News

30 Years Later, Tremors Is Still A Perfect Monster Movie, and It Keeps Getting Better

To celebrate its release in 1990, we look back at the cult classic that combined 1950s monster flicks, frontier westerns, and a timeless version of America that both never and always existed.

by | January 19, 2020 | Comments

Perfection – it’s not just a fictional town in Nevada. It’s also a film called Tremors, which is set in that fictional Nevada town (pop. 14, fluctuating) and was released 30 years ago this weekend. “Hang on, Val, let’s not go off half-cocked,” you cry (because in this scenario, you are dumb, skeptical Nestor, doomed to be sucked into a burrowing earth-monster’s mouth, while I, of course, am the reluctantly valiant Val). “Are you really saying that this unassuming, low-budget 1990 B-movie-pastiche flop starring an actor so ubiquitous there’s a game about it, the dad from Family Ties, a country singer-turned-actress, the little girl from Jurassic Park, the Asian guy from 3 Ninjas, and Fred Ward, is actually perfect?” Why, yes, I am.

Tremors, starring Kevin Bacon, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire, Ariana Richards, Victor Wong, and Fred Ward, is the feature directorial debut of Ron Underwood, who would go on to hit massively with City Slickers and miss even more massively with The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Tremors is neither of those extremes: a perceived disappointment on release, it turned a $5m profit on an $11m budget but really found its groove on home video formats and TV syndication. So, like many others, my own lifelong love affair with this modest masterpiece did not begin with a trip to the theater. To this day, not one of my 60-odd viewings of this ridiculously rewatchable horror-comedy has ever been on the big screen.

No, I first saw Tremors as God intended: on a dodgy VHS recorded off the TV and missing the first 40 seconds. We only upgraded to a store-bought video – and discovered that gorgeous, foreshadowing opening wide shot of Kevin Bacon’s Val peeing off the very cliff where the film will end, doubtless an homage to John Ford’s The Searchers – when that homemade copy grew snowy with overuse and threatened to gum up the VCR. My point here is that you can look back on the film’s lackluster 1990 reception and speculate that it somehow wasn’t made for instant-gratification contemporary mass consumption. Instead, destined to become more beloved by the chosen few who privately discovered it, Tremors was, despite its tone of breezy disposability, built to last.

MCA/Universal Pictures

(Photo by MCA/Universal Pictures)

The sturdiness of its construction begins with the screenplay. Writers Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson, flirting with fame after the success of Short Circuit, and years before they’d flirt with notoriety by writing Wild Wild West (fun fact: Wild Wild West had a screenplay!) worked and reworked a concept that Wilson had jotted down years before while on a desert hike: “What if there was something under the ground that meant I couldn’t get off this rock?” That slim idea eventually blossomed into an archetypally classic screenplay — seriously, budding screenwriters could save a few hundred bucks by spending the weekend of their Robert McKee seminar just watching this movie repeatedly instead. All the rules are pristinely observed: the gradual escalation of stakes; the way character dictates destiny; and a climax in which the salvation of the community (the remaining townsfolk gathered on that “residual boulder”) and the solution of the hero’s previously established central flaw (Val’s inability to plan ahead) pivot around the same piece of action (the outwitting of Ol’ Stumpy, the final Graboid).

No two of the four monsters are ever killed in the same manner – they are, variously, knocked out, shot to pieces, blown up with bombs, and finally, bested by gravity and their own imperfect evolutionary design (“Can you fly, you sucker?”). Acts of heroism and moments of ingenuity are shared liberally among the whole cast of oddball misfits — Miguel’s idea for the tractor decoy, Rhonda’s pole-vaulting escape plan, Heather’s precision shooting at the tentacle gripping her husband’s leg, Earl’s “going fishing” notion, the sheer overwhelming firepower represented by Burt’s basement (“Broke into the wrong goddamn rec room, didn’t you, you bastard!”). And everything, from Val and Earl’s frequent games of rock-paper-scissors to the constant yin-yang of their cigarette bit (one will have the pack and the other will have the lighter) and Val’s opening jibe about Earl’s “stampede” story, gets picked up on later. This is a film that refers back to itself in an endless enclosed loop, and that’s what I mean when I say perfection: Tremors is a complete system, a complete microcosmic universe, unto itself.

(Photo by MCA/Universal Pictures)

So the plotting, with its steady rhythms of snarky dialogue, spooky phenomena, slimy sight gags, and cheesy jump scares, is almost schematic. But it’s so skillfully fleshed out by an unusually characterful cast that we don’t notice the mechanics at work across its economical 96 minutes. Even minor players – many of them destined for grisly deaths – are unusually dimensional. We only ever see him dead from dehydration, clinging to a telephone pole and clutching his trusty Winchester, but that “damned old boozehound” Edgar Deems (Sunshine Parker) has a whole offscreen history behind his “sorry ass.” Ditto Old Fred (Michael Dan Wagner), the sheepfarmer whose terrified dead face provides the film’s best scare. The doctor (Conrad Bachman) and his wife (Bibi Besch) are given a lovely moment of long-married-couple sparring before being offed in the movie’s most affecting sequence. Even the two doomed construction workers drilling on the road to Bixby get a little moment of bumbling, Abbott-and-Costello action before winding up little more than a splodge of brain matter inside a hard hat.

The town’s residents are better drawn still, up to and including the adorable natural chemistry that exists between Bacon’s Val and Fred Ward’s Earl. Yet they share a curious feature that contributes to the film’s endless rewatchability: they exist sharply in the present moment, but their lives are never actually explained. Really, the whole town of Perfection is inexplicable: where does Melvin (Bobby Jacoby), one of cinema’s greatest annoying-s–thead teenagers, come from? Where are his parents? How does he live? What did Burt do before moving here that gave him the financial wherewithal to build his desert fortress? Where does visiting student Rhonda “pleistocene alluvials” LeBeck (Finn Carter) actually live? How did Walter Chang (Victor Wong) end up owning the town’s sole amenity? (Side note: if you want to read about a storied life, just look into artist and actor Wong’s bio, which includes palling around with Langston Hughes and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and inspiring a character in Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur).

MCA/Universal Pictures

(Photo by MCA/Universal Pictures)

And of course, how did Val and Earl, among the most bromantic buddy pairings the medium has ever conjured up, come to occupy adjacent trailers in a two-horse town that’s little more than a wide spot in the dusty road to Bixby? How did they stumble into their pre-gig-economy jobs as hired hands/handymen? How did they meet and formulate their borderline Beckettian double act (just call them Valdimir and Earlstragon)? As with the Graboids, you can have theories on where everyone comes from, but the hows and whys are just not that important. In fact, it may be crucial to the film’s delicious longevity that those issues remain undefined: while some are addressed in the film’s four DTV sequels, its prequel, and its two TV show incarnations (the latter of which happened as recently as 2018 but never got beyond the pilot), those explanations always spoil the perfectly calibrated balance between goofy, gory, and good-natured that only the original Tremors ever achieved.

Cliffs to the north, mountains to the east and west, and the only road out of town is blocked — Perfection exists in total “geographic isolation.” And Tremors, the movie, exists in a kind of temporal isolation, in which its multiple time frames combine to take it out of time altogether. This is a never-never land comprised of the throwback 1950s monster flicks it so affectionately parodies, the frontier westerns that its spectacular photography evokes (as well as the characterization of Val and Earl as anachronistic cowboys stranded in modern times), and the easing global tensions and general optimism of the glasnost era in which it was made. It’s a perfect bubble of contradictions that exists outside of real-world circumstance, politics, or anything as faddish as “relevance.” And yet that makes Tremors a curiously vital place to visit once in a while, especially in more divisive moments. It’s a cheesy, schlocky, irreverent entertainment that is also a timeless reminder of an America that both never and always existed, in which human qualities of decency, community and ingenuity always outweigh ideological differences, and all that’s really needed to defeat the beasts beneath our feet is gumption, good-heartedness, and​ ​a few household chemicals in the proper proportion.

MCA/Universal Pictures

(Photo by MCA/Universal Pictures)


Tremors was released on January 19, 1990.

#1

Tremors (1990)
86%

#1
Adjusted Score: 88.63%
Critics Consensus: An affectionate throwback to 1950s creature features, Tremors reinvigorates its genre tropes with a finely balanced combination of horror and humor.
Synopsis: Tremors is actually two movies in one. On its own terms, it's an enjoyable modern sci-fi horror-thriller, with good pacing... [More]
Directed By: Ron Underwood

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

BET Classic Film Infographic scene in color christmas movies joker olympics Kids & Family Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Star Wars spanish classics slashers Black Mirror directors Certified Fresh DC Comics Star Trek Comic Book Tokyo Olympics japan The Walt Disney Company king kong prank spain BAFTA New York Comic Con Academy Awards Lionsgate richard e. Grant Rock talk show Pirates Awards Tour rt archives NBA Tarantino worst movies stop motion free movies CMT FXX ViacomCBS The Arrangement hollywood ITV Cosplay zombies remakes CBS robots Action Set visit trailers target Wes Anderson japanese police drama crime drama festivals asian-american 2020 satire The Purge IFC Films TCA Awards anime aliens zombie kids HBO international Rocky razzies Family reviews Lucasfilm political drama BBC 2017 VOD Epix Biopics Tumblr VH1 vampires die hard Holiday Apple TV Plus San Diego Comic-Con WGN PaleyFest space Nickelodeon streaming news blockbusters indiana jones Character Guide scorecard 90s Amazon Prime Comic-Con@Home 2021 Acorn TV psychological thriller game show disaster documentaries politics Premiere Dates kaiju latino foreign AMC Image Comics child's play supernatural USA golden globes cars ABC Signature OneApp monster movies Musicals mutant screen actors guild TV One cops streaming movies television Black History Month Emmy Nominations Mudbound Pop crime thriller Sony Pictures social media mockumentary miniseries independent suspense 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards cults nbcuniversal adenture thriller Grammys Columbia Pictures Summer E! worst TV Hallmark Christmas movies series renewed TV shows superhero italian YA cancelled television Red Carpet spy thriller E3 Rom-Com Heroines Toys ABC hidden camera doctor who TBS Spike The Witch Freeform Mary poppins Martial Arts emmy awards Fantasy Western blaxploitation 93rd Oscars Quiz game of thrones telelvision travel Captain marvel pirates of the caribbean FX docudrama Arrowverse james bond Exclusive Video Spectrum Originals Reality Competition scary movies Superheroe cooking parents period drama spider-man 21st Century Fox 72 Emmy Awards WarnerMedia Year in Review 1990s based on movie crossover jurassic park what to watch sequels TLC breaking bad Sci-Fi Food Network justice league Logo Mindy Kaling comedies CBS All Access comic YouTube Premium toy story Rocketman Binge Guide Music revenge Britbox First Look children's TV Comics on TV adventure TCM quibi Tubi 71st Emmy Awards Warner Bros. Horror Fall TV cats harry potter crime Lifetime technology aapi Stephen King book dramedy Opinion See It Skip It Hulu deadpool live action nature fast and furious 4/20 movie Disney streaming service mission: impossible kong dragons DGA sag awards Disney+ Disney Plus new york book adaptation ABC Family FOX video Holidays Walt Disney Pictures comiccon TCA Teen screenings Adult Swim 2015 casting Chilling Adventures of Sabrina BBC America historical drama Pixar RT21 concert comics Trophy Talk OWN Anna Paquin The CW romantic comedy archives Drama Fox News 24 frames Hallmark medical drama A&E Disney YouTube Red true crime jamie lee curtis BBC One Comedy Central natural history Elton John new zealand stand-up comedy Tomatazos Superheroes PlayStation cinemax rotten Trivia composers sitcom Starz Sundance A24 MTV Mary Tyler Moore binge godzilla Best and Worst saw adaptation teaser Pacific Islander franchise VICE 007 canceled TNT best critics witnail Countdown boxing Brie Larson Winter TV comic books TV renewals Ghostbusters Film strong female leads Amazon Prime Video Sundance Now Pop TV Musical DirecTV finale MSNBC Box Office Esquire Podcast video on demand zero dark thirty unscripted docuseries American Society of Cinematographers criterion Marvel Television Netflix Christmas movies blockbuster dceu Baby Yoda Travel Channel MCU Turner Classic Movies transformers Mystery X-Men Lifetime Christmas movies 45 FX on Hulu PBS RT History Turner Thanksgiving Legendary National Geographic hispanic Election History Apple Polls and Games twilight anthology football elevated horror Discovery Channel Reality Christmas venice Trailer Fox Searchlight Endgame australia BET Awards cancelled TV shows Crunchyroll serial killer chucky 2018 werewolf dc 2019 Spring TV biography Disney Channel toronto Crackle basketball Ovation Cartoon Network women Showtime war indie Vudu Animation Shondaland Watching Series Marvel Studios Comedy Paramount Network Universal Alien Sundance TV Pride Month Ellie Kemper ID heist movie dogs NYCC SDCC First Reviews singing competition TV Land versus The Academy Country science fiction Awards discovery black Cannes dark TCA Winter 2020 legend diversity Mary Poppins Returns ratings ghosts stoner Schedule spanish language 20th Century Fox cancelled TV series The Walking Dead rotten movies we love IFC Calendar Avengers 99% popular south america TV movies Creative Arts Emmys El Rey GLAAD CNN movies Valentine's Day laika HBO Max LGBT Television Critics Association golden globe awards DC streaming service halloween tv fresh animated sequel 2016 films Amazon Studios Song of Ice and Fire rom-coms spinoff halloween batman Writers Guild of America YouTube universal monsters Peacock green book cartoon Sneak Peek TIFF Film Festival Netflix Nominations GIFs APB superman Super Bowl all-time a nightmare on elm street SXSW marvel cinematic universe Masterpiece Television Academy Emmys DC Universe psycho sports CW Seed TCA 2017 TruTV cancelled Apple TV+ obituary Dark Horse Comics nfl Interview HBO Go Pet Sematary USA Network lord of the rings Broadway Nat Geo Winners award winner Extras Amazon reboot facebook know your critic ESPN Chernobyl Video Games GoT boxoffice Funimation documentary name the review new star wars movies Syfy Paramount Plus high school NBC romance festival LGBTQ Hear Us Out President canceled TV shows Photos 2021 theme song french Oscars Marvel hist Bravo Paramount tv talk Disney Plus Shudder SundanceTV Marathons Women's History Month