Appellate Judge Erick Harper reviews Kevin Bacon's other movie involving nasty snake-like appendages.
They say there's nothing new under the sun. But under the ground…
Looking to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? This film connects him to the casts of The Right Stuff, Big Trouble in Little China, and classic 1980s sitcom Family Ties.
Facts of the Case
Valentine "Val" McKee (Kevin Bacon, Wild Things) and Earl Bassett (Fred Ward, The Right Stuff) are down-on-their-luck handymen in the flyspeck town of Perfection, Nevada. They finally decide they've had their fill of hauling garbage and pumping septic tanks and decide to head for greater opportunities in the nearby, larger town of Bixby. However, strange events conspire to keep them in town. As they hit the road, they stumble upon a number of the locals who have died in strange and gory ways. The unlikely heroes soon discover that strange creatures are eating people one by one, and they're heading for Perfection.
Aided by geology grad student Rhonda (Finn Carter, Sweet Justice), a pair of heavily armed right-wing survivalists Bert and Heather (Michael Gross of Family Ties and country music star Reba McEntire), and the local storekeeper Walter (Victor Wong, Big Trouble in Little China), Val and Earl must do battle with these terrors from beneath the surface of the desert.
Tremors is unabashedly goofy nonsense, and I mean that in the very best sense. Val, Earl, and all the rest aren't characters so much as walking, talking stereotypes. The characters are a scream because the actors know that playing them as anything else but deadly serious would be fatal to the film; as a result, Bacon, Ward, Gross, and the rest play their characters and deliver their outrageous dialogue with a complete deadpan sincerity that helps to sell the insanity going on around them. Gross in particular goes the extra mile, breaking with his established television persona. I can remember seeing Tremors for the first time years ago and being shocked that this was the same Michael Gross, famous for playing Michael J. Fox's caring, reasonable, liberal, ex-hippie dad on Growing Pains. By contrast, Bert Gummer is a gung-ho gun nut that makes Rambo look pretty tame by comparison. He is aided in his nuttiness by McEntire, who turns in a surprisingly good comic performance in this, her first film role.
The remarkable thing about Tremors is how it manages to take these colorful, enjoyable, quasi-cartoon characters and put them in real, believable danger. The thrills, minor though they are, are well done and surprising, at least the first time one watches the movie. Tremors has been described as a homage (or, less charitably, a throwback) to the monster movies of the 1950s, but it transcends it predecessors by creating real suspense and a true sense of curiosity about the mysterious monsters devouring the inhabitants of Perfection Valley. It does this in some cases by employing techniques reminiscent of the low-budget flicks of long ago, or even Steven Spielberg's Jaws, such as revealing the monster slowly, allowing only fleeting glimpses at first, and not allowing the audience a good look at the whole creature until they are hooked and quite far along into the film.
The release date listed for this DVD is sometime in 2004. However, judging from the picture quality, the non-anamorphic transfer, and the old-school menus, it seems clear that this is just a more recent pressing of an older disc. The fine print on the DVD itself carries a copyright date of 1998; judging from the evidence in hand, that seems about right. As such, the video and audio are really not up to snuff seven years later. The picture is bright and clear and mostly free of source defects. However, it sports some of the worst edge enhancement I've seen in a long time; characters seem to stand out against their backgrounds like the cut-out animation in old episodes of South Park. Fine details crawl with noise, and solid objects tend to shimmer noticeably around the edges. The image also exhibits subtle but noticeable red push, which comes out most noticeably in skin tones. Most of the digital defects only show up if one is looking for them, with the exception of the edge enhancement issues, which are glaringly obvious even if watching casually from two rooms away.
The audio mix is similarly outdated, a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix that puts far too much emphasis on the musical soundtrack, so much so that even loud action scenes are overshadowed. On the bright side, the surround channels are put to surprisingly good use with atmospheric sounds like wind or the rumbling of the "Graboids" traveling under the surface of the ground. Dialogue is clear and understandable, but a bit pinched.
The video and audio might not be up to par, but Universal has created a collector's edition of Tremors that befits its status as a much-beloved cult classic. The centerpiece of all this goodness is the 53-minute look at "The Making of Tremors." More interview retrospective than making-of documentary, it features input from director Ron Underwood (City Slickers, Mighty Joe Young (1998), The Adventures of Pluto Nash) and his friends writer-producers Brent Maddock and Steve Wilson (also the duo responsible for Short Circuit, *batteries not included, and Wild Wild West). They talk about the original source of the Tremors concept, which seemed dead on arrival. The three men pitched the idea to several studios, but prospects looked dim until executive producer and former Roger Corman protégé Gale Ann Hurd (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Abyss, Battle Beyond the Stars) came to their rescue. Based on her background in low budget schlock as well as her experience with big-budget effects pictures, Hurd knew the boys were on to something good. She in turn introduced Underwood, Maddock, and Wilson to Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis, the partners behind Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc., and who had experience with both the Alien and Terminator franchises. They were responsible for the design of the fearsome "Graboids." During the documentary they talk about their various failed concepts and the evolution of the final monster design. It would have been nice to see some of the rejected concepts rather than just hearing about them, but no pictures are provided. In any case, this is a nice and informative look at the creative forces behind the making of Tremors. Also included are four short promotional featurettes made at the time of Tremors's original release. They run from two to four minutes each. One focuses on the overall making of Tremors, while the others are billed as "profiles" of Kevin Bacon, Michael Gross, and Reba McEntire. The truth is, the "profiles" may focus a little more exclusively on the actors and their characters, but for the most part their information is repeated from the overview segment.
One interesting item is the five minutes of outtakes included. The bulk of this material consists of an alternate opening sequence that sets up some of the minor characters encountered later on. It's interesting enough, but would have slowed down the movie's opening too much—the current opening, which gets right to the misadventures of Val and Earl, is much better.
Rounding out the special features we find two theatrical trailers, a trailer for the direct-to-video sequel Tremors 2: Aftershocks, and a gallery of approximately 110 production photos. There are also several pages of production notes and actor/director bios. This really amounts to an amazing amount of extra material for such a minor flick, which I think speaks to the enthusiastic cult fanbase it has built over the years.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Tremors represents a fairly constant current in western literature, the struggle between the forces of order as represented by humanity and the forces of chaos as represented by nature manifesting itself through the unknown and unexpected. Val and Earl represent…
Oh, screw it. It's a movie where Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward fight giant underground worms and have a good ol' time in the process. Reading more than that into it might be interesting but would prove ultimately pointless.
Tremors is a blast, a nice little horror/comedy that dishes a solid helping of lowbrow laughs along with some surprisingly skillful suspense. It's good Saturday afternoon popcorn fun, nothing more, nothing less. It's also been my mom's favorite movie for years. Given that it has now generated three direct-to-video sequels, there must be a few others out there who love it as well.
We find Tremors not guilty! It's great fun, especially if you're seeing it for the first time. Universal should get thrown in the slammer for the A/V quality on this disc, but let's face it—this is a re-pressing of a disc that's been around for a while, and it really comes from a time before we got as picky as we are now about DVD transfers. Besides, the heaping helping of extras will be a treat for any Tremors fan.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Making of Tremors"
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