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Tremors (1990)



Never have I seen a small town setting work for a movie as well as Perfection, Nevada works for Tremors. Sure, the actors are top-notch and the right choice for their characters, the effects are convincing, and the script is ripe with sarcasm and wit, but the setting is what ties all of these elements together. Perfection is an ex-mining town of 14 residents; if it truly existed, it would be on a map just so vacationers could drive through it and count all the people. Beyond the population sign on the outskirts of town is an eccentric cast of characters, all of whom speak and act in a manner befitting not to the time in which the film was made but to Perfection itself. Tremors is a timeless piece of horror cinema because the setting serves as its own entity, not stricken with the boundaries of the times. Dare I say that Perfection is perfect?

But lo and behold, there are two that live in Perfection and are on their way out:  handymen Valentine (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward). Their journey out of town comes to a halt, however, when our unlikely heroes stumble upon several dead townsfolk, assume it is the work of a serial killer on the loose, and return to Perfection to warn the remaining residents. At the town general store, Valentine and Earl take shelter along with Mr. Chang (Victor Wong), the store owner, Burt and Heather Gummer (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire), married gun enthusiasts, and newcomer and seismologist Rhonda (Finn Carter), among others. Soon the survivors realize that what they’re dealing with isn’t a serial killer but a pack of worm-like creatures that dwell  underground. One character gives these creatures the non-technical name of “Graboids.”

Make no mistake about it:  these Graboids are serious creatures. Though the name is supposed to evoke a bit of laughter, there is nothing lighthearted about their appearance. Forget when I called them “worm-like creatures” because that description was just a placeholder for this one. These creatures are as wide as a truck with a mouth that opens quad-fold to reveal an inner lining of razor sharp teeth. Food (read: people) is devoured whole like a snake, but the film doesn’t wonder if the food stays in the stomach of the Graboids and none of the characters are eager to find out. Bringing the Graboids to frighteningly real life are creature effects designers and creators Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, as well as a team of over 50 special and visual effects wizards, implementing computer generated imagery well beyond the norm for 1990, along with animatronics that have come a long way since Bruce the Shark from Jaws. Even the color selection is a stroke of genius since the Graboids' bland brown skin blends well into the Nevada desert background, causing the creatures to appear more realistic but also camouflaging them from the audience and resulting in a few surprise appearances.

Yet it’s the work of the actors that steal the show here, particular the tandems of Michael Gross and Reba McEntire and Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon. As the gun-toting twosome Burt and Heather, Gross and McEntire are fun and frightening. In one scene, the two have taken shelter in their basement (which is lined with firearms and explosives) and figure out that killing a Graboid is as simple as emptying an entire box of ammunition into one with a shotgun. Of the two actors, Gross comes off as having the most fun with the role, so it should come as no surprise that he has since been the only actor that has reprised his role in all three of the Tremors sequels as well as the short-lived television series. McEntire, on the other hand, provides an antithesis to Gross in the form of a more down-to-earth character who at the same time proves to be just as much of a gun enthusiast as he is.

Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, as the two would-be heroes, are a great comedic team; their banter is well-timed and each one wisely plays off of the other. Both actors have become less renowned for their comedic roles and more for their dramatic ones, so Tremors serves as a kind reminder that neither actor is limited to one genre. Bacon wears a constant grin on his face throughout most of the movie, as if preparing the audience -- “look what I’m about to do.” Ward, much like the McEntire character, is a bit more sensible and less free spirited, but he too wears a coy smirk, like he’s trying to think of something to top whatever Bacon's character is about to do. Ward provides a much better foil for Bacon than Finn Carter, who as Rhonda, the love interest, is lost in the shuffle because her comedic timing is never up to par.

Providing great support to the actors is S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, whose script is constantly serving up quick-witted dialogue that doesn’t feel like a timestamp. When Valentine calls another character “pizza face” or Earl refers to the Graboids as “motherhumpers,” the audience knows that these words are only influenced by the characters themselves. It is this rich character-specific dialogue that allows the film to feel more natural as a whole. The script also has darker moments of comedy, like the scene where Earl and Valentine have to rock, paper, scissors each other to see who gets to run across a field and lure a Graboid away. It is a scene like this that makes the characters feel more real; Earl and Valentine don’t suddenly become the hero archetypes in the face of danger, they retain their childishness. I liked that.

I also liked the presence of Perfection, Nevada that I felt in each shot. Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski substitutes California for Nevada and the change is never called to question. Vast desolate deserts dominate the landscape that emits a general feeling of emptiness, which both mirrors the town’s population and the sentiment of our two forlorn heroes desperate to find something more exciting. Director Ron Underwood frames his actors in such a manner that this feeling of vastness and emptiness is more prominent:  in one such scene, Earl, Valentine, and Rhonda are pole vaulting across large rocks to escape the Graboids and long shots are primarily used, not just to hide the actors’ stunt doubles but to juxtapose the small specks that are the characters against the grand desolate desert. Truly these characters are out in the middle of nowhere.

In contrast, the town’s layout, brought to the screen from production designer Ivo Cristante’s renderings, is meant to convey a “small town” feel to the audience. Buildings are placed close together in Perfection, so close in fact that the town has one main road going through it like a town out of the Old West. Taking the audience through Cristante’s designs, Underwood maps the limited virtual space for this small town. Exterior shots are framed so that the actors share the scene with the infrastructures behind them, providing the audience with a feel for just how close everything is. At the end of Tremors' 100-minute runtime, I had felt that Underwood took his camera through each and every point of Perfection, providing a thrilling virtual tour of this little town.

Tremors is a reworking of the small-town-attacked-by-unidentified-creatures scenario that blends elements of the horrific and the comedic with unrivaled success. Several films such as James Gunn's Slither (2006) and John Gulager’s Feast (2005) have tried to match Tremors’ potent mixture of sharp dialogue, imaginative characters, stellar performances, and terrifyingly real effects but have ultimately come up short. Above all else, the key to Tremors' success lies firmly in its setting. There is never a sense that the film is staging these events or pitching these characters to the audience; instead, the small-town feel comes across as natural and we, the audience, believe that not only is it possible for this town to exist, but for the characters and even the Graboids to do so as well. There is no film better suited for a town like Perfection.