On the 19th January 1990 Tremors wriggled its way from the underground to the big screen in the USA and this year marks its 30th anniversary. Blimey, 30 years? I’m continually stunned to find out that 1990 wasn’t ten years ago. But whilst a younger version of me would always tell himself that he wouldn’t grow up to be one of those grumpy old men, my love for Tremors will never wane. Lauded for its B Movie plot sensibilities, practical effects and its mixture of comedy and horror (but not taking the box office by storm) Tremors really made an impact when it was released on home video and laserdisc.
This tongue-in-cheek creature feature made millions for Universal studios, which led them to produce 4 direct to video and DVD sequels, as well as a short-lived TV series. But in the same way that dating in your 30’s is just two people telling each other stories about how they used to be fun, we’re here to revisit the original film in all its worm intestine glory. The cast is headed by Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as two beer-guzzling handymen, making their meager livings within the tiny desert town of Perfection. They’re tired of picking up rubbish and draining the sewage from the local residents so they decide to leave, only to be thwarted by the imminent arrival of gigantic worms.
“…in the same way that dating in your 30’s is just two people telling each other stories about how they used to be fun, we’re here to revisit [Tremors] in all its worm intestine glory.”
The idea for Tremors was developed in the early 80’s, by writer Steve Wilson. He was working as an editor on a Navy base in the Californian desert and in his downtime would often go hiking, climbing over some large boulders in the process. It was here that the seed of the story came to fruition – a kind of ‘what if’ moment, if you will. Wilson thought to himself, ‘hmm, what if I couldn’t get off this rock, because there was something underground?’ Perhaps the writer hadn’t played enough The Floor is Lava as a child, but this idea grew until eventually putting idea to paper and naming it ‘Landshark’. Steve and his writing colleague Brent Maddock had previously garnered success from their screenplays Short Circuit 1 and 2 and Batteries not included, and their friend and colleague Ron Underwood loved the idea of Landshark and wanted to try and get it sold to several studios.
The idea of man-eating worms at the time seemed a little silly however, so it wasn’t until producer Gale Ann Hurd (Terminator, Hell Fest) caught wind of the script and got on board that things started to move forward. She loved the B-Movie premise of the script and presented it to Universal Studios who supported the idea and wanted to see it get made. Another item that was raised at the time was the actual name of the worm monsters and how they came about. The writers settled on calling them ‘Graboids’ but wanted their background to be a little ambiguous, as they had four possible scenarios – that they were either from outer space, radioactive, scientific experiments or they’d been dormant under the ground for millions of years. In the film they had the characters surmise all these scenarios, so it’s left to the audience to decide for themselves where these creatures came from.
If you haven’t already guessed it, the theme for January’s Nightmare on Film Street topic is Black and White Frights, and Tremors certainly attempts to re-create the pleasures of those post-World War II B-pictures about insect-like creatures that through some horrible radiation poisoning or genetic experiment have become mutated voracious giants. Or something like those jacked-up cows you’ve seen pictures of on the internet. You know the ones I’m talking about – they’re the cows that look like a condom full of walnuts.
Them! is one of the first of the 1950s “nuclear monster” movies, and the first “big bug” feature that springs to mind when thinking of inspiration behind the Tremors worms. A nest of gigantic irradiated ants is discovered in the New Mexico desert; they quickly become a national threat when it’s discovered that two young queen ants and their consorts have escaped to establish new nests. The national search that follows finally culminates in a battle with Them! in the concrete spillways and storm drain system of Los Angeles.
“A good fantasy, sci-fi or horror film provides a healthy dose of escapism, but it also keeps the focus on what we wish to escape from.”
Next time you find yourself at a party and the conversation slips into 50’s genre monster movies (I realize that the party mentioned is happening completely in my head) you may want to talk about Susan Sontag. The American writer, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher, and political activist wrote in 1965, the definitive essay on Cold War dystopian fantasy The Imagination of Disaster. “We live,” she claimed in that piece, “under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.”
In Layman’s terms, a good fantasy, sci-fi or horror film provides a healthy dose of escapism, but it also keeps the focus on what we wish to escape from. During the Depression, that could have been the exhausting grind of making ends meet. Last year for us Brits it was Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister. During the 1950s however, it was white picket fence conformity and something altogether more sinister: The Soviet Menace and the threat of nuclear war. From 1942 to 1945, U.S. scientists worked on a secret program called the Manhattan Project, and it was with this new technology that they were able to create an atom bomb and obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Science fiction movies had the heavy task of distracting viewers from their ordinary lives and calming the anxieties generated by the growing Communist threat from the East.
Hollywood had churned out more than 500 science-fiction features by 1962, and although some of them had less than convincing special effects, a shout out to the black and white frights of the time include: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came From Outer Space (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953), Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), Tarantula (1955), It Came from Beneath the Sea, (1955) Forbidden Planet (1956), and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).
But I’m digressing – back to Tremors. For a long time, Kevin Bacon considered his role as handyman Valentine as a low point in his professional career. He couldn’t believe that he was making a film about underground worms, and often had nightmares about them during the shoot. Thankfully over the years he’s warmed to the movie, and even shot a pilot for a new TV series which unfortunately wasn’t picked up by the SyFy channel. In an Instagram post he announced: ‘Sad to report that my dream of revisiting the world of Perfection will not become a reality, although we had a fantastic pilot in my opinion, the network has decided not to move forward. Thanks to our killer cast and everyone behind the scenes who worked so hard and always keep one eye out for Graboids.’
“…a testament to the old days of yore when teams would have to find ways of presenting the visual eye candy without relying on computers.”
Fred Ward plays Earl, Val’s best friend – he’s also sick of the Town of Perfection and wants to leave, and it’s the banter with each other and endless games of rock, paper, scissors to make any decision that endears the audience to them. Finn Carter plays Rhonda, a student studying seismic activity in the desert and is the first to determine how many Graboids are scuttling around Perfection. Tremors as a film works because it’s the interactions between these three – although all of them have flaws, the viewer is genuinely invested in their plight and whether they’ll make it out of the ordeal alive. Val may be a lunkhead with aspirations of finding a blonde bombshell, but he continually makes heroic gestures by putting his own ass on the line to either save a kid on a pogo stick or run for a Caterpillar tractor to save the others. Earl may not be the most eloquent person, but he thinks on his feet and is always trying to think of a plan to get them out of their messes. Rhonda isn’t a damsel in distress, she comes up with the idea to vault over boulders when they get themselves stuck and has the curious mind of a scientist when it comes to how the Graboids live and get around the town.
Michael Gross plays Burt, a paranoid doomsday survivalist, who had just finished playing Michael J Fox’s dada in Family Ties and became one of the most popular characters in the film, being the only cast member to return for all of the sequels and TV show.
For the film’s limited budget, the special effects are a breath of fresh air in today’s heavily riddled CGI bonanza fest, incorporating matte paintings, puppets and animatronics. Yeah, I mean, you can see obvious shots where actors are standing in front of a screen, but the worms have weight to them and as they burrow through the dirt and thrash around when they erupt from the ground, you believe it. The filmmakers tried to get all the effects completed in-camera, and it’s a testament to the old days of yore when teams would have to find ways of presenting the visual eye candy without relying on computers. Yes, the Graboid bursting through the mountain at the end of the film does indeed look like a massive turd being spewed forth into the celestial toilet bowl of the desert, but on a whole Tremors is an entertaining, hokey schlockfest and one that remains a cult classic to this day.
I can’t remember when I first watched Tremors, whether it was on cable TV or via a rental purchase, but it’s a movie that was very much part of my youth. It’s one of those rare beasts that still tickles my fondness bones every time I watch it, and although it’s 30 years old, still retains a perfect balance of horror and comedy. If you haven’t managed to check out Tremors yet, then in a way I’m envious – the pacing of the film keeps the suspense and action ticking away nicely, without sacrificing character development and traits. There are nods to other films including Jaws and the monster movies of the 50’s, whilst being fresh and appealing at the time. It’s a great movie night in with friends, so remember to pick up a cold one at Walter Chang’s store, kick back and get ready for a thrill-ride that will have you chuckling from one moment to gasping at the next.
“…Tremors is an entertaining, hokey schlockfest and one that remains a cult classic to this day.”
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