Saturday, October 4, 2014

Tremors II: Aftershocks

The threat evolves as the Tremors series continues.

The sequel to the 1990 creature feature Tremors was directed by S.S. Wilson, the writer who had the initial idea for the Graboids, the subterranean monsters at the series' core, from a screenplay he co-wrote with Brent Maddock, who also co-wrote the first film with him.

For this follow-up, the setting is moved from the desert landscape of Perfection, Nevada, to the grassy hills of Chiapas, Mexico. Until the events of the first film, Graboids had never before reared their ugly heads in recorded history. But now, just a few years later, a new batch of Graboids have begun terrorizing Petromaya, one of the biggest oilfields in Mexico, picking off workers and forcing them to shut down production.

Carlos Ortega, a representative of the oil company, travels to the United States in hopes of enlisting the aid of Valentine McKee and Earl Basset, the men who enjoyed their fifteen minutes of fame for taking on the Graboids in Perfection. They were on magazine covers, got interviewed on network television... but didn't get a cut of the Graboid arcade game. Now married to Rhonda LeBeck, the woman he bonded with during the Graboid ordeal, Val wants nothing to do with this Graboid-infested oilfield, so Earl is sought out to receive an offer.

Still living in Perfection and running an unsuccessful ostrich ranch, Earl is talked into accepting Ortega's offer by Grady Hoover, a superfan of the Graboid phenomenon and the cab driver who brought Ortega in from Las Vegas. It's a potentially very profitable offer, if Earl can survive it: the oil company wants him to come down to Chiapas and hunt the Graboids until they're wiped out and oilfield, and the surrounding area, are safe. For each Graboid he kills, Earl will earn $50,000. The Mexican Army is willing to supply him with any weapons he requests for this endeavor. There's also an offer of $100,000 on the table if Earl can manage to capture a Graboid alive, but he knows that is a ridiculous idea.

Earl is very afraid of facing the Graboids again, but he needs the cash. He heads down to Mexico, and Grady talks his way into accompanying him. In contrast to Earl's fear, Grady is like a kid in a candy store, excited and giddy at the thought of being able to battle Graboids with the Earl Basset.

When Earl and Grady arrive in Chiapas, the only people who haven't left the refinery, or been killed, are Ortega, chief engineer Pedro, geologist Kate Reilly, and her assistant Julio.

Earl and Kate instantly take an interest in each other, and it's not until much later that Earl realizes that Kate is also the 1974 Playboy Playmate whose centerfold he keeps up on his wall to remind him not to chase after things he's never going to get... He might just get her after all...

Seismographs have been set up all over the oilfield to track the Graboids' movements, and as he and Grady head out into the hills to go Graboid hunting, Earl's pickup truck is equipped with a monitor showing them the seismograph readings, so they'll always know where the Graboids are around them.

Using themselves as bait, Earl and Grady drive around the hills making as much noise as possible. When they draw the attention of a Graboid, they stop the truck and send out little remote controlled trucks. Ones strapped with dynamite. When the Graboid eats the RC truck, Earl hits the detonation switch. The Graboid blows up. An easy $50,000.

For a while, it's all fun and games. Earl and Grady rack up the confirmed Graboid kills and are looking to make a whole lot of money from this. Grady begins dreaming of opening a monster-themed amusement park. But when the seismograph monitor shows their truck getting swarmed by Graboids even after they've killed twelve of the slimy creatures, they figure it's time to call in reinforcements.

Enter Burt Gummer, survivalist and Perfection resident, who keeps the head of the Graboid he killed in the first film stuffed and mounted on the wall of his rec room. Now separated from his wife Heather, Burt is depressed and looking for meaning in his life. He throws himself into the Graboid hunt with gusto, taking full advantage of the Mexican Army's offer of weaponry. Within twenty-four hours, Burt has caught up with Earl and Grady's numbers.

A good portion of Tremors II's running time is a highly entertaining turnaround on the set-up of the first movie. In the original, the characters were trapped and trying to escape from the Graboids, they were the hunted. Here, the characters are in control of the situation, they are the hunters and they're wiping these monsters out. But that can't sustain an entire film, there has to be some kind of twist. For Aftershocks, the twist comes right around the halfway point.

During their hunt, Earl and Grady notice a Graboid behaving very strangely. Instead of coming toward them, it heads away from them. It bursts up out of the ground... and just lays there, shuddering and letting out cries that seem to be pained. It's above ground and immobilized, this could be their $100,000 live capture. But something's wrong with it. All of the other Graboids disappear from the seismographs, too. All going through this same process at the same time.

The Graboids are going through a metamorphosis. Each one of them splits open, and from within emerges the next stage of their life span. One of the likely reasons why there are so many more Graboids in the sequel than there were in the first movie (which only had four total) is so there would be more of the second stage creatures for the characters to deal with. From inside each Graboid comes three of the new, two-legged creatures.

I remember reading the first news about Tremors II in an issue of Fangoria, and in the announcement was mention of the fact that the sequel would feature a two-legged stage of the Graboids' development. My "tween" imagination went crazy imagining what such a creature could possibly look like, the first image that came to mind being similar to King Hiss, an old He-Man villain who had snakes as limbs; a humanoid being with the Graboid snake-tentacle-tongues for arms. I definitely didn't imagine anything close to the reality. The real version is a whole lot better.

The creatures that emerge from the Graboid carcasses are called Shriekers. Small, dinosaur-like creatures, sightless like Graboids, unable to hear, but like Graboids are drawn by vibrations in the ground, the Shriekers are attracted to heat. When they sense that a heat source may be near, sensors open up on top of their heads to confirm. Confirming the presence of heat, the creatures let out a terrible shriek – that's how they get their name – and charge the heat source, devouring it, no matter what it is. People, car engines, if it's hot, they'll eat it. And as the characters are horrified to witness, once they've eaten their fill, they expel a baby Shrieker from their mouths. Hermaphroditic reproduction.

Amalgamated Dynamics did a fantastic job designing the Shriekers. Despite being quite different from the Graboids, they are still clearly of the same species.

Soon the refinery is completely overrun with Shriekers, and Earl, Grady, Burt, and Kate must fight to stop them from spreading – at the rate they multiply, it wouldn't take these little monsters long to overrun an entire country.

Due to the birth of the Shriekers, the second half of Tremors II is able to keep up the creature feature thrills of the franchise without being a simple retread of the first movie. The Shriekers are a very different type of threat than the Graboids, which allows the sequel to deliver a different type of fun in watching the characters figuring out how to deal with them. Before they couldn't walk across the ground, now they have to somehow conceal their heat.

Tremors II: Aftershocks was a direct-to-video release (a release I was very excited for and was at the video store to rent as soon as it came out) and the lower budget is noticeable in the film, but not so much that it suffers from it. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, Tremors II is the best direct-to-video sequel ever made.

S.S. Wilson did a great job taking over from Ron Underwood as director and maintaining the same tone, sense of humor, and sense of adventure that was established in the first film. Aftershocks is an excellent extension of everything Tremors featured, with a monster twist that keeps it fresh. Like its predecessor, this follow-up is a movie that I've found to be fun for the whole family, I've watched it with parents, grandparents, nieces and nephews, and a good time was had by everyone.

Fred Ward and Michael Gross came back to reprise the roles of Earl and Burt, and it's still greatly enjoyable to watch them be those characters. In the case of Burt, he's an even more enjoyable presence in the sequel, because his character was a bit of a jerk in part 1, other characters had issues with him. That's not the case here, Burt is nothing but fun to watch this time around.

As one would expect, Kevin Bacon didn't return for a DTV sequel, so Valentine McKee was replaced by Grady Hoover as Earl's sidekick, and I like Chris Gartin's performance as the hyped-up fanboy. Val and Earl would play games of "rock, paper, scissors" to decide which of them would do a task, and it's a game Earl continues with Grady, who's not so good at it.

Helen Shaver portrays Kate Reilly, and while she's good in the role, her voice and scream aren't the greatest for being in a monster movie. It's kind of grating...

Wilson and Maddock did throw fans who were overly curious about the origin of the Graboids a bone with one scene in Aftershocks – Kate realizes that a fossil found in a chunk of pre-Cambrian rock is actually part of a Graboid, meaning these monsters are actually one of the oldest lifeforms on the planet. So there you go. They're not radiation mutants, and Earl was wrong, they're not from outer space. These creatures have been around since before the dinosaurs, but have obviously been dormant for a long, long time.

Direct-to-video sequels don't have a good reputation, and for good reason in a lot of cases, but Tremors II: Aftershocks is not one to be avoided. If you liked the first Tremors, chances are that you'll like part 2, and I highly recommend it. Like Tremors, Tremors II is one of my favorites.

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