGI. This is a reasonably big budget, Hollywood film, though the film isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself, either. Remnants of dead worms are waved about like props and used to play pranks on people. It’s all part of the film’s charm. Tremors came out at just about the point the use of CGI was becoming universal. It’s probably one of the last films of its kind to use practical effects exclusively, and it’s all the more fun for it.

The balance struck between horror and comedy (leaning more towards humour, but with a lot of tension, and a real fear factor in moments) is excellent. It creates a horror-comedy balance that is very unusual, and probably part of what limited the film’s commercial success. How, after all, do you market it? It is also a big part of what makes the film so loveable.

If only more films were made like this… cinema that builds a world you can get lost in while having fun, and ticks a lot of boxes: it is imaginative, tense, funny, scary, and just plain entertaining in a universal, cinematic sense of the word. Cinema to fall in love with.

NB: shout out to the Arrow Films limited edition blu-ray. It’s a beautiful presentation, the transfer looks great, and the box is full of cool and amazing goodies. If it’s available in your region, don’t hesitate to pull the trigger.

James Lanternman writes movie reviews, essays, and moonlit thoughts. You can reach him at [email protected].

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