Tremors (1990)

Directed by Ron Underwood

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Perfection is a tiny, tiny desert town in which live only a handful of people, two of whom are best friends intent on hitting the open road like in a John Mellencamp song.  They are  Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward), two handymen fed up with their jobs and eager for a new start.

On their way out of town, however, they stumble across the dead body of another local resident, clinging desperately to an electrical tower.  Soon after they will see the decapitated head of a local farmer, and suddenly they’re frantic, trying to warn others that there’s a serial killer in town.  Two construction workers are then killed by some kind of supernatural underground force, and in the process instigate a rockslide which will block the only road out of town.

The hope on the part of the filmmakers was to preserve this as a thriller, with it unclear who or what was on the loose.  Going into the movie, however, you know it’s about an underground monster, and shots are added to tease this early in the film.  It was a deliberate choice made by the studio, to advertise this first and foremost as a monster movie.

It won’t take too long for Val and Earl and the rest of the town to figure out what’s going on, even if in its absurdity they are reluctant to buy into such an idea.  When a severed tentacle is found attached to their truck it’s the first sign of evidence that there are underground creatures eating people.  Soon, while in the company of a seismologist investigating the strange readings in town, they ‘kill’ (or are rather simply lucky) one of the monsters, later nicknamed “graboids” by another character.  The seismologist figures out that there are three more underground somewhere, and well you get it, they must fend for themselves and kill the creatures.

Tremors is an effective B movie, mostly because it has fun.  Kevin Bacon goes all out here, celebrating every delirious escape and victory and losing his mind whenever the walls are closing in.  He plays every moment in the story with the utmost sincerity, and combined with the comic side characters (a store owner who tries to profit off the monsters, a gun-toting married couple, Reba McEntire, etc.) well it’s all quite fun, probably more than it should be.

At one point in the movie, when Val and Earl find that they can’t simply leave town because of the rockslide, Earl looks up to the heavens and decries the hand of whatever more powerful force is at play here.  It’s not hard to see him yelling off the page at the screenwriters themselves, much as any character with a modicum of self-awareness might do.

It’s perhaps irritatingly meta, but there’s also something kind of poetic about it all.  These characters are fed up and finally ready to hit the open road, but of course greater forces conspire to keep them sequestered in this sort of purgatory.  They are made to confront something bigger than themselves so that in the process they may confront something within themselves and finally emerge a more developed, thoughtful person.

That’s the nature of movies as a whole, I suppose, but the plot mechanizations are hardly ever as transparent as they are here.  In that way I think it’s quite romantic, how Tremors doesn’t bother to conceal the familiar details of its journey.

Maybe that’s why I love movies, maybe why any of us might love a movie.  It takes characters you often attach yourselves to, like surrogates through whom you will exist and see the world for the next 90 to 120 minutes.  You identify with their hopes, feel for their struggles and eventually watch them experience some kind of death, even if just metaphorical.  Then they are reborn and to some degree you are too.

Or maybe it’s just a movie and you spend half your time thinking about other things, tuning out during the clunky exposition or reading a wikipedia article on your phone about the subsequent Apollo missions after the initial moon landing all while the third act climax unfolds.  All experiences are valid.

Tremors is never exactly riveting or original, but it is sincere and refreshingly absurd, not in the way some modern movies are with all the winking at the audience, fourth-wall breaking and heartless characters there either to acknowledge the absurdities (and thus to defend the filmmakers/studio from any accusation of naivety) or simply to be destroyed in gruesome fashion by the villain for cheap audience thrills.

In Tremors everyone is quite likable, which the more I think about it is quite strange.  They all have their quirks and are lovable in their own way.  Many die, of course, because a movie like this is imbued with a certain bloodlust, but it’s never because on some karmic level they deserve it, as it is with other films.  Instead they’re just unfortunate, and while maybe watching side characters get devoured by a monster is more satisfying if we feel that they somehow deserve it– well maybe it’s just kind of nice here because we don’t have to sit through those scenes in which those characters demonstrate their more despicable qualities.  It’s as if, in most movies, the absurd villainous monster is there to feast on all these characters’ sins.  Maybe it’s a masked killer with a machete or a natural disaster or a land shark, but the ‘greater force’ of the screenwriter suggests that this villain is there to demand sacrifice from those who have done wrong, no matter how petty or small.

This time around they are simply misfortunate, unless you count retreating to an isolated town to withdraw from society a type of sin.

Up Next: To the Wonder (2012), Road House (1989), Police Story (1985)

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