Horror relies heavily on darkness for its scares. On a primal level, it is the ultimate fear of the unknown, the fear of what we cannot see. On a practical level, it is a crutch filmmakers have used for decades to cover up the low quality of their special effects. Tremors is one of the rare horror movies that manages to be both scary and funny while taking place almost entirely in broad daylight. On top of that, it manages to be one of the rare horror movies to manage all of this with the usually crippling PG-13 rating.
One day, the inconsequential desert town of Perfection, Nevada (a town whose population barely ranks in the double-digits) finds itself besieged by a race of giant, burrowing worms, intent on eating everything they can get their toothy tentacles on. It’s up to the ragtag group of surviving townsfolk to band together and take on this ancient menace before it wipes Perfection completely off the face of the Earth.
I don’t get to use the word ragtag very much, but it fits this movie very well as it manages to sew together a bunch of disparate, odd elements into one fun little movie. Its odd casting choices, including a height-of-his-career Kevin Bacon, perennial “That Guy” actor Fred Ward, Michael Gross (fresh off of Family Ties) in the standout role of gun-crazed survivalist Burt Gummer and country singer Reba McEntire, combine to give this town an oddly real feel. Perfection itself brings its own character to this movie, appearing every bit the modern Wild West town. It’s lived in, it’s homey, but just beyond its borders are nothing but miles upon miles of open desert, creating an incredible sense of claustrophobia in the great wide open.
And then, of course, we have the Graboids (a name given to the worms by the late, great Victor Wong). On paper, a thirty foot worm with a bird-like beak and tentacle tongues sounds a bit on the goofy side, but in action they are creepy as hell, because they’re not just played as monsters. They don’t just lie in wait, preparing for a jump scare. They are patient, intelligent, fast creatures, whose greatest weapon is their ingenuity as they try and stay one step ahead of the besieged humans. The filmmakers behind Tremors took a wise note from Jaws by not showing the Graboids for most of the movie, and it’s this mystique that works brilliantly to the movie’s advantage. We don’t know how many they are, we don’t know where they are, all we know is that they could be hiding anywhere in the endless expanse of desert sand, and that one step is all they need to track you and hunt you down for lunch.
Separating this film from a lot of similar ones, however, is the fact that the people in this movie are every bit as smart as the monsters. While we do get a few token stupid victims early on, this movie spends a lot of time as a battle of wits between the graboids. Trapped on the rooftops of this abandoned, old-West style town, they have to work out a series of distractions that will allow for them to escape and combat their subterranean nemeses, leading to some surprisingly tense scenes.
Intelligent, creepy and more often than not pretty damn funny, Tremors is a true gem. Feel free to ignore the sequels.
(MATT CARTER RECOMMENDATION: While I can't imagine a world where there are people who haven't seen Tremors, there's always a chance, especially considering now that it's old enough to actually be considered "old". Either way, if you haven't seen this movie, see it now. It's goofy as hell and arguably one of the smartest horror films you'll find that doesn't rely entirely on metafiction for its jokes.)
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-- Matt Carter
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