Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Tremors 5: Bloodlines

The creatures are back, and so is Burt Gummer.

Tremors co-creators S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock and franchise producer Nancy Roberts came up with the story for the fifth Tremors film very soon after the release of Tremors 4: The Legend Begins in 2004, and Wilson and Maddock actually wrote up a screenplay at that time. The title on the script was Tremors 5: Gummer Down Under!, although possible alternate subtitles The Thunder from Down Under or simply Thunder Down Under have also been brought up over time. As you can glean from those subtitles, the story featured series hero Burt Gummer taking a monster hunting trip to Australia.

Once the script was complete, the project languished in development hell for eleven years, as the executives at Universal, the franchise's studio home, had no interest in making more Tremors at the time. As the years went by, Wilson, Maddock, and Roberts tried to keep hope alive, as every time there was a regime change at the studio there was a chance the new executives might greenlight more Tremors. Interest in Tremors 5 spiked at Universal in 2008, then died down again. The creators tried to obtain the rights to make a sequel on their own through their company Stampede Entertainment, but Universal held on to them. Through all of this, Stampede had a supporter within the studio named Patti Jackson. When Jackson pushed for Tremors 5 yet again around 2014, the executives finally agreed to go ahead with it... with one shocking stipulation.

For whatever reason, Universal did not want Stampede to have much creative input in what they did with Tremors 5. The people who had created the series and shepherded it through four previous features and a TV show would be given executive producer credits, but little control over any decisions. Rather than take such a substantial step back, Wilson, Maddock, and Roberts chose not to be involved at all.

By this time, the 2004 script needed some revisions, in no small part because, due to the project's low budget, the setting was moved from Australia to South Africa, one of the top destinations for low budget productions. Thankfully, someone who had previous Tremors experience was brought on to handle the rewrites - John Whelpley, who wrote the script for Tremors 3: Back to Perfection (from a story by Wilson, Maddock, and Roberts). Given that I felt Tremors 3 had the most troublesome script of the series, Whelpley is not who I would have turned to, but I like that they went with him rather than someone completely new to the series.

Of course, since the previous films were all directed by either Wilson, Maddock, or Stampede partner Ron Underwood, the director had to be someone completely new to the series, and that person was Don Michael Paul, who got his start starring in movies like the awesome Rolling Vengeance, got into writing with the awesome Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, and is now enjoying an enviable career as a go-to director for direct-to-video action movies and creature features, his credits including Lake Placid: The Final Chapter and Sniper: Legacy.

Whelpley did his revisions, but the finished film is still close enough to what Wilson, Maddock, and Roberts had written that all retain credit, although they opted for pseudonyms: Woodrow Truesmith, which was the name of a character from the 1944 film Hail the Conquering Hero, M.A. Deuce, which is a gun, and C.J. Strebor. Note that Strebor is Roberts spelled backwards.

Only three vague details have been revealed about what the original script contained - the characters would learn that Ass-Blasters - the flying, egg-laying stage of the Graboid life cycle - congregate in special geologic areas to lay their eggs, each laying a single egg; the Australian variation of the subterranean Graboid creatures would look somewhat different from the North American species; and survivalist/firearm enthusiast Burt Gummer would get his hands on a mini-gun. One of those elements made it into the finished film. The African species of Graboid does look different... and it should be noted that the Shriekers in the Night of the Shriekers episode of the short-lived Tremors television series didn't look any different from the Shriekers we had previously seen, despite having metamorphosed from a Graboid in the Sahara, so maybe it's specifically the South African species that looks different.

Since the Tremors series had been dormant for eleven years, Tremors 5: Bloodlines (and what a generic subtitle that is) smartly begins with a sequence that reminds viewers just what this series is about. Michael Gross makes his triumphant return to the role of Burt Gummer, a role he hasn't been seen in since the Water Hazard episode of Tremors: The Series in 2003, and we find that Burt is still doing what he was doing on that show, trying to make a living off of his survivalist knowledge. Now he's working on a show called The Survivalist with Burt Gummer, and the recap of just what Graboids, Shriekers, and Ass-Blasters are is presented as being part of The Survivalist, with Burt narrating an animated sequence describing the three stage life cycle.

The only issue I have with this is the fact that the animated version of the Graboid isn't the classic one that we know, it's the South African species that we won't be seeing until later in the film.

Following this recap, the story proper begins with big game hunter Johan Dreyer (Brandon Auret) and a pal on unsuccessful search for exotic animals in the Gauteng Province in South Africa. The Cradle of Humankind. After stumbling into a cave, Dreyer's friend is torn apart by a swift, shadowy creature we'll come to realize was an Ass-Blaster.

When the title appears on the screen, it does so in the exact same way as it did in the original film. A nice touch, none of the other sequels did that. The camera even pushes through the bottom of the M in Tremors like it did in the first movie, and the next sight we see then, as in the first movie, is of a man urinating in the desert. They didn't really need to replicate that moment as well, but this movie does repeatedly display an odd fascination with urine. 7 minutes into the film and this is already the second time we've seen pee; moments earlier we got a shot of the bodily fluid when Dreyer's friend pissed himself while he was getting attacked. In all, there are five piss gags in this movie and I'm left wondering why.

The guy taking a leak is Jamie Kennedy as Travis B. Welker, who proceeds to rip off through the Mojave Desert on a motorcycle, doing tricks as he goes, the title sequence playing out over this imagery. The film needs to establish that Travis has riding skills, but would someone really do tricks while making their way across unfamiliar terrain? That really seems like something that should only be done on a designated track.

Travis crashes the shoot of Burt's latest episode and takes over the job of cameraman, having made a deal with the current guy behind Burt's back. What plays out here is very reminiscent of Tremors II: Aftershocks. There we had the new character Grady showing up and saying he was a big fan of established character Earl, now we have Travis showing up and claiming to be a big fan of Burt. There a representative from the Petromaya oilfield in Mexico came seeking the help of Earl in ridding the oilfield of a Graboid infestation, and here Travis and Burt's awkward interaction is interrupted by the arrival of Erich Van Wyk (Daniel Janks), a man who says he's from the South African Wildlife Ministry... and he needs Burt to go back to South Africa with him to eradicate an Ass-Blaster. The species has not, as Burt believed, been confined to the Northern Hemisphere.

Convincing Burt that he's trustworthy with his credentials (he has worked as a cameraman for CNN and Fox in Syria and Afghanistan), Travis then goes to work on an endeavor to boost Burt's popularity and make him more money, starting with this monster hunting gig Van Wyk is offering. While Burt would have accepted it with no questions or demands, Travis turns it down - they're busy fighting other monsters, like Bigfoot, gremlins, and werewolves. By the time the deal is closed, Van Wyk has agreed to fund The Survivalist for four years.

Upon arrival in Africa, Burt meets a kindred spirit in drunken pilot/outdoorsman Den Bravers (Ian Roberts), but also has some bad news waiting for him - customs has a three day hold on the weaponry he brought, so Van Wyk has provided him with some substandard guns; he and Travis butt heads with the egomaniacal Dreyer; and Van Wyk is hoping that he'll be able to capture an Ass-Blaster alive.

Things go a bit better for Travis at the safari lodge that will serve as the hunt's base of operations. There he meets nature reserve owner and veterinarian Dr. Nandi Montabu (Pearl Thusi), who he takes an instant romantic interest in, and her young daughter Amahle (Nolitha Zulu), who is introduced while doing something that serves as foreshadowing for the climax of the film: using electricity to draw worms out of the ground.

Burt knows that Ass-Blasters won't be the only problem they'll have to deal with. He also expects Graboids, which is why he has brought a seismo-monitor that will alert him to vibrations in the ground within a fifty mile radius.

Of course, Burt is right that there are Graboids around, and they've been in Africa off and on for a long time, as proven when a pair of paleontologists unearth a Graboid fossil at a nearby dig site. This fossil is of a Graboid that was different than the ones we've seen before; it was larger and leaner, a "super digger", and would spit acid into the ground to help its movement through the dirt.

While they're celebrating their fossil find, the paleontologists are attacked and killed by a new Graboid in a shaky, quick-cut moment that implies there's something different about the way this Graboid attacks its prey.

When the Graboids showed up in the first Tremors, they were a complete mystery. These creatures were unprecedented. Sure, we found out in Tremors 4 that Burt's ancestor Hiram Gummer had battled Graboids in 1889, but that incident was kept secret. In Tremors II it was confirmed that the Graboids are prehistoric lifeforms, but the Shrieker stage of their life cycle still came as a shock, as did the Ass-Blaster stage in Tremors 3. Apparently all anyone ever need to do to learn everything about these creatures was to talk to someone from South Africa. Nandi invites Travis to a native dance that turns out to be all about how the tribe's ancestors fought Graboids and Ass-Blasters long ago. This is a public performance, the monsters have been common knowledge for a long time here.

Referred to the locals as Lightning Birds, the South African variety of Ass-Blasters are nocturnal hunters, and we get our first good look at one of them 35 minutes into the film when these birds of prey show up at the reserve. Ass-Blasters were re-designed from the ground up for this movie, there is no resemblance at all to the North American Ass-Blasters we've seen before. In fact, this version of the creature seems to be a little over-designed.

After Van Wyk's assistant Thaba (Sello Sebotsane) is carried off by an Ass-Blaster, the lodge is evacuated and Burt goes out on the hunt with Van Wyk and Dreyer... along the way taking a moment to berate Travis for going to the dance instead of focusing on what they came to do. Burt is extremely intense in this film, almost to the degree of being a douchebag. This might be the most unpleasant he has been since he was pissing people off in the first movie.

The cave that houses the Ass-Blaster colony is located, Van Wyk and Dreyer have a lion cage ready so they can capture one, but Burt goes against their wishes and shoots to kill after being proven right - tranquilizer darts don't work on Ass-Blasters. (We learned that in the Blast from the Past episode of the TV series.) Burt shoots an A-B out of the sky, igniting its flammable gastrointestinal chemicals, and the flaming pieces fall down on top of Dreyer, killing him.

And this moment is my single biggest problem with Tremors 5. Burt has directly caused the death of another human being, and the only hint of remorse we get is a quick shot of a "I didn't mean for that to happen" expression on his face. Dreyer was an arrogant jerk and I'm glad to see him exit the picture, but Burt should not have been responsible for his death, accident or not. That character should have died in a different way, especially if there was no intention to deal with Burt's guilt over causing his death.

Burt noticed that the heat-sensing Ass-Blaster was behaving oddly, going after the people and ignoring the greater heat of a flare he had tossed, and he discovers why when he checks its corpse. There's a Graboid egg inside of it. It was guarding a nest that will soon be hatching multiple Graboids.

When Burt pulls the egg out of the A-B's body, Van Wyk reveals himself to be a villain. A poacher, he steals the egg so he can sell it on the black market, the same thing he would have done with a captured Ass-Blaster. So he can get away with this, he locks Burt in the lion cage and leaves him to die in the sun.

The sequence with Burt trapped in this cage is when the movie's preoccupation with urine comes out in full force. As he struggles to survive the heat, he first pours a cup of his own urine on himself as insect repellent and later drinks another cup. Eventually a lion wanders by to check out the cage, and this animal pisses on Burt, too. To make it even more gross, some of the lion pee gets in Burt's mouth and he spits it out. What is with this movie and urine?

There are cameras mounted on the side of the cage, which Burt speaks his last will and testament into, getting in a reference to his ex-wife Heather, who was played by Reba McEntire in the first movie. These cameras end up being how Burt is saved.

Travis is not only tech saavy, he also claims to have spent some time working for the NSA. Suspicious of Van Wyk, he has done a background check on him and discovered that the South African Wildlife Ministry doesn't even exist. He has also set up the cameras for remote viewing and is able to watch their video stream from the lodge. Seeing Burt in trouble, he drives out into the countryside to rescue him... Unfortunately, when seismic activity indicates that a Graboid is chasing them, he drives up on some rocks and busts the vehicle's fuel line. Now he and Burt are both stranded.

They're not the only ones in trouble. Ass-Blasters come out in daylight to attack the lodge, where the only people remaining are Nandi, Amahle, and employee Baruti (Rea Rangaka), Travis's rival for Nandi's affection. Although Nandi had earlier provided Burt with a machine gun, prompting Travis to question why a veterinarian would have a machine gun, when the creatures attack she busts out a bow and arrow instead of a firearm. It's a wise choice, because she looks badass toting around her bow and quiver, and she's quite a good shot.

As many viewers have noted, director Paul lifted some shots straight out of Jurassic Park for a sequence in which an Ass-Blaster is menacing Amahle and Baruti in the lodge kitchen.

Van Wyk didn't get very far. Burt and Travis are able to arm themselves with weapons from the wreckage of his vehicle, then come across the man himself, being terrorized by creatures that want the stolen egg back. Our heroes are there to witness it as the human villain is attacked by a new evolution of the Graboid species: the tentacle tongues are able to detach and go off hunting for prey on their own, like really ugly snakes. I'm really uncertain about this new ability, I don't see why it's necessary beyond just tossing something unexpected in there, but it doesn't amount to much. These things are, as said in the first movie, "just their tongues", they don't need to be going after people separately. I guess I can accept it simply because some octopi can detach their tentacles, which have the majority of their neurons in them, but really... I would rather they hadn't thrown in this twist.

Burt saves Van Wyk from a stray tentacle, a Grabber as Burt calls it, but can't save him from a full Graboid that launches itself out of the ground like a dolphin from water in a very over-the-top moment.

Burt and Travis set their sights on destroying the nest of Graboid eggs the Ass-Blasters are guarding in their cave home. Stage one of this mission involves Travis heading into the cave by himself with some flares and a vest of grenades. While doing this, he paraphrases a famous Die Hard quote and comes face-to-face with an angry Ass-Blaster. Stage two involves Burt calling in some assistance from a heavily-armed Bravers, who shows up with rockets mounted on the side of his helicopter.

Bravers has a close call with a Graboid, but remember, he's like the South African Burt Gummer. Burt got swallowed by a Graboid and escaped in Tremors 3... After seeing Bravers get swallowed, Burt drops my favorite line in the entire movie, an exasperated "This is a bag of dicks."

The helicopter's rockets are used for Graboid egg scrambling, and I'm curious if this is where Burt got his hands on a mini-gun in the original script. Did Wilson and Maddock have him blowing eggs apart with bullets instead of rockets? Burt would have loved using a mini-gun, but the rockets make him quite happy as well.

Or perhaps Burt got a mini-gun for the climax in the script, while here Bravers gifts him with a belt-fed machine gun when they part company.

Graboids join in on the action back at the Ass-Blaster besieged lodge as well, but it turns out that these Graboids who keep spinning up out of the ground and into the air open themselves up to being dispatched in ways that wouldn't work on the average Graboid. For example, previous Graboids wouldn't find themselves smashing into an exploding vehicle.

On their way back to the lodge, Travis reveals why he keeps bringing up a gun show Burt mentioned having attended in Florida in 1974, why he refers to Burt as "pops", and a reason for the movie to be called Bloodlines beyond the creature life cycle. Travis is Burt's illegitimate son, fathered with a hippie girl called Jasmine who Burt met during his time in Florida. Which was, I would hope, before Heather. In what I have to imagine was an ad lib by Jamie Kennedy, Travis even says "Bloodlines. Feel a theme happening here?" to make sure the viewer gets it.

I'm not really sure why they decided to make Burt's new, technologically inclined, immature-for-his-age sidekick his son as well, but I don't mind, the fact that Burt has a son he didn't know about until the "kid" was 40 doesn't really alter the character in any way. Although Burt is understandably shocked.

The emotions stirred up by this revelation are quickly pushed aside as Burt and Travis find themselves under attack by the detached tentacles/Grabbers.

An entire action sequence was cut out at this point. It can be seen, with unfinished effects and storyboards filling in the gaps, in the deleted scenes section of the DVD and Blu-ray. What happened was, the Graboid chasing them manages to knock down a bridge as they're driving across it and Travis falls into the water below. Burt uses a winch on their truck to pull Travis out of the water... getting him out just before a swimming Graboid would have snatched him. An action scene that was mostly filmed getting cut out is somewhat shocking to me, especially with this movie's budget being so low, but I'm glad it was removed. Fans have been discussing the possibility of underwater Graboids for a long time - in the late '90s there was an internet rumor that we would be getting Tremors 3: The Aquatic Species - but if Graboids are going to start swimming I think it warrants more focus than just being featured in one very quick scene.

The creatures have reached the village near the lodge, as Nandi and Baruti discover when they witness a store clerk being pulled through the floor of the establishment... Even worse, while they were in the store Amahle has wandered away and gotten surrounded by Grabbers. Burt and Travis arrive just in time to see this as well - and to deduce that the creatures are surrounding her because the basket she's holding contains a Graboid egg that she found. This egg is important, Burt says, becuase it's the last of the species' bloodline in this area.

How could Burt be sure of this? If one egg could be found outside of the cave nest, then why couldn't there be more out there in the countryside?

To end this Graboid/Grabbers/Ass-Blaster problem once and for all, a plan is put together that was set up with Travis's title sequence bike stunts and scenes that happened at the lodge earlier. The concept of drawing worms out of the ground with electricity, combined with the concept of the "Monkey's Wedding" sunshowers that are said to roll in every day at 3pm during this season. I don't know if such clockwork storms actually exist, but there's a place in Venezuela that has lightning 260 nights out of the year, so I suppose I can let this idea slide... with some lingering uncertainty.

Monsters successfully hunted, father and son learn to embrace their differences and return to the U.S. to film a new season of The Survivalist together. The Survivalist with Burt Gummer and Travis B. Welker. Several shots from that deleted action sequence are included in the Survivalist opening that we're shown mid-credits.

The Burt Gummer adventure continues. But will we see it continue? And if so, how?

When I started writing about the Tremors movies back in 2014, it had been a decade since the last Tremors movie and Tremors 5 still appeared to be trapped in development hell. A franchise I loved seemed to be over, even though a script existed for another sequel. I am very happy that Tremors 5 finally happened, that the script was finally brought to the script, even if it wasn't as it was originally intended. There is now closure on that chapter in Tremors history.

As glad as I am to have it, I do have issues with Tremors 5. The Stampede team absolutely should have been involved with the making of it, they are this series, the style and tone of the movies and the TV show have been a reflection of their sensibilities to this point, and that is a big part of why the fans have loved the franchise so much. Bloodlines is still tied to them, it is a revised version of their words, but it has a very different feel than what came before it, certainly very different from what a Stampede Bloodlines would have felt like. Don Michael Paul did a great job directing the film, it looks wonderful and very cinematic, but he made choices that I don't think a Stampede director would have made.

The tone of Tremors 5 feels darker, rougher, at times almost to an off-putting degree.  It doesn't have that lively adventure feeling of previous installments, and although there are lots of attempts at humor, mostly delivered by Jamie Kennedy, this new found grit overwhelms most of it for me. Then there's the toilet humor... I really don't think Stampede's version would have included five instances of urination, in faces and mouths.

Also different is the way the Graboids and Ass-Blasters are presented. The Ass-Blaster re-design, the way the Graboids are always catching air, it's totally overblown and over-the-top. Graboids shouldn't be acting like that, it's unnecessary to change them in that way. I guess you can get away with more when you're a few sequels down the line, but the original Tremors wouldn't have endured like it has if the Graboids moved in that one the way the do here.

And there's the issue of Burt causing the death of Dreyer. That really bothers me. It's such an off moment that it drags the entire movie down a few notches for me.

But even when taking all the flaws, questionable decisions, and lack of Stampede into account, I'm still grateful to have Tremors 5 in my collection.

Around the time Tremors 5 finally started moving forward, Kevin Bacon, who played Valentine McKee in the original film, started mentioning in interviews that he had recently rewatched Tremors and saw what a solid film it was, something he didn't fully realize at the time he was making it. As a "serious actor" he had been a bit depressed by the fact that he was making a giant worm movie, but now he recognizes its virtues. And, he said, of all the characters he has played, he would be most interested in reprising the role of Val and finding out where he is 25+ years later. This caused a lot of excitement among fans, because we have been wanting to see the return of Val for years, but at first Universal seemed entirely disinterested.

Then, in the wake of Tremors 5's release, came an announcement. Universal is teaming with Blumhouse Productions, the company behind such franchises as Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Sinister, to develop a new Tremors TV series that Kevin Bacon will star in and executive produce. Writer Andrew Miller, the creator of a short-lived show called The Secret Circle, is currently at work figuring out how to approach this new series, which will be set in Perfection, Nevada, the small desert town where the events of Tremors, Tremors 3, and (most episodes of) the previous TV show played out.

On one hand, I am incredibly existed that we're going to be getting more Tremors and that Bacon will be back as Val. On the other, I'm slightly worried. I'm worried because, again, Stampede isn't involved, and worried that a star coming back from the original film might be used as an excuse for a new creative team to wipe out the franchise's continuity and act like the Tremors without Bacon never happened. Val may not have been in them, but their stories and the Graboid life cycle they established should be honored... And part of honoring them would mean including Burt Gummer. You can't have a Tremors show set in Perfection without including Michael Gross as Burt Gummer, Val's neighbor who he frequently butted heads with in the first movie. Gross has not been contacted by the producers of this new show yet, but hopefully he will be getting a call any time now.

There is more Tremors coming, and I look forward to finding out what it's going to be like. When it arrives, I will be writing about it here on Life Between Frames.

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