0181 | Tremors

Though he was undoubtedly a big star in the 1980s and 1990s, most of Kevin Bacon’s recent appearances in UK cinemas have come as a result of his employment by mobile network EE as a hawker of phone and broadband products in adverts. He’s still very much a recognisable face, of course, and a well-known name thanks to the famous ‘six degrees of’ game, but in terms of actual screen time these days Kev is only getting a couple of stolen minutes prior to the trailers, during which he refers glibly to one (or several) of his old roles in FlatlinersFootlooseApollo 13Hollow Man or A Few Good Men. He’s reduced to merely getting in the way of the main feature, which is a shame, although it’s nice to see that he doesn’t take himself too seriously and I dare say he gets a hefty sum for the adverts to boot.

While watching Tremors for the third (fourth?) time last week, the thought occurred to me that Bacon has never really been an actor who takes himself too seriously, and has always seemed like a personable sort; the idea of him inflicting a Bale-style screaming tantrum on a flabbergasted film crew, for example, is somewhat ludicrous. Even at the height of his fame he seemed to be at the opposite end of the spectrum to those ponderous bores who blather on about ‘inhabiting characters’ and being ‘lost in the craft’, and perhaps as a result he has been slightly marginalised as time has passed, perhaps seen as a slightly naff throwback to the 1980s and 1990s by the studios. Which is a shame, really; I wouldn’t suggest that he’s one of the best actors of those decades – though he has been very good in a few roles and a few years ago The Guardian even described him, debatably, as one of the best actors never to have won an Oscar – but there’s always been a likeable insouciance about the man that, perhaps, is something that is being wasted in mobile phone adverts. Check out Mystic River for evidence of his talent.

There’s often a streak of self-deprecation in his cinematic work, too, and never more so than in this tongue-in-cheek, entertainingly-straightforward take on 1950s B-movie horror-lite. Bacon plays Val McKee, a hired hand living in the tiny town of Perfection, Nevada with his friend and co-worker Earl Bassett (Fred Ward). The pair bicker and joke as they work and drink together, and have plans to move to the nearby town of Bixby, but just as they’re about to up-sticks and leave a series of strange events involving giant carnivorous underground worm-like creatures means they have to stay put and fight for survival along with the rest of Perfection’s residents.

Wisely, to increase public intrigue, the creatures in Tremors (nicknamed ‘Graboids’ in the film) were kept off the film’s poster (although it did feature the snake-like tentacles that come out of the creatures’ mouths), and they do not actually appear on screen for quite some time. Instead the threat that these burrowing beasts pose is built up gradually via the strange seismic readings taken by visiting grad-student scientist Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter) and one or two innovative off-screen deaths: one elderly local resident is chased up an electricity pylon and dies from dehydration, too scared to come down, while another hides in her car only for a creature to suck the vehicle into the ground anyway.

This kind of slow, threatening build up will be familiar to anyone that has sat through a 1950s creature feature, of course, but it’s executed well here. The fun continues when we finally see the giant worms, which respond to sound vibrations, and their terrorism of the inhabitants of Perfection forms the bulk of the remainder of the movie. The small cast includes a mix of memorable and instantly forgettable townsfolk, the standouts being Victor Wong’s OTT local market owner Walter Chang, sullen, bored teenager Melvin Plug (Bobby Jacoby) and a husband-and-wife team of survivalists played with arch conviction by Michael Gross and the country singer Reba McEntire who handily have a stockpile of guns and ammo in their basement. (Those on the lookout for examples of casual racism will find the handling of the character Chang – a money-grabbing opportunist who is one of the few residents to die a grisly death – worthy of note.) These characters all play second fiddle to the double act of Bacon and Ward, though, who mug gamely for the camera and trade jibes and joshes like ever-so-slightly poor relations of those late ‘70s Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds comedy performances (Ward is just as likeable as Bacon here, though, and later became a go-to guy for Robert Altman, who clearly saw something in the actor that isn’t particularly obvious in Tremors). Carter’s character may be a scientist by trade but her true purpose here is revealed by one utterly cringe-worthy scene in which her jeans are ripped off and she runs around in her knickers for a minute or so.

The appeal of the film lies partly in its sense of goofy fun and partly in its refusal to take the whole ‘underground bugs’ shtick too seriously. Rather than spending time and effort on a laborious and barely-credible reason for the appearance of the Graboids, the characters dismiss their origin in a couple of lines by suggesting that they’re either mutations caused by radiation or fabricated by the government. ‘Big surprise for the Russians’ jokes Val, before Earl asserts that they’re probably from outer space (‘No way these are local boys,’ he notes sagely). We never find out what the truth is in this film, which is something I like. It really doesn’t matter where they’ve come from or how they’ve come to be, something that should be noted perhaps by some modern day directors who seem to get tangled up in ridiculous expositions and dodgy science.

Director Ron Underwood keeps the tone light throughout; even the deaths in Tremors probably wouldn’t have troubled any young children at the time of its release, and the worst things seen are glimpses of sheep corpses and some entertainingly-gooey orange splatter (many pumpkins were harmed, it pains me to say). It feels a bit light on both gore and (more generally) horror today, but there are a few creative special effects and the sight of a filmmaker making do with slime and gnashing teeth might draw a warm, nostalgic smile out of anyone over 30. (The effects here were provided by the fledgling company Amalgamated Dynamics, who went on to enjoy great success providing effects for the later Alien movies, Death Becomes Her, Starship Troopers, Mars Attacks! and – more recently – the X-Men movies and Godzilla.)

At the time, Bacon thought he had made an absolute stinker, and told the Telegraph last year that when filming wrapped ‘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!”’. Tremors did actually enjoy moderately-successful financial returns from the box office, though, and found an even bigger audience on video, DVD and TV. Its cult-ish appeal has seemingly stood the test of time, strong enough to result in the spawning of three inferior straight-to-DVD follow ups and a fourth – Tremors 5: The Thunder From Down Under – that has never been made despite apparent interest from both Ward and Bacon several years ago. Ultimately no-one would describe you as having lost your mind for thinking that one Tremors is enough, though, and this original instalment is a fun, entertaining update on classic 1950s sci-fi, right down to the desert setting. Simple and effective.

The Basics:
Directed by: Ron Underwood
Written by: Brent Maddock, SS Wilson, Ron Underwood
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Victor Wong, Michael Gross, Bobby Jacoby, Reba McEntire
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 94 minutes
Year: 1990
Rating: 6.6

Comments 12

    • Stu September 17, 2014

      Yeah that’s true, I think the effects are pretty good even by today’s standards (and it definitely benefits from the ‘less is more’ attitude too). Have you seen any of the follow-ups?

  1. Todd Benefiel September 19, 2014

    That’s one thing I liked about this one…the interactions between Ward and Bacon. Ward was a lot of fun in an 80s teen comedy called ‘Secret Admirer’, and I’d once read a series of journal entries Bacon had written about his days making ‘Hollow Man’; both situations made me like the two even more. Neat review, Stu, but I must say one thing: I miss the damn gray ‘asterisk’ asides!

    • Stu September 19, 2014

      I think they’re pretty good, and they definitely help set the tone, but there’s something about them that kept making me think of Burt Reynolds (in Mr Ward’s case) and Every Which Way But Loose-era Clint Eastwood (in the case of Mr Bacon). But definitely two likeable actors.
      I’m afraid the asides are resting in that big government warehouse now … the one that houses the Ark of the Covenant. We may never see them again.

  2. Writer Loves Movies September 24, 2014

    Hi Stu. Sorry I’ve been away from your blog for so long! I love this post though. Tremors was one of my favourite movies growing up but I haven’t watched it for years. I think I need to seek out a copy and add it to the collection. Interesting that Bacon thought he’d made a stinker – it’s probably one of his most memorable movies!

    • Stu September 25, 2014

      Hey Natalie, no problem at all, thanks for dropping by. I bet you could probably pick it up for a couple of quid somewhere! I totally agree with you – if I think of Kevin Bacon I don’t think of Footloose, or Flatliners, I think of Tremors first and foremost. Probably not his acting pinnacle but definitely his most memorable film.

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