Why Monster Movie 'Tremors' Is Still A Cult Classic

The story of giant underground sandworms menacing a small town may have inexplicably dropped off the box office radar, but here's why Tremors is a cult gem.
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In all my years of movie-going, I’ve only ever had an entire cinema to myself once. The year was 1990, and at the time I was a regular at our local picture house. It was a proper old-school cinema, with curved stalls, a balcony, and those little green tickets that were torn off a roll and slipped under the box office window. The Penistone Metro even made national news at one point, when distributors threatened to withhold new movies if the management insisted on keeping the half-time interval, so that audiences could slope off to the bar for a pint and a couple of cheeky Lambert & Butlers an hour into the show.

As I settled into my sagging and slightly sticky seat, I looked around and noticed that there was no-one else in the room. Even after the trailers for forthcoming attractions had played, as well as the ads for local businesses (double glazing, second-hand furniture and a sandwich shop on the corner – “Now there’s a meal for a man”), I was still all on my lonesome. But I didn’t care, this was a film I’d been itching to see since I’d read all about it in Fangoria, the horror fan’s Bible.

Despite solid reviews, celebrating its loving pastiche of 1950’s monster B-movies, Tremors failed to capture the public’s imagination. It had dropped off the radar pretty quickly in the States, and seemed doomed to a similarly ignominious fate in the UK. Nevertheless, as its opening scene unfolded on the time-worn screen, I couldn’t have been more hooked if a Graboid itself had wrapped around my ankle.

The dialogue crackles, with jokes based on characterization rather than glib smart-arsery.

If you’ve never seen Tremors on one of its many TV airings, you’re now in a minority. Over the years it’s built up a loyal cult following, even spawning a franchise of direct-to-DVD sequels and a short-lived TV show. Unfortunately, much like The Shawshank Redemption a few years later, the studio managed to get everything right except the marketing. Apparently, ‘small desert town gets menaced by giant sandworms’ didn’t hold much appeal when compared with the racing adventures of Cole Trickle or John McClane facing another fucked up Christmas.

So why is Tremors held in such high regard by those who’ve experienced its low-fi wonders? For a start, it’s got an awesome script. The dialogue crackles, with jokes based on characterization rather than glib smart-arsery. Take the scene where our ‘better than nothing’ heroes prepare to ride to Bixby - store-owner Walter Chang shows his support by offering them “Swiss cheese and some bullets”. Just what you need when under attack from mysterious subterranean monsters - if the rounds don't get 'em, the Emmental will.

The inhabitants of the ironically named Perfection are a rag-tag bunch of losers, loners and gun-toting conspiracy theorists. They’re joined by a seismology student from a nearby university who subverts genre convention by drawing a blank when repeatedly asked to explain the curious phenomena besieging the backwater hamlet. Rhonda may be the only person in town with a tertiary level education, but she’s as clueless as the rest of them when the worms begin to turn – “Why do you keep asking me?” she moans, as the creatures begin burrowing under Walter’s shop, much to the dismay of its occupants.

Fizzy dialogue is one thing, but it dies a death if the roles are miscast. Thankfully, this is another area where Tremors comes up trumps. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward are amazing as Val and Earl, a pair of work-shy handymen who are all set to leave Perfection forever, following one too many shitty jobs. In this case, literally. Their easy banter and genuine chemistry positions them as a curious fusion between Butch & Sundance, and Del & Rodney.

Tremors packs in a handful of genuinely ingenious moments, some great jump scenes and a few splats of gore, but never loses sight of its own silliness.

The other key pairing is Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as the Gummers, a survivalist couple who live in a fortified bunker on a nearby hillside. Throughout the film, much humour is poked at their paranoia and passion for military-grade hardware. But in the end, it’s Burt’s ability to quickly knock up a batch of homemade explosives that saves the day:

Earl: What kind of fuse is that?

Burt: Cannon fuse

Earl: What the hell do you use it for?

Burt: My cannon.

Ultimately though, a monster movie lives and dies by the quality of its effects, and this is one area where Tremors didn’t scrimp. Despite a relatively low budget ($10m and change), the creatures are as good as anything that came from Hollywood in the early nineties. Designed by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr, who later established ADI, one of the industry’s leading effects houses, the Graboids are curiously believable. Having teased audiences with snake-like beasts throughout the film’s first act, director Ron Underwood delivers an awesome money shot that genuinely shocks, as the full scale of the creatures is finally revealed. It suddenly becomes clear that the serpentine creatures we'd seen earlier were simply the Graboids’ tongues, feeling out seismic vibrations and dragging unwilling victims into their prehistoric jaws.

In its brisk 96 minutes, Tremors packs in a handful of genuinely ingenious moments, some great jump scenes and a few splats of gore, but never loses sight of its own silliness. As Burt and Heather reluctantly surrender their ‘impenetrable’ fortress, you can't help but join in with Burt's bitter laugh as he laments the fact that you can never be too prepared: “Food for five years, a thousand gallons of gas, air filtration, water filtration, Geiger counter. Bomb shelter! Underground... God damn monsters.”

A couple of weeks ago, Tremors popped up on one of the Freeview channels (where it seems to be in regular syndication along with The Pelican Brief and The Chronicles of Riddick) and within twenty minutes it was trending on Twitter. Finally, after twenty years, the little film that could seemed to be getting the recognition it deserves. It may not break any new ground, but like the Graboids themselves, it has a way of pulling you in.