According to his recent interview with the Telegraph, Kevin Bacon was distraught and anxious during his time filming Tremors. He saw the film as a career low. And it’s hard to consider this an unreasonable reaction. On paper, it still seems a tough sell, a hard movie to pitch as having any value. Tremors was released 25 years ago on this date, and even today, the film is just as identifiable by what it lacks as by what it offers.
Tremors is a standard horror film, the sort in which characters are isolated and killed one by one, but it gives no mind to the Final Girl trope or the complex politics of sexuality, virginity, and gender that are so commonplace in like-minded narratives. It’s a sci-fi film with the softest and simplest science, built mostly upon basic geology, but also hinting an unpursued concept of alien invasion. Comparable invasion films have investigated American xenophobia or domestic paranoia, but Director Ron Underwood and the film’s team of writers seem entirely disinterested with that sort of layered endeavor. In terms of reputation and stature, Tremors is a monster movie nearly as famous Alien, Godzilla, and Cloverfield, but the central monsters hold seemingly no metaphorical value: no rape text, no measurement of cultural fear, just big ugly worms with projectile serpentine tongues. And, atop all that, while Tremors is clearly influenced by previous films (it’s a mash-up of both the Westerns and imaginative monster films of the ’50s and ’60s), it doesn’t for a second position itself as a lecture on genre conventions.
But, I offer this list of “elements that are absent” more in praise than criticism, because, in spite of all that it lacks, Tremors is still a very good movie. The script (penned by S. S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, and Underwood), maintains a diverse cast of fully-realized, functional, non-generic characters against a survival situation. In any survival film, there must be presented an exhibition of what happens when the effort fails. There have to be characters in these films who perish or suffer to illustrate the severity of the survival conditions. Normally, these necessary fatalities are marked by a dilution of personality; the personalities of the impending victims are made expendable by the script as to allow their unobtrusive expense. Even good films do this, but Tremors never participates in this compromise. The characters stay real and likable. Even Melvin, who is undeniably annoying, is never “I’m okay if he dies” annoying. Every character in this story is central, functional, and deserving to live, which creates a consistent tension and audience investment, while that tension is made manageable by the lighthearted and whimsical chemistry of the film’s three central heroes: the devil-may-care cowboy Valentine (Bacon, with hair that belongs in a museum), his rough-and-tumble blue-collar partner Earl (Fred Ward), and adorable but resourceful and resilient geologist Rhonda (a powder-nosed Finn Carter). Judged by both the enjoyability and value of character development, Tremors is built from an airtight solid script.
Further, the filmmaking principles exhibited by Underwood are second to no ’90s horror film. There is a specific calculation of open-space claustrophobia established by the setting, shooting, and the inherent position of the monsters, a brand of fear that is unique to this movie in both structure and measure. Consider that this anxiety is consistently present in a film that is set almost entirely in daylight, articulated most clearly by the position of the cameras and the indication of the unseen monsters. In the most dire moments (for me, those in which the survivors gather atop houses and structures to escape the ground), Underwood and Gruszynski know exactly where to build their frame to maintain maximum nervousness. On a scene-by-scene and even shot-by-shot basis, Tremors walks an incredibly tight, disciplined line. The action sequences are concisely pursued by cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski’s camera, and the film never overplays or underplays its hand in showing the giant worms, which could have been a fatal flaw that would color the film cheesy or boring. Every element of this movie skillfully sidesteps ruinous mistakes, mistakes that might have resulted in the film that Kevin Bacon was afraid he was making.
I typically don’t like the phrase “It’s just for fun” when it is used to describe a movie. More often than not when someone applies that phrase in description of a film, they’re doing so to defend a bad film from its own evident bad-ness, disallowing the film in subject to be held accountable for its flaws by citing its own lack of ambition. Most commonly, “It’s just for fun” is the equivalent of a student saying “I failed the test because I don’t care about tests.” That form of excuse should not hold water in either circumstance. It’s disheartening, really, that on the Venn Diagram of film value (particularly horror films), fine-tuned craftsmanship overlaps almost exclusively with narrative ambition, leaving fun as a large outlying segment to be occupied by lesser filmmakers. But Tremors is a large, undeniable dot in that tiny sliver of intersect between craftsmanship and fun that might go unnoticed if it weren’t for this particular charting. It’s a nice reminder that every so often a film can be both fun and good. Tremors is a film that is, was, and always will be just for fun, but damn, is it some intelligently well-crafted fun.