Friday, 20 July 2012

Tremors (1990)

Dir. Ron Underwood
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross

I think that what I have realised most of all on this cinematic mission impossible through the States is this. While I may appreciate and admire some of the more cerebral or art-house films, the ones I most enjoy are just well-executed action movies. I loved The Untouchables. I thought 3:10 to Yuma was great. And I had huge amounts of fun re-watching Tremors. Okay, two decades later the special effects have not aged particularly well but Tremors was never all about the FX. 

Tremors is, essentially, a B-movie. It is set in the settlement of Perfection, just fourteen solitary souls short of being a ghost town out in the desert. Our heroes are rowdy good ol’ boys Earl (Fred Ward, who played Reese Witherspoon’s father in Sweet Home Alabama) and Val (Kevin Bacon). Tired of scratching around for odd jobs they decide finally to up and leave for the bright lights of Bixby. Only they find the one road out of the valley blocked. Something is moving up the valley, funnelled by the mountains, towards Perfection. And it is something that has a taste for human flesh! 

With the help of visiting seismology student Rhonda (Finn Carter) – there’s always a helpful visiting seismology student when you need one – they figure out that there are creatures under the soil, vast tunnelling three-headed worm creatures they name ‘graboids’. These creatures home in on vibrations, bursting up from the ground to engulf their prey. The only way to stay safe is to keep off the ground. Their only hope of salvation is to round up the townsfolk and somehow make it to the bare rock of the encircling mountains. But the graboids are smart and they learn from experience… 

All this takes place with tongue firmly in cheek. It is silly. Earl and Val bicker back and forth (“Running’s not a plan! Running’s what you do once a plan fails!”). Supporting characters include paranoid survivalist gun-nuts Burt and Heather Gummer (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire) whose approach towards the graboids consists of blasting away with a variety of high calibre fully-automatic firearms. One escape tactic involves pole vaulting. (Maybe more unintentional as comedy was the producers’ efforts to Bowdlerise bad language. I’m sorry but I can’t take seriously anyone who refers to deadly killer worms as “motherhumpers”). But one can see the difference with, say, The Mist. The Mist takes itself so monumentally po-faced seriously that it sucks all the fun out of the film; Tremors keeps the mood light. In fact, apart from one scene, all the action in Tremors takes place during the day, the sunlight bleaching the desert white. Yet it also manages to jam in suspense, with characters having to outrun or outwit these clever deathworms as they tunnel through the sand. 

Don’t expect any back story about what these graboids are, where they came from, or why they have just decided to pop up now. The characters have a spot of banter about their mysterious disappearance, but really the focus is on getting the hell out of Dodge / killing the motherhumpers. And to be honest you can pick holes in any back-story, so it’s probably just best that it is ignored. The graboids are just there and they pose a clear existential threat. Speculation about their unique place on the evolutionary ladder can wait until after our heroes are safe. 

As I mentioned, the special effects look a tad dated these days. The whole ‘tunneling under the ground’ looks good, but the jets of steam fail to convince. I’m glad that the graboids actually have a physical presence rather than just being computer-animated: the original animatronic Jabba the Hutt always looked much better than the CGI one seen in the 1997 re-release of Star Wars. But they do, at times, resemble little more than dirty vacuum-cleaner hose being waved around randomly. There is a scene where a graboid invades the Gummer’s rec room / gun store and it is clear that the image of Burt blazing away on full-auto has just been super-imposed over the image of the graboid (it looks very Ray Harryhausen). But I suppose all that adds to the entertainment. It’s like being able to spot the walls wobbling on Blakes 7 or noticing that the Doctor’s Tardis always lands in the same quarry. It’s a B-movie. It’s not trying to make some deep, profound Stephen King-ish statement on humanity. It’s Comedy Cowboys vs Mongolian Death Worms, and it’s all the better for it! 

The Gummers really hated woodworm

What have I learnt about Nevada?
This is Nevada away from the bright lights of Las Vegas. Perfection is a small hamlet in the desert scattered with rusted junk and century-old wooden buildings. It is hemmed in by mountains, scattered with rocks, and is connected to the outside world by only one road through the wilderness. The people who live there are recluses who choose to live out there: either because they have always lived there (like Chang I suspect) and have no impetus to move on out (like Val and Earl), or because they have moved their specifically. These would include artist Nancy and the survivalist Gummers who choose to get as far away from the state as they can. It is a place for the hardy and the self-sufficient. And guns and bulldozers are always appreciated. 

Can we go there?
The film is set in Perfection, some 38 miles to the north of Bixby. Neither Perfection nor Bixby exist in real life (in later Tremors sequels it is stated that they are located away from Las Vegas towards Carson City, but aren’t really close to either). Filming took place not far from Nevada, in Lone Pine, California. Lone Pine is located west of Death Valley and east of Kings Canyon up in the Owens Valley mentioned in Chinatown, sheltering beneath the Sierra Nevada mountains. The desert landscapes certainly conjure up what one would expect of Nevada. Many films have been shot here to take advantage of its parched surroundings since 1920’s The Roundup, including The Lone Ranger, High Sierra, Rawhide, Bad Day at Black Rock, How the West Was Won and Zabriskie Point 

Sadly the town of Perfection was specifically constructed to be torn down after use (local townspeople contributed labour in exchange for the lumber after shooting was finished) and so nothing survives. Even the large rocks scattered about the place were fake and have been removed. The concrete drainage ditch is out east of Lone Pine, and the final scenes when the survivors are ‘fishing’ from the big rock is out west. The narrow defile where the road workers were killed is out in this direction as well. 

However the graboids are still there! Well, one or two. One of the graboids used in the film, along with a ‘Shrieker’ (a separate stage in the Graboid lifecycle that appeared in a later Tremors sequel) can be seen at the Lone Pine Film History Museum. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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