Friday, October 31, 2014

Tremors 4: The Legend Begins

Cody Hamman's month of Tremors write-ups ends at the beginning.

The productions of the fourth film in the Tremors franchise and the TV show overlapped with each other, which is why actor Michael Gross's character of survivalist Burt Gummer is barely present, or entirely absent, for the last three episodes of the show's sole season. Gross was also the star of Tremors 4, so while the rest of the TV show's cast were working on the set of the replica of the small town of Perfection, Nevada, the setting of the first and third movies, that had been built in Mexico for the series, Gross was working on the set of a different Perfection that had been built in California (the state in which all of the movies had been shot.)

However, the version of the town featured in Tremors 4 is different than how it appears in the other movies and TV show. In fact, it's not even called Perfection. It's Rejection.

It's perhaps because of the TV show that S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, and Nancy Roberts, the folks at Stampede Entertainment who were behind all of the Tremors projects, decided to take a very unexpected approach to the fourth movie. Since the show was set in Perfection and was meant to tell the continuing adventures of its residents, rather than make another modern story, they decided to make a prequel. The events of the original Tremors seemed to be mankind's first encounter with the subterranean species that came to be known as Graboids... but what if it had happened before? Like, say, in 1889? Then again, maybe they had the idea to make a prequel simply because "Cowboys and Graboids" is a really cool concept.

The story conceived by Wilson, Maddock, and Roberts was fleshed out into a screenplay by Scott Buck, a writer who has worked on such TV shows as Coach, Six Feet Under, and Dexter. Wilson had previously directed Tremors II: Aftershocks, and he again took the helm for part 4.

In 1889, the town of Rejection (someday to be known as Perfection) is just starting to get built up, its existence owed to the nearby, thriving Bottom Dollar silver mine. There's a hotel in town, run by a woman named Christine Lord, and the tented facade of Chang's Market, a business viewers know will survive all the way to modern day. Pyong Lien Chang, his wife Lu Wan, and their son Fu Yien are ancestors of the first movie's Walter Chang and Jodi Chang of part 3 and the TV series.

Rejection's progress comes to a screeching halt when tragedy strikes at the mine and seventeen workers die in one day. Not from a collapse or any typical mining accident - miner Juan Pedilla witnesses co-workers being pulled into the dirt by something, something which tears them apart. The mine is immediately closed down, and with the mine closed Rejection is largely abandoned.

The owner of the mine is not notified of the situation, but he certainly notices when the money stops coming in. He travels from Philadelphia to Rejection to get the mine going again... and when he arrives on a stagecoach several weeks after the closing, we are introduced to Michael Gross as Hiram Gummer, the great-grandfather of Burt and the complete opposite of his descendant. Hiram is not the outdoorsy type, he's a fussy dandy who doesn't own a firearm and can't ride a horse. He is completely out of his element here in the middle of nowhere.

The only people remaining in Rejection to greet Hiram are the Changs, Christine, a slightly off-kilter fellow known as Old Fred, Native American Tecopa, and Juan. Following some interactions where his rich and pampered personality clashes with those of these hard-working country dwellers, Hiram sets out to investigate the mine with Juan and a group of cowboys - Brick and Stony Walters, Big Horse Johnson, and Soggy. Only Hiram and Juan survive the expedition.

Since this story again deals with people discovering the existence of Graboids, it gave the filmmakers the opportunity to build them up and introduce them all over again. When the creatures attack the camp the men have made that night, we see the Graboids at a different point in their life cycle than ever before. Sure, we know the adult Graboids, part 2 showed us that they metamorphose into two-legged creatures called Shriekers, and part 3 showed that Shriekers molt into the two-legged, flying Ass-Blasters, which then lay Graboid eggs. For the first time, part 4 shows us baby Graboids. Like the adult versions, they hunt by sensing vibrations of sound and movement through the ground, but instead of using their snake-like tongues to grab people with, these little Graboids launch themselves out of the earth to knock people down. Even a smack with a pickaxe can kill a small Graboid, but that doesn't stop them from making quick work of Soggy, Big Horse and the Walters brothers.

Watching their companions get wiped out, Hiram and Juan are able to deduce how the Graboids work and are able to avoid them on their way back to Rejection. Once in town, Hiram sends out a telegram advertising for an exterminator of sorts. Rejection needs an experienced, quick draw gunfighter to come and kill off these little monsters.

Like Walter Chang named the Graboids in part 1, Pyong Lien Chang is the first one to say the name they're known by in this one: Dirt Dragons.

Another month passes with Hiram staying in Rejection, during which it comes to light that he is actually hurting for funds himself. His ailing father poured the entire family fortune into the silver mine. If Hiram can't get the mine operational again... he's just going to be an average citizen.

Finally, a gunfighter arrives to take on the job: character actor Billy Drago as Black Hand Kelly (so called because of the one black glove he wears.) Armed with some of the guns Christine has taken in trade for rooms from travelers and with Kelly riding with them, Hiram and Juan go back out into the countryside to find and eradicate the Dirt Dragons.

While on their search, the men find the shells of the eggs the four Dirt Dragons hatched out of, and the reason why the eggs hatched after being dormant for a presumably long, long stretch of time: a hot spring was pumped out of the mine and just happened to run out on the spot where the eggs were buried in the dirt, unearthing them and incubating them. Since Juan already killed one of the Dirt Dragons, these egg remnants let them know they have three more to deal with.

Their next discovery are scales that have been shed from the back of one of the small Dirt Dragons. Things like this never bode well.

And then, they find something even more disturbing - the battered remains of Old Fred's wagon, with Old Fred himself nowhere in sight.

There was a character known as Old Fred in the original movie, a sheep farmer who got pulled into the ground by the Graboids. His hat was later discovered on the ground at the spot where he got pulled down, and when his hat was moved aside, there was Old Fred's severed head underneath. Wilson plays on viewer's expectations and memories in this moment with the 1889 Old Fred's wagon. Juan finds his hat on the ground near the wagon, moves it aside... Nothing there. Then Old Fred's severed head is revealed to be beneath the wagon.

The three men find shelter in a muling station that night, and as they sleep the now full-grown Dirt Dragons arrive. Snake-like tongue tentacles enter the station through holes in the walls, seeking something to latch onto. This wakes the men up, Kelly reacts, opening fire on the tentacles. When they pull back out of the station, Kelly is very unimpressed. But Hiram and Juan know there is something else going on here, these things look nothing like the Dirt Dragons they saw before.

Preparing to be attacked, Kelly gives Hiram some quick shooting lessons, showing him how to hold a gun, how to take a stance, how to aim... This is the humble beginning of the Gummer family's appreciation of firearms.

The Dirt Dragons can't come through the thick beams that make up the station's floor, so their tentacle tongues start pulling the beams out of the building. Running out of floor and with their horses having run away, the men try to send a telegram message to Chang's Market... Not taking note of the fact that the beams aren't under the telegram machine. A Dirt Dragon/Graboid bursts up through the floor in all its glory, showing the men exactly what they're dealing with. It nearly makes a meal of Juan, but the men shoot it until it retreats.

Kelly is more than impressed by the full reveal. He's totally freaked out by it. He loses his cool, and by the time Christine rides in for a rescue, having noticed the clicking of the telegram machine at Chang's, Kelly has also lost his life.

Following a chase sequence that features an awesome shot of a Graboid crossing beneath a bridge in pursuit of Christine's wagon, Hiram is ready to write Rejection and the mine off as a total loss. The town's remaining residents refuse to leave their land, but Hiram abandons them and rides off to Carson City. Despite the effort the people of Rejection have put in, he has still not quite become a good person.

Hiram reaches the final stage of his development from the worthless fellow he was when he first arrived from Philadelphia to a well-rounded, caring individual in Carson City. While he's purchasing a train ticket back to Philly, a telegram comes in from Rejection. A telegram the ticket clerk just laughs off. Something about the people there needing help because giant worms are approaching the town.

Rather than escape to Philadelphia, Hiram rides back to Rejection with a wagon loaded down with weapons that he and the others will use in a last stand situation against the invading Dirt Dragons.

With the characters having less powerful weapons than typically featured in the modern day installments, and without the aid of Burt Gummer's homemade explosives, it's quite interesting to see how Graboids are dealt with in the 1800s. One weapon used against the creatures is a massive shotgun called a punt gun, which was used around this time for duck hunting. It's very impressive, and I'm sure Burt would love to get the chance to shoot one. It works well for his great-grandfather.

A Tremors prequel is not something I ever would have expected, but I find the end result to be highly entertaining. Something about the mixture of horror/creature feature elements and a Western setting really appeals to me, and it was pulled off very well.

Michael Gross is always great in these movies, and it's enjoyable to watch him play a character who starts off totally different from Burt Gummer and gradually grows over the course of the movie. There are things sprinkled in that show how the Gummer family went from someone like Hiram to someone like Burt in a few generations. In the final moment, it's very clear how Hiram's interests paved the way for his great-grandson's personality.

The movie also shows Rejection becoming Perfection, even though the town sign in the other movies says Perfection wasn't established until 1902.

Hiram is surrounded by a bunch of very likeable characters and actors. In addition to Billy Drago as Black Hand Kelly, there's Brent Roam as Juan, Sara Botsford as Christine, August Schellenberg as Tecopa, J.E. Freeman as Old Fred, and Ming Lo, Lydia Look, and Sam Ly as the Changs. I would've gladly revisited these characters to watch another Old West entry in the Tremors series. Cowboys on horseback going up against a herd of Shriekers sounds like the makings of a hell of a movie to me.

A fun aspect of these movies is how the filmmakers always gave you a new look at the creatures in each installment, whether they were becoming something else, or here just being a lot smaller when they're newly hatched.

The effects in Tremors 4 are also an improvement over those in part 3, which were somewhat lacking, including some dodgy CGI. The effects here are a refreshing return to more, and better, practical work.

For some reason, I often see the Tremors sequels getting looked down upon online, but I think it's a fantastic series. The only installment I have issues with is the third film. Tremors II is, in my estimation, nearly as good as the original, and The Legend Begins is wonderful companion piece to the original, with similar scenarios playing out in a 19th century way. Tremors is a quality series made up of some of the most entertaining monster movies out there.

When I started writing these Tremors articles back in the summer, I thought the chance of seeing the series continue any time soon was slim to none. The TV show was cancelled eleven years ago, Tremors 4 was released more than ten years ago. Although S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock wrote a script for a Tremors 5 soon after part 4 came out, rumors that it might finally head into production rarely came around. For most of the last decade, Universal has shown little interest in returning to the world of Tremors. I was resigned to the thought that a fifth movie might never happen.

And yet, by the time I'm finishing these write-ups, Tremors 5 has finally been made. The sequel was filmed in South Africa over the last month, with Michael Gross once again in the lead as Burt Gummer, and is set for release in 2016. Although the fact that the series creators at Stampede Entertainment weren't involved with the production is disappointing, I'm still overjoyed that Tremors 5 finally exists and I'm looking forward to it with great anticipation.

I thought Tremors was over, but in 2016 Burt Gummer and the Graboids will return!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Well written review /summaries I fully agree with...
    Looking fwd to Tremors: Bloodline :-)

  3. are you gonna review tremors 5: bloodlines

    1. I will be writing an article on Tremors 5 sometime in the next month or two. Thanks for reading!

      - Cody

    2. A little later than intended, but the Tremors 5 article has now been posted -