The satirical horror movie has proved as popular, in recent years, as the horror movie proper. With franchise reboots for ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ and ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ and a new franchise courtesy of the ‘Saw’ movies, there have been any number of ironic repasts, from the subversively satirical ‘Severance’ to the out-and-out spoofery of the ‘Scary Movie’ quartet.
But before any of these, before ‘Black Sheep’ or ‘Dog Soldiers’, before ‘Eight Legged Freaks’, there was ‘Tremors’. And ‘Tremors’ did it better than any of its successors. And definitely better than any of its sequels.
Let’s draw a discreet veil over its sequels. And its prequel.
‘Tremors’ is a knowing, playful, but – when it matters – impressively suspenseful throwback to the “creature features” of the 1950s. It boasts a smart script with plentiful sharp dialogue (“we use forward planning – that way we don’t have to do anything right now”), a terrific double act in Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, an effectively offbeat supporting role for C&W megastar Reba McEntire (who also provides the toe-tapping end credits song) as a gun-toting survivalist, and pacy direction from Ron Underwood that makes the best use of the Nevada setting.
The film opens with casual labourers Earl (Ward) and Valentine (Bacon) vowing to leave the small town of Perfection (a place that could be described as ‘backwater’ except that it’s a desert) when their situation – by dint of a succession of shitty jobs, quite literally in the case of a nasty encounter with a septic tank – becomes untenable. Only fate is working against them. Within the first quarter of the film, they make three attempts to leave the facetiously named Perfection, but are forced to turn back each time, Valentine opining the occurrence of divine intervention when a rockfall proves the last straw.
Already the movie is whole lot better than it has any right to be, because of the economy with which Underwood establishes his protagonists, their razor-sharp repartee and – more so – because Earl and Valentine are Everyman personified. Anyone who has held down a crap job, bemoaned their lot in life and/or wished for something better will recognise in them kindred spirits. The fact that things proceed to get a whole lot worse, thanks entirely to the ministrations of a bunch of subterranean monsters, just seems perfectly in keeping with Earl and Valentine’s talent for misfortune.
Ah, the monsters. I don’t know why – it probably says something about the weird workings of my mind – but I can’t help thinking that if the spice worms from ‘Dune’ hung out with the hillbillies from ‘Deliverance’, necked a little moonshine and spent a few generations breeding with their sisters, the big ugly wormy things in ‘Tremors’ are pretty much what the result would be. Their grotesqueness is almost comical, and this epitomises ‘Tremors’ nicely.
The film is tense in the right places (the worms’ attack on a couple out camping is a brilliantly sustained set piece) and gooey in the right places (don’t watch it over dinner), with a sardonic sense of dark humour overarching the whole thing. It set Underwood up to direct ‘City Slickers’ the following year, though sadly he’s done nothing of note since, and it still remains arguably the best film of its kind.