Monday, October 29, 2012

"Outtakes" movie column/"Tremors" review, Jan. 26, 1990

When I was growing up in Wyoming, the cool thing to do on Friday nights was to go to Jimmy Royal's house, stay up real late and watch "Nightmare Theater" on one of the Salt Lake channels. I remember, vividly, that the logo dripped what looked like blood, and the announcer's voice was creepy enough to give me chills.

The movies on "Nightmare Theater" were rarely well-made, but they were always good. This is not a contradiction when you're 10 or 11 years old, up way past your bedtime and eating your way through the refrigerator. As I recall, there was usually a double feature, and we especially liked anything with Vincent Price, vampires or nearly bare female breasts. "Nightmare Theater" must have shown a lot of Roger Corman movies, because we saw many more scantily clad women than Price or blood-sucking bats -- combined.

I got to thinking about those old movies after seeing "Tremors," a new Universal creature feature that opened last weekend. It's a lot like the monster movies that were made by the studio in the '30s, '40s and '50s. Back then, you saw the monsters in the movies -- much of the time in broad daylight. Sure, it might have been only a spider or praying mantis blown up to look 20 times the size of a Cadillac, but the monster was right there in front of you -- a force to be seen and reckoned with.

"Tremors" features that sort of monster. This time it's giant, man-eating worms that move through the earth with surprising speed and agility. And there are plenty of potential victims in the movie, so action and suspense are plentiful.

But more than anything, the movie is unpretentious. It's just good, if slightly trashy, fun. After years spent decrying awful splatter films that pretend to be horror films, it's nice to see a popcorn-eating monster flick that harks back to the ideas and conventions that made the genre so much fun.

Humor, as it always was in the good old days, is a prime element. The protagonists are in an absurd situation, pushed beyond the limits of their ability to comprehend what's happening to them. To apply a very '80s word, they're "stressed" -- a perfect launching pad for funny material. There must be laughter to ease the fright, otherwise watching a horror film is a tense, depressing experience. A joke or gag reminds you that it's only make-believe. The best horror films of the past several years -- "Aliens," "The Stepfather," "The Hidden" -- have come equipped to produce laughter, the cathartic release at the end of the roller coaster ride.

The cynical one-liners in splatter movies, of which Freddy Krueger is the most prolific purveyor, are largely pointless and serve only to reinforce the overriding feeling of hopelessness. In these films, there is no escape, no happy ending. The killer never really dies -- he just comes back to kill again and again.

"Tremors" review, Jan. 26, 1990


"Tremors," first and foremost, is great fun. It's not too smart, nor too stupid -- just a slam-bang horror movie that frightens you about as often as it makes you laugh. And you'll do a lot of both while watching it.

Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward star as handymen working in Perfection, Nev., a town in the middle of nowhere with a population of 14. The day they finally decide to escape their dead-end jobs and blow out of town, people and livestock begin vanishing and dying in grisly fashion. Then the road out of Perfection is blocked by a landslide, and they're trapped in this  desert community with whatever has been killing all their friends.

That's about all the story there is to "Tremors," but it's enough. The killers are not people, after all -- they're Massive Mutant Earthworms. And these creatures are formidable predators: They clip along at 15 or 20 mph through the dirt, smell bad, have long tentacles that snare prey and drag it into their gaping jaws and, most frightening of all, are not stupid -- they learn from their mistakes.

The good people of Perfection soon learn that the worms can't see. Instead, they locate their next meal by sensing vibrations in the soil. A jackhammer, a child on a pogo-stick and a trotting horse are virtually the same as blood in the water for a shark -- dinner is served. So the human characters spend a great deal of time trying to get from one place to another without walking on the ground, and attempting to sort out how best to kill these monsters.

The special effects are competent without overwhelming the actors, much like the better creature features of the 1950s. And we see the worms in daylight, as opposed to the shadowy forms some filmmakers try to get away with in lesser films.

These freakish creations are scary, but director Ron Underwood, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock (the three previously worked together on TV and education projects), wisely avoids trying to explain where the worms came from or why they chose Nevada as their hunting ground. The important thing is that they're in Nevada and they're killing people.

Ward and Bacon, two good actors, appear to be having a blast playing good ol' boys who find themselves waging war on giant, man-eating worms. The chemistry between them is good, and the lines they're given are funny, too.

And casting Michael Gross (from TV's "Family Ties") against type as a gun-toting survivalist provides plenty of humor. Ditto country singer Reba McEntire as Mrs. Gun Freak; it's hilarious to hear her bragging about the firepower locked away in the family bomb shelter.

"Tremors" probably won't win any Oscars. It's a popcorn movie, made for people to sit back and enjoy, not ponder. And it's nice to see a horror movie that goes easy on the gore (relatively speaking, anyway).

For a good time, see "Tremors."

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