Saturday, 17 March 2018

REVIEW: Tremors 5-Movie Anthology

For my birthday I received the Tremors box set, something that only recently appeared on my radar when I read that a sixth film in the series is due for release this year. I hadn't even realised that there was a fifth one, although having seen the first, second and fourth, I had deduced that there was likely a third. There was also a short-lived TV series, which follows on directly from the third movie, which I shall now have to add to my watchlist.

The original Tremors (1990), is a classic monster movie with a brilliant central concept. The sandworm class of monster isn't wholly original to Tremors – Beetlejuice had sandworms on Saturn in 1988, and legends of the Mongolian deathworm date back to at least the 1920s. Tremors, though, is the first film I'm aware of to use the idea of an underground worm as the central monster. Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson, the writers of the franchise, really thought about how the creatures could make sense. The Graboids, with their wonderfully ludicrous name, are brilliantly realised with physical props and animatronics – state of the art techniques in 1990, and they look so much more real than even the best CGI work. Cleverly, the Graboids aren't revealed in full until a fair way into the film. To begin with, we see the results of their attacks, followed by the attacks themselves. Then we get a glimpse of a snake-like creature that is killed trying to drag off the heroes' truck. Only later is it revealed that this is just one tongue/tentacle of a much bigger monster, a thirty-foot beaked worm that emerges from beneath the ground, hunting its prey by listening to the vibrations made by movement on the surface. The final revelation is that there are three more of the creatures, weaving their way under the ground of the valley in which the town of Perfection is situated. It still bothers me that the monster on the poster barely resembles the creature in the actual film, instead being a modified and hugely inflated version of one of the tentacles.

Aside from the brilliant monster, it's the characters that make Tremors work so well. There's one thing the original has that all the sequels lack: Kevin Bacon. Some of the dialogue in Tremors is risible, but when you have someone with Bacon's charisma delivering it, it works. Bacon is one half of double act Val and Earl, along with Fred Ward, a couple of odd job men who have a relationship of mutual disrespect. There's a lovely father-son relationship between them, with Earl as the elder straight man and Val as the cocky kid. They're part of a community in the town of Perfection, mostly lifelong locals but also Walter Chang (Victor Wong), the owner of the only store in town and the man who names the Graboid, planning to use it as a moneymaking attraction before he gets eaten, and the Gummers. The Gummers are characters that, by right, I shouldn't be able to stand; a pair of right-wing gun nuts who relocated to Perfection for its complete geographic isolation and set up a self-sufficient bunker in case of World War Three. Yet somehow they're the most likeable and funny characters in the franchise, with Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) becoming the single linking character throughout all the films and the TV series, although his wife (Reba McEntire) doesn't return after the first film.

The final outsider is Rhonda LeBeck, played by Finn Carter. She's a hugely likeable leading lady, and it's surprising that she didn't appear in more films after this. A seismologist studying the strange geological activity in the area, she becomes the catch-all scientist for the film, a nice send-up of sci-fi monster movies where scientists are treated as jack-of-all-trades all-rounders instead of the specialists they usually are. There's another nice pop at the conventions when Rhonda, Val and Earl take guesses at the origins of the creatures, going for space aliens, genetically engineered weapons, radioactive mutations and prehistoric monsters (the latter turns out to be true in the next movie). Rhonda and Val have a sweetly awkward romance, another character dynamic that makes the film work so well. The relationships and humour, along with the combination of a killer central monster and the nature of the setting (both expansive and isolated), make Tremors work so very well.

A sequel was a pretty obvious, given the success of the original as a popular and cult hit (even if Kevin Bacon initially hated it). Nonetheless, it didn't arrive until six years later, and went straight to video. Tremors 2: Aftershocks (1996) has a brilliant tagline: “The worms have turned.” Fred Ward returns as Earl, hired to help capture or kill Graboids that have overrun a plot in Mexico. He's joined by Grady Hoover (Christopher Gartin) as his new young plucky sidekick, but fake Bacon is no substitute for the real thing. There's also a new female scientist, a geologist named Kate “White” Reilly (Helen Shaver), who provides the scientific exposition (although she doesn't know what the word “hermaphrodite” means). She's also the romantic interest for Earl, and having an older woman to match the older hero is a nice touch. Still, it's hard to escape the impression that these are weaker stand-ins for the original team.

To expand the idea enough to carry another film, the writers introduce a new form for the creatures. After spending some time polishing off Graboids, recruiting Burt Gummer to assist (literally bringing in the big guns), there's a risk that the monsters are going to be reduced as a threat (just like the Alien before them, or the Borg, or Godzilla, or any one of a hundred recurring monsters). With this in mind, having the Graboids transform, hatching into new creatures, keeps things fresh. Still, the new life stage, the Shriekers, are nowhere near as effective as the original Graboids. The influence of Jurassic Park can be felt here, and not only with the talk of a Graboid theme park; the Shriekers look a lot like piggy Velociraptors. Other than the beaked face, there's little to identify them as part of the same species as the Graboids. They now run around above the ground, and their most frightening feature, hunting people by the tiniest sound they make, is removed. Instead, the creatures are deaf and essentially blind, hunting by the infrared radiation produced by body heat, much like a rattlesnake (or the Predator). They also have a peculiar method of reproduction, hacking up a fully formed Shrieker after they've eaten enough food. Aftershocks is good fun, but it's a poor comparison with the original.

Tremors 3: Back to Perfection (2001), as the title suggests, goes back to the setting of the original, bringing back all the surviving minor characters from that film: Ariana Richards as Mindy (all growed up), Charlotte Stewart as her mum Nancy, Tony Genaro as Miguel, even Robert Jayne as Melvin, no longer a teenager but still an obnoxious creep. The writers have finally realised that Michael Gross is the star of their franchise, and Burt Gummer has now been promoted to lead hero, still living in Perfection and completely equipped for a Graboid incursion, in spite of the creatures being extinct in the area for the last eleven years. He's even got a new house that is built into an impenetrable concrete shell. In some of the best exposition I've ever heard, Burt lays out the life cycle of the Graboid as known so far in the opening moments, happily covering the developments of the second film. Back in Perfection, Chang's niece Jodi (Susan Chuang) runs a rebuilt store in his honour, selling Graboid merchandise alongside all the essentials (the comics look pretty cool, even if they do consistently misspell Shrieker as “Shreiker”). Meanwhile, up-and-comer Jack Sawyer (Shawn Christian) is making money by conning stupid tourists into shelling out for Graboid tours. Of course, hilarity ensues when the Graboids turn out to be less-than-extinct in Perfection.

Technically speaking, this is the weakest of the three films so far. By this stage, CGI had gotten cheap enough to render the bulk of the effects. This is the beginning of the era of low-budget CG monster movies, with shonky CGI horrors en masse. It's just not as effective as physical effects though, and while there are some puppets used for human-Graboid interaction, the best shots are reused footage from the first film (with a completely different texture so that they stand out like a sore thumb). The increasingly unlikely Graboid life cycle gets a third and final stage, as the Shriekers turn out to be surprisingly short-lived, sloughing off their skins to become Ass-Blasters. I'm not keen on the Ass-Blasters, although I love the idea that they use internal propellants to fart themselves into the sky. I guess it makes sense that the creatures go from underground, to above ground, to the skies, and they are revealed to lay eggs, which goes some way to making the life cycle make sense. I'm just not a fan of the design though. They're even more dinosaur-like than the Shriekers, and with the safari park elements, there's a definite Jurassic Park riff going on here. Even the ending has the same predatorial twist. However, they don't quite go as far as having Ariana Richards recreate her classic Velociraptor scene in the kitchens.

Still, this is fun and overall more enjoyable than Aftershocks, and this comes down to the characters. They can't save the worst parts of the dialogue and they recycle old jokes, but the interaction of likeable characters, along with the sense of community from the original, make this a pretty successful follow-up. Very, very silly, but a lot of fun, and we get to see Gummer swallowed by a Graboid and still come out fighting.

After three films and a follow-up TV series, things were beginning to get pretty stale in Perfection, so for the fourth film a new direction was taken. Tremors 4: The Legend Begins goes back a century to the old West, when Perfection was still the poorly marketed town of Rejection. This provides a shot in the arm to the franchise and results in the best of the spin-off films. In many ways, The Legend Begins goes back to basics, cutting out Shriekers and Ass-Blasters and bringing the focus back to the Graboids themselves. A slight new twist on the creatures is provided by giving us little Graboid hatchlings that rocket through the soil and leap out at their prey. The larvae are recognisably Graboids – or Dirt Dragons as they're dubbed here – but they're a somewhat different threat, requiring sharp shooters rather than heavy munitions. Good thing it's the sort of place a sharp shooter can be called upon to rid the town of varmints. Of course, the full grown Graboids aren't far behind. Much of the film takes place in and around a silver mine, giving us the unsettling prospect of Graboids attacking as easily from above as from below, and without ever giving them jet-propelled anuses.

Michael Gross is the star once again, but this time playing Hiram Gummer, Burt's ancestor and the owner of the silver mine. In a very funny twist on the character, Hiram is an avowed pacifist who has never used a firearm. It's great fun seeing him gradually embrace the life of a paranoid gun nut. Gross is just brilliant, making the most of the chance to play an uptight new character who's still very recognisably a Gummer. History is rewritten in this instalment, with not only Burt but Chang's ancestor settled in pre-Perfection. Sara Botsford plays the rather Heather-like hotellier Christine, while August Schelleberg is Tecopa, a young Native American who becomes Hiram's default sidekick. Billy Drago has a memorable turn as laconic gunslinger Black Hand Kelly. There's a lot of fun to be had with this idea, and The Legend Begins rattles along nicely to an inventive finish.

It was a whopping eleven years before the fifth and to-date-latest movie was released. Tremors 5: Bloodlines (2015) follows on from the 2003 TV series, which itself follows on from Back to Perfection. Burt Gummer, now getting on a bit, is making a tenuous living in the deserts around Perfection as a celebrity survivalist, filming himself in the wild living off snakes, like a less annoying Bear Grylls. This gives Gross plenty of chances to talk directly to the camera and exposit for all he's worth, bringing up any new viewers (or anyone who's come straight from the original) on the Graboid life cycle once again. So far, not so different from Back to Perfection, until two new characters arrive: Travis Welker, replacement cameraman (Jamie Kennedy) and Erich van Wyk (Daniel Janks), a dodgy South African who recruits the pair of them to come back to the RSA with him to take care of their Ass-Blaster problem. Of course, as Gummer says, “If you've got Ass-Blasters, you've got Graboids.”

The new setting works really well, finally taking the franchise out of Perfection and shaking up the threat a little with it. Setting it in a safari reserve gives the opportunity for some beautiful landscapes and wildlife shots (plenty of stock footage usage here), and there's a different feel to the movie than the wall-to-wall Americana of the previous films. Gummer once more finds himself without the required need-to-know information when facing a new, African species of Graboid. Introducing them via the Ass-Blasters first is a different approach too, so we're kept waiting for the eventual Graboid reveal. There's some interesting use of southern African folklore,with the Ass-Blasters likened to the impundulu, the legendary vampiric lightning bird. They also have sickle claws, proving, in a well-executed kitchen scene, that what Back to Perfection was missing was indeed a Velociraptor tribute scene. By this stage, CGI had advanced to the point where the monsters look bloody good, and there's no longer that huge gulf in quality between physical and visual effects. The redesigned monsters look gnarlier and more vicious than ever – the Ass-Blasters are much better than the BtP version – and while the Queen Graboid isn't as reworked, it's significantly larger and nastier, and to top it off, the tongue/tentacles can detach and go hunting on their own. While nothing beats the original Graboid design and concept, the African version is just different enough to keep things interesting.

Gross is still the star as Gummer, now completely embodying the role, while Jamie Kennedy makes a good foil as the young and overly confident Travis. Kennedy always skirts a line between likeable and annoying, and that's no different here, but he manages to fall mostly on the right side of that line. With a whole new cast of characters to introduce, the writers take advantage of the uncertainty by bringing in potentially significant figures and then killing them off, so no one ever feels safe. Well, except for Travis's unrequited love interest Nandi, played by the gorgeous Safrican actress Pearl Thusi. Brandon Auret plays her on/off suitor Johan, who vies for the main action role with Gummer.

Bloodlines was a long-time coming, so it's not surprising I'd thought the franchise dead. The original creative team had little to do with it, with W. Truesmith and M.A. Deuce taking up writing duties, and a bit of new blood does the franchise no harm. Early developments suggested an Australian setting, but the decision to use South Africa works so well that I'm pleased they changed their minds. Reportedly, Kevin Bacon expressed interest in returning early on, taking time out from his EE adverts, but this wasn't to be. In the event, we got a fifth film that revives the franchise with some great humour and action. I'm looking forward to the sixth film, the Arctic-set Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell, which is due in the coming months, and there are rumblings of a Bacon-filled Netflix series. Still, Bloodlines ends with Burt and Travis touring the world as monster hunters, and this is a spin-off that surely we deserve to see.

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