Monster movie perfection
Image: Universal StudiosWhat is the greatest monster movie ever made? Let’s chuck out Jaws straight away – it isn’t so much a monster movie as a movie about terror. When we talk about monster movies we don’t mean intelligent, visceral examinations of things that can destroy us – we mean great, big, silly films where we see the monsters gambolling about in broad daylight, gleefully munching up extras. Where, then, to find the best? The 1950s, where fear of the Bomb gave us an entire generation of films in which radioactive beasties destroyed various cities? Perhaps the 1970s, where the success of Jaws led to a swathe of sharp-toothed imitators? No. While many of these films are genuine classics, the best example of a 'killer B' film is a low budget horror-comedy gem named Tremors, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Tremors takes all the best aspects of the best of the 50s films – likeable cast, superb monsters, lots of ammunition – and transposes them to a more modern setting, but one which crucially still echoes the period. While the fear of nuclear war between the USA and the Soviet Union fuelled the nightmares of directors from that epoch, in Tremors the Soviet Union still exists but the only person who fears it is a mad hillbilly weapons expert who is mocked for his over-preparedness. Obviously, when the monsters come, he is the one who they all run to for help.
It is difficult to isolate exactly why the film is so marvellous, but it is telling that it is nigh on impossible to find something wrong with it. The budget was a very modest 11 million dollars, which means that the effects work has a sense of DIY about it, but if anything this only makes the film better. The spirit that goes into animating the “graboids” – giant man-eating underground worms – is very much the same as that which saw greyhounds wrapped in shaggy coats to masquerade as The Killer Shrews! The sparse location, the tiny town of Perfection, Nevada, adds a chilling sense of isolation, with the underground menace rendering any conventional method of escape impossible. Scenes of characters trapped on rocks in the middle of the desert show an almost Hitchcockian ability from director Ron Underwood to make the most of a confined space. The writers, SS Wilson and Brent Maddock, were also responsible for Short Circuit, another subversively comic flick which has likewise stood the test of time rather better than some of its contemporaries.
The small cast is flawless, and so eclectic that the casting director deserves some sort of medal. Our leading men are Valentine McKee and Earl Bassett, beautifully played by Kevin Bacon (in possibly his finest role, aside from Murder in the First) and Fred Ward (never better), two small town handymen whose dreams of escape to the city are hampered by the graboids’ attack. Aforementioned well-armed hick Burt Gummer is played by Michael Gross, best known as the loveable patriarch in Family Ties, while is equally trigger-happy wife Heather is country and western singer and TV star Reba McEntire. Other familiar faces in the cast are Ariana Richards (three years before her role as Lex in Jurassic Park) and Big Trouble in Little China's Victor Wong.
Of course, no monster movie would be complete without scares, and Tremors has them in spades. While the tone never strays too far from comic, a couple of the scenes where Val and Earl discover what has become of some of their fellow residents still pack a jolt, and there is a great jump moment involving a generator.
Tremors’ success spawned a series of straight to video sequels and a television series, which unfortunately (but unavoidably) demonstrate the law of diminishing returns. However, the fact that the original is so perfect means that the second film is still very good indeed, showcasing some remarkably impressive early CGI work. Even later instalments in the series benefit from great performances (with Burt moving to the fore as the main character, always as antisocial and weapons-mad as ever) and biting humour. Tremors’ continuing legacy is a sign of just how brilliant the original film is, yet it remains shamefully unrecognised as a classic.
Still feeling as fresh today as it did when it was released twenty years ago, Tremors is one worm definitely worth turning for.