To a larger point, 35mm prints represent a time in many of our lives when we were discovering movies in earnest for the first time. Growing up in my tiny-ass hometown in Arizona we had two theatres, two screens each so the scope was somewhat limited. However, two hours away in Phoenix there were ‘large screen’ format theatres (The Kachina and The Cine’ Capri) which ran first run and classic films and the Valley Art Theatre that did a full spectrum of off the wall stuff. Growing up with access to movie houses like these (all but gone or bastardized now) gave me a strong appreciation for what it means to walk into a theatre and be excited and be present for whatever it is you’re going to see. This appreciation was in full effect last week when I made my way to The Alamo Ritz Theatre in downtown Austin to take in a 35mm screening of director Ron Underwood’s 1990 classic monster-worms-in-the-desert epic, Tremors.
The Alamo Ritz is a throwback type of theatre with a old style marquee and grand-ish lobby and Tremors is definitely a throwback type of monster movie so it fits well. That is to say the film resembles the 1950s age atomic monster type of films where an overgrown monster of some kind terrorizes the townsfolk. One of the many beautiful things about Tremors is that it never turns in on itself and wastes a bunch of time explaining things as far as the worm’s origin, what man made thing caused them or whatever else. They just are. I love this.
So many times in films like this, things are brought to a screeching halt by a bunch of exposition about where the thing or things came from and more often than not, this dumping of data serves next to no purpose. Like in cult or otherwise classics like Gremlins (1984) or The Deadly Spawn (1983) if they stopped the monster mayhem on a dime and went through this elaborate story about why the mogwai or big wormy, toothy creatures (respectively) are here now, what motivates them etc. I don’t need some dissection scene where a bunch of scientists theorize about the creature’s genetic background and figure out some crazy way to defeat them…I just need monsters attacking people en masse’.
The story in Tremors is pretty simple – the small town of Perfection, Nevada (population at the start of the film = 14) exists on the fringes of society as a haven for those not comfortable in mainstream society, not welcome or otherwise not motivated to do much else. Among its inhabitants are a convenience store owner Walter Chang (Victor Wong – Big Trouble in Little China, Last Emperor), gun toting Burt and Heather Gummer (Michael Gross of Family Ties fame and Reba McEntire of big haired, earnest country music fame), local handymen Valentine/Val (Kevin Bacon – The Following TV show, Footloose, Hollow Man) and Earl (Fred Ward – the Right Stuff, Sweet Home Alabama) among other sorted characters and including a geology student Rhonda (Finn Carter – As The World Turns TV Show, Ghosts of Mississippi). Val and Earl turn odd jobs around town and generally exist in a perpetual state of very low expectations and goals.
They suggest to themselves otherwise and even hatch a plan to get out of Perfection but as it happens, they are thwarted by a series of strange events involving finding an old prospector up a power line pole and a missing couple that propel them back into town. They are soon face to face with an onslaught of large, mouthy worms who through aggressive burrowing and long, tentacle things are dead set on eating their way through the population. The one road out of town is blocked by a landslide and so Val and Earl must concoct a plan to defeat the creatures and protect the remaining Perfection-ites.
One of the many things that makes Tremors so enjoyable is the relationship between Val and Earl – the young, upstart in Val and the older seasoned Earl taking good natured shots at each other while all the while admiring one another for what the other doesn’t have. They never have some long, annoying talking-around-the-campfire type of scene where they talk about their feelings but you know that for the amount of crap-giving going on, the two care very much.
This relationship keeps the story moving along briskly as the two men have to navigate what the hell is going on and what to do about it. After dispatching the first worm, they figure out that it detects movement through the ground and must figure out a way to protect everyone by getting them to the surrounding rock areas and away from the valley. The danger in the midst of this is amplified by old coolers rattling and giving out, a little girl on a pogo stick (!!!) a dweeby teenager bouncing a basketball and all manner of other vibration causing things. The threat of these things is real as we do lose a few people along the way but with the help of Burt and Heather’s veritable basement arsenal and a combination of know-how and dumb luck, they make their final push to destroy the monsters and get out of the valley. Great monster fun, sharp funny writing, physical humor and thrilling chases to be had all along the way.
Gags involving explosives and flying *ahem* parts, good old fashioned practical effects in the form of the worms themselves, collapsing houses and a bunch of other tricks exude a charm and genuine amount of fun for the filmmaking process. How on earth this film got made is beyond me. I mean, on paper, the whole thing is just nuts. Giant worms? The guy from Footloose? The Family Ties dad? Sure! Why not! But I’m so thankful that some crazy person decided it was a good idea because the end result is a hoot. It’s PG-13 and it is a little hokey at times but with the right attitude (say of that younger version of yourself excitedly venturing into a dark theatre for a monster movie on a summer afternoon) Tremors delivers in spades. The crowd at The Ritz was having a grand old time that chilly Tuesday evening, cheering and laughing and fully engaged. It is the simple magic of that childhood combination between fear and anticipation and fun that makes walking into the theatre as fun as the film itself and in the case of Tremors, it is a hell of a lot of fun.