15 Days of Horror – Tremors

I think most of the horror movies I’ve seen were a part of those long, televised movie marathons Sci-Fi and USA and TNT used to air on major holidays. I know it was on USA, and I’m pretty sure it was Labor Day, when I first saw this fine film.

Tremors shows what happens when two fed-up handymen, Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, decide to leave the isolated Nevada town of Perfection one day too late. They become trapped in the desert valley by huge subterranean worms that have snake-tentacles in their mouths. These two heroes, along with a college-student seismologist and a cast of oddball city residents—the annoying kid, the single mother, the survivalist gun-nut couple, the Mexican dude, the Asian grocery store owner—have to figure out first how to survive, then how to escape.

The only way I can think to categorize Tremors is as a b-movie creature feature. It has all the parts—monsters, survivors, the heroes, the girl, escape plans, climactic “kill the evil thing” ending. It’s something of a homage to the monster movies of yore, one that manages to keep a straight face while keeping its tongue firmly planted in cheek. Its heroes are handymen; the girl is introduced as pretty homely; the monsters (like all proper b-movie monsters) are both terrifying and somewhat inane; that’s not even including Michael Gross’ survivalist gun-nut character.

This is an enjoyable movie, for its camp, its humor, its slick effects and tight pacing.When a film names its monsters “graboids…” you know it’s not meant to be taken seriously. The fact that it takes itself somewhat seriously—but not too seriously—just adds to the charm. It’s a modern day b-movie, only it rises above the genre to be a solid film.

Why is it scary?

Again, the humor cuts the scariness down a few notches, the film does follow all the basics of a creature feature:

  • Isolated location: it’s a tiny town, blocked off from the rest of the world by mountains. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no contact with the outside world.
  • Finding the monster’s aftermath: we don’t see the creature for most of the film, just the bloody ruin in the wake of the graboids, including a dessicated corpse in a telephone pole, a decapitated farmer, piles of dead sheep, and a submerged station wagon. We’re shown these things are dangerous before we get a first glimpse of them.
  • Don’t Show the Monster: Even when we do see the monster, it’s just one of the snake-like tentacle heads, which is rather small and harmless compared to the real thing. Living under the ground helps: we see the attacks, but not the monster.
  • A menace you can’t get to: the graboids are under the ground. Not only are they hard to kill, rarely surfacing to be shot at, but they’re also impossible to see. They strike without warning, grab something, and drag it down under the ground. It’s like Jaws in the desert.
  • A smart monster: the graboids get pretty damn smart, proving they can learn later on, which makes the escape attempts come to a screeching halt with the need to devise a new plan.
  • Death by other means: there are several instances where the characters are stuck somewhere, in the desert heat, without food or water or shade. They’re put in situations where, if they don’t act, either they’ll die of thirst, or the monsters will get them.

Not the scariest movie out there, but it has plenty of tricks it uses to its advantage.

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