The 1990s was a really weird time for horror. Fresh off the decade that what many consider to be the peak of genre films’ popularity, the 1990s were preparing for a new millennium, mourning the death of hair metal, and trying to figure out how to separate themselves from the days of 80s VHS horror and sci-fi. With the exception of Jacob’s Ladder, Nightbreed, and Arachnophobia, the horror films that premiered in 1990 were sequels, remakes, made-for-TV movies, or film adaptations of television shows. However, from beneath the rubble grew something special.
Tremors wasn’t very popular when it first premiered in theatres. Perhaps audiences saw “giant sandworm terrorizing a small town starring the kid from Footloose,” and immediately wrote it off. In an interview for The Telegraph, Kevin Bacon was quoted saying, “I broke down and fell to the sidewalk, screaming to my pregnant wife, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing a movie about underground worms!’” Bacon may have felt the film was a low point for his career at the time, but the rest of us know better. It is true that Tremors only had modest success at the box office, but its popularity grew once it hit TV and home video, and it has ascended into the lofty heights of cult-classic-dom.
Horror-comedy and sci-fi comedy hybrids were nothing new in 1990. Films like An American Werewolf in London or Back to the Future already existed, so one would think a film like Tremors would have been an easy sell. However, where Tremors differs is that it genuinely feels like two separate movies intertwining. While most genre/comedy hybrids tend to lean more to one side than the other, Tremors effortlessly tiptoes directly down the middle of the road. On one side of the road, Tremors is a perfect throwback to the schlocky monster movies of the drive-in era like Them!, It Came From Outer Space, and The Giant Mantis. On the other end of the spectrum, TREMORS is a genuinely effective horror film.
Val McKee (Kevin Bacon) and Earl Basset (Fred Ward) are a pair of handymen living in the small desert community (14 inhabitants) of Perfection, Nevada. The two come across several strange occurrences in town, leading them to believe something otherworldly may be afoot. After some of the townsfolk die under gruesome cirumstances, Val and Earl (along with a few of their neighbors) discover the cause of the terror: giant prehistoric sand worms. Cut off from the outside world, the surviving members of Perfection have to figure out how to get across the desert alive while these increasingly intelligent monsters hunt them down for their next meal. Tremors should be taught in screenwriting classes: Everything that occurs in Tremors is only possible because of the event that came before it. There isn’t a single moment in Tremors that wasn’t intelligently crafted or prepared.
Tremors is also one of the best cast films to come out of the 1990s. Both Bacon and Ward play fantastically off each other as the handymen with dreams of leaving Perfection behind. Their characters feel like every guy who has ever changed the oil on your car, but felt — deep down — that they were destined for more. On the flip side, the other pairing in Tremors comes in the form of the paranoid survivalists, The Gummers (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire). A lot of the film’s humor comes at the expense of the bunker-living Gummers, but as can be expected, the crazy people with knowledge of explosives are sure to come in handy. McEntire was in the middle of a wildly successful country music career, but Tremors showed audiences that she could actually act pretty damn well, too.
A monster movie wouldn’t be a monster movie without good effects, and Tremors has some of the strongest monster effects of all time. No exaggeration. The Academy Award winning studio Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. crafted the worms and would go on to make iconic designs for films like Death Becomes Her, Jumanji, Spider-Man, Alien 3 and X-Men: First Class among others.
Ultimately, Tremors completely captured the spirit of cheesy monster movies of yesteryear without remaking, parodying, or insulting the craft. Director Ron Underwood shaped a film littered with humor, but never losing its undertone of genuine peril. It’s clever, frightening, and has stood the test of time.