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)
88%

#1
Adjusted Score: 90.616%
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

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