Thursday, October 2, 2014

Tremors (1990)

Cody kicks off Tremors month with an appreciative look at the film that started it all.

As he has stated in interviews, writer S.S. Wilson was sitting on a rock in the California desert when the basic idea for what would become Tremors initially struck him. Sitting there, Wilson began to wonder – what if there was something under the ground, some kind of creature, that would keep him from getting off the rock?

With the aid of fellow writers Brent Maddock and Ron Underwood, Wilson continued to develop that idea into a screenplay, one which was eventually brought to life as a film production with Underwood in the director's seat. A movie that was shot in the California desert, appropriate given where Wilson was when he had the idea, but not where it's actually set.

The setting is the small, remote town of Perfection, Nevada. Established in 1902, current population 14. At the center of the story that begins to unfold are Valentine McKee and Earl Basset, a pair of handymen who do any sort of odd job the residents of Perfection require of them. They build fences, install linoleum or anything else, bury garbage, clean out septic tanks... And they're getting sick of it. Their lives are going nowhere in Perfection, so on this day they decide to make a break for it. They're moving to the city of Bixby.

But Val and Earl have decided to leave Perfection just one day too late.

The first indication that something is wrong in Perfection Valley comes from Rhonda LeBeck, a graduate student monitoring seismographs in the desert countryside and noticing some very strange readings on them. But Val and Earl don't know anything seismology and Val in particular isn't interested in Rhonda because her looks don't match up to his standards, so they brush that off.

It's not so easy to brush off the discoveries they make on the road to Bixby. First, they find a transient named Edgar up on an electrical tower with a rifle in his hands. Edgar is dead. According to the local doctor, he died of dehydration.

The fact that Edgar stayed up on that tower until he died of thirst indicates that there was something dangerous and terrifying below him. The way the information on just what frightened Edgar so badly is gradually revealed to the audience, and to the characters in the film, is incredibly well handled.

After the Edgar revelation, we see a sheep farmer named Fred working his land. Something disturbs his sheep, rattles the scarecrow he has standing on his property... and then that same something sucks the old man, screaming in pain, down into the ground. The attack on Fred coincides with Rhonda noticing those strange readings on a seismograph, so we know whatever just killed him is what has been shaking the ground around Perfection.

Again, Val and Earl find a dead body while trying to get out of town, but all that's left of Fred is his head. Speeding back into Perfection, they warn a couple of road workers that there's a maniac out there chopping peoples' heads off. Those road workers are the next victims.

While one of the workers is using a jackhammer, the tip of the tool goes through the ground and blood comes gushing out of the hole. We now know that whatever scared Edgar and killed Fred is a living, bleeding creature. A creature that proceeds to kill these road workers and cause a rockslide that blocks the road. The only road out of Perfection.

By the time rancher Miguel is reporting to his fellow Perfection residents that some of his cattle are missing, we already have a good idea of what happened to them. After warning the others about what happened to Fred, Val and Earl attempt to drive to Bixby for help and find the road blocked and the workers dead. As they try to turn around to head back into Perfection, their truck gets snagged on something. Something strong, which Val has to hit the gas hard to pull it free of.

When the guys get back to Walter Chang's Market in Perfection, they find that they have some kind of snake-like creature wrapped around the underside of their truck. This is what was keeping the truck from moving.

That night, the doctor and his wife are killed by the underground creature. He is pulled into the ground much like Fred was, and when his wife attempts to escape in their station wagon, multiple snake-like creatures slam themselves into the car's windows as it is slowly pulled down into the ground with the screaming woman inside. So now it appears that the problem in Perfection is a bunch of underground snakes.

Val and Earl attempt to ride into Bixby on horseback, but are thwarted by an attack by these creatures, which they finally see are coming from under the ground as they wrap themselves around one of the horses. Val shoots out of the snakes with a rifle... And that's when we get the full reveal of what these things are, when a much larger creature erupts up from the ground.

The snake-like things are just tentacles, basically tongues (although tongues that bite with mouths of their own) that unfurl from the mouth of the beast, which is reminiscent of a giant worm. Walter Chang will come to name this species Graboids.

Graboids are totally subterranean, they don't have eyeballs, they move around under the ground and hunt their prey by sensing even the slightest vibrations. If you're moving on the ground, the Graboids know you're there. And they're always hungry.

With the help of Rhonda, and her clever idea to pole-vault from boulder to boulder across a stretch of desert until they reach her truck, Val and Earl make it back to Perfection. They're trapped there with the rest of the locals, as the Graboids have been moving in the direction of the town this whole time.

In addition to Val, Earl, Rhonda, store owner Walter, and rancher Miguel, the people in Perfection include a man named Nestor; Nancy, a single mother to a young pogo stick-enthusiast daughter named Mindy; survivalist Burt Gummer and his wife Heather; and an extremely annoying teenage boy named Melvin, whose father had the good luck to be out of town. Perfection is geographically isolated, which is the reason why Burt moved there in the first place. There are mountains to the east and the west, cliffs to the north, the only way to reach the town is the road to Bixby, now closed. Now, what made it hard to reach makes it hard to escape, especially when you can't move across the ground without getting attacked.

By Rhonda's estimation, going off the seismograph readings, there are a total of four Graboids in the valley. Struggling to survive and to get out of Perfection, the characters also do their best to kill the Graboids if possible.

Burt's basement full of weapons and bomb-making know-how really come in handy in dealing with these monsters, but Perfection's population still ends up being a lot lower than 14 by the end of the film.

What are the Graboids and where do they come from? The characters theorize, but never come up with an answer, which is a refreshing and realistic approach. If unprecedented creatures were to suddenly show up around an isolated town full of average citizens, there would be no way for them to figure out where these things came from during the short span of time this movie covers. So while the usual explanations are considered – prehistoric creatures that even pre-date the fossil record, radiation mutants, aliens from outer space – the Graboids are left unexplained. They're just here, now deal with them.

Tremors is a fantastic movie. The basic concept is genius – the Graboids are essentially sharks that hunt on land. Jaws was terrifying, it forever made me scared of large bodies of water, but if I stay out of the water there's no need to worry about hungry Great Whites. You don't have to go out anywhere to get devoured by Graboids. They'll come to you. The thought of these things can make a viewer's imagination run wild, and the special effects artists at Amalgamated Dynamics did a wonderful job designing and creating them.

In the Jaws movies, the appearance of the sharks' fins would tip you off to their presence. At times, the Graboids' movements are shown in a similar way, but rather than seeing a fin cut through water, here it's plumes of dust that are kicked up by them, or the sight of the ground bulging up because of the creature moving along just under the surface.

They may be animals, but the Graboids aren't dumb ones. They learn, they adapt, they come up with plans. Every time their intended human meals come up with a way to avoid them, they start figuring out a way to get around their precautions.

The Graboids are a scary idea, but at its core Tremors is a throwback to the creature features of the 1950s, it's not out to scare you out of your wits. The movie plays like an action/adventure film with horror elements, it has a very fun tone and atmosphere, and a great sense of humor. Watching Tremors is a very good time.

The cast is wonderful, and Val, Earl, and Burt – portrayed by Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, and Michael Gross, respectively – are some of my all-time favorite movie characters.

Tremors has been one of my favorite movies, period, ever since I first saw it on video at the age of six or seven. I have many fond memories of viewings I've had of it throughout the years. It is even, because of its fun tone and adventure movie style, one of the rare horror-related movies I have been able to enjoy with my horror-hating father. He and I have watched Tremors multiple times, as well as its sequels. I even introduced the entire Tremors franchise to my paternal grandmother, who didn't like watching scary things at all. She enjoyed the Tremors movies.

I don't want to go into it too deeply, but I also have to say that Tremors has perhaps the greatest example of subtle foreshadowing in cinema history. The film opens with a shot of Val standing in the exact same spot where he'll be when he's dealing with the last of the Graboids. In that first scene, he proceeds to do to Earl, who is wrapped in a brown sleeping bag and thus looks sort of like a worm creature, exactly what he does to that last Graboid... If that sounds weird to you, just watch Tremors and bask in the brilliance.

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