In Perfection, they say there's nothing new under the sun. But under the ground...
The horror/comedy film almost never works, because it requires a nearly impossible tone to nail. It's hard to be too scared if you're laughing, and it's hard to laugh if you're scared. When writers and directors do pull it off -- Gremlins 1 and 2, the Evil Dead series, the recent Slither -- it's an incredibly enjoyable genre. And to me, the shining example may just be the 1990 cult classic Tremors.
The film is about underground creatures that track their prey by sensing vibrations. It's a pretty genius idea for a horror flick, one of those perfect why-didn't-anyone-think-of-this-before concepts. Having the creatures come from below is something of a masterstroke for a low-budget film, because for large chunks of screen time the monster can be implied rather than shown.
The smaller budget of Tremors pushes the filmmakers to be as creative as possible with their monsters. In addition to the awesome cinematography, which includes Sam Raimi-style camera tricks and monster POV shots, just about every creature feature trick in the book is employed, including hand puppets! There are only a couple of moments that don't quite look believable, but the shagginess is a big part of the movie's massive charm.
And the monsters, when we do see them, are really pretty sweet. There's a great documentary on the DVD where, among other things, you learn that the original creature design was scrapped because everyone thought it looked exactly like a penis. So even if the effects might not be up to today's CGI-heavy standards, you can at least be thankful you're not watching Attack of the Dicks.
Tremors has such an eclectic, loose, funny cast, it feels a lot like hanging out with friends. The chemistry between ladies' man Kevin Bacon and surly grizzlepot Fred Ward is a classic dude/dude romance. They bicker like an old married couple, but you can tell these guys would do anything for each other. Finn Carter is the unconventional love interest, and she is, thankfully, genuinely unconventional. This isn't some hot D-cup blonde in tight jeans who they slapped some reading glasses on to make her a scientist. Her character is a highly intelligent, kinda nerdy, sorta plain woman, and she works perfectly for the film and for the Bacon character's arc in particular (yes, I'm discussing an "arc" in a Tremors review, damn it! It's there!).
The supporting cast gets a lot of Tremors' most memorable material. Michael Gross (who started filming Tremors the day after Family Ties wrapped) is fantastic as a World War III-obsessed crackpot. Country singer Reba McEntire lights up the screen in her feature debut as his equally gun-crazed wife. And Victor Wong is hilarious as Walter Chang. From his fixation on naming the monsters (he settles on "Graboids"), to his attempts to make money off of them, to his delivery of the completely random line "Here's some swiss cheese and some bullets," Wong steals the show. When Chang gets (spoiler alert!) eaten by the very creature he named, you genuinely care.
Tremors was directed by Ron Underwood, who would go on to huge commercial success the following year with the wonderful City Slickers. The script is by writing partners S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock (Short Circuit, Underwood's sleeper gem Heart and Souls), and it is chock full of great little character moments and one-liners. It is also brimming with some of the most colorful profanity the "PG-13" rating has ever seen. As a child, I rewound few non-nudity moments more than Ward's hysterical delivery of the line "Son of a god damn bitch!" You can tell they were probably going for an "R," the occasional overdub is as visible here as it was in Live Free or Die Hard. The great thing is, often times the overdubs are funnier than what the actual lines would have been. I mean, take for example -- "There are two more, I repeat, two more mother humpers." Come on. If that doesn't make you chuckle, you're a colder man than I.
(And who can forget the even funnier edited-for-television version of this film, which contains some classic cover-ups, none better than replacing "Broke into the wrong god damn rec room didn't you, you bastard!?" with "Broke into the wrong GOL DARN rec room, didn't you, you BIG JERK!" Wow.)
Tremors was a very modest success at the box office, taking in just $16.5 million. I'd imagine audiences didn't know what to make of a monster movie that had Jerry Lee Lewis' rollicking "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" playing over the joke-packed trailer. But on VHS and DVD, where minds broaden, this little flick has caught on like an Office Space or a Big Lebowski. I've never mentioned the film to anyone without seeing a big smile creep across his or her face. One rarely uses this word to explain a horror film, but it really applies here -- Tremors is delightful.