Wednesday, June 8, 2016

TREMORS 1,2, 3, 4, 5 (1990-2015)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

Yes, I know that all of the DTV sequels to the original TREMORS have subtitles, but after watching them all, I'm too enervated to type any of them, much less bother to search out images for them. I'm by no means the type who condemns serial follow-ups with the knee-jerk elitism of many reviewers. But this time I could wish that the first film had remained sequel-less.

Even though the shadow of Ridley Scott's ALIEN looms large over the original TREMORS, the Ron Underwood film avoids the trap of most imitations. In many ways it seems like the film that 1957's MONOLITH MONSTERS wanted to be, in that TREMORS concentrates on a small human community in a mountainous region of America, far from the big cities and superhighways. Whereas in MONOLITH MONSTERS the community is attacked by alien rocks, as if the unforgiving landscape itself came alive, here the people of the town of Perfection must deal with "graboids," carnivorous monsters that burrow through the ground, tracking their victims entirely by sound. The visual motif may also remind one of JAWS, but the image of the graboids' mouths-- which have three serpent-like extensions projecting from the mouth proper-- is certainly borrowed from the "toothed tongue" of the Aliens.

Like many of the best 1950s creature features, the focal characters are a couple of "just plain folks," handymen-partners Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward), who are frankly bored with doing odd jobs for the less-than-prosperous citizens of Perfection. Even the presence of Rhonda (Finn Carter), a nice-looking female seismologist-- the "expert-figure" common in 1950s SF-films-- doesn't keep the younger Val from wanting to pick up stakes. However, when the isolated community is cut off from the rest of the world by the graboid invasion, Val and Earl end up fighting for their lives-- and not without some romantic interaction between Val and Rhonda for good measure.

Happily, the melodrama is kept to a minimum. Like the scripts for Jack Arnold's "desert noir" films, the script by Brent Maddock and S,S. Wilson allows for a slow build through which both the audience and the characters become aware of the nature of the menace, followed by the harrowing major onslaught of the graboids, during which protagonists and support-characters desperately try to deduce the vulnerabilities of the predators. In keeping with the title, the film's best scenes are those in which the characters become conscious of how their every noise can bring down the hunters-- as well as ways in which they can trick or trap the graboids. One particular stand-out scene-- which would be milked in all of the sequels-- is one in which a survivalist man-and-wife team (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire) oppose a graboid with a small arsenal and blow it away.

Bacon and McEntire did not return for the sequel TREMORS 2: AFTERSHOCKS, but Fred Ward did, as did Michael Gross. Gross's character Burt Gummer, effectively a single man from then on, arguably became the new protagonist, and his presence altered the orientation of the franchise. The first film is excellent in being an exciting thriller, in which the protagonists are on the defensive, but the sequels show the humans becoming far more proactive, even venturing to attempt the capture of the subterranean monsters. Understandably, the producers may also have felt that the first film did everything possible with the worm-creatures as they were then depicted-- and so TREMORS 2 proposes that the graboids suddenly start tossing off new phases of their species, such as "walking graboids" and "flying graboids."

TREMORS 3: BACK TO PERFECTION is really just more of the same, except that the second film wrote out Earl by competing his own romantic arc. This time, as if to support Burt Gummers' suspicions of governmental idiocy, agents of the Department of the Interior show up and want to extend "endangered species" protection to the surviving graboids around Perfection. In addition, this bit of ecological officiousness is accompanied by a theme dating back to silent cinema: the threat to one's home, for the agents also suggest that they may invoke eminent domain and eject all of the locals from their town. As usually happens in these type of films, the vicious animals themselves show no gratitude for ecological correctness and gobble down their benefactors, leaving it to individualist Burt Gummer to blast the critters to kingdom come. As if to align him with another great literary hunter, Gummer's largest quarry is a Great White Worm.

TREMORS 4: THE LEGEND BEGINS is undoubtedly the best of the sequels-- even though it's technically a prequel. The action takes place in 1889, when Perfection was a struggling mining-town under the dubious name of "Rejection," and the local mine has suddenly become  beseiged by graboids. Effete Easterner Hiram Gummer, ancestor of Burt, comes to Rejection to protect his interest in the mine, and though he seems the polar opposite of hard-bitten survivalist Burt, he eventually finds his true manhood and stands up to the murderous worms. The action is more limited than in some sequels, but the story hearkens back to the strengths of the original, and gives Gross the chance to play against the "type" of his usual character.

TREMORS 5: BLOODLINES returns the franchise to present-day, once more with irascible Burt Gummer hunting graboids-- this time in a somewhat refreshing change-of-setting: South Africa. Burt, occasionally partnered with short-lived sidekicks following the absence of Earl, gains a new aide in a young guy named Travis, who just happens to have had a family relationship with one of Burt's old girlfriends. The other characters in BLOODLINES are the most forgettable support-characters in the franchise, which even at its worst generally showed some care in their individual depiction. The action is nothing special, except for a scene in which a hostile poacher takes Burt prisoner, places him in a metal cage, and leaves him at the mercy of the African sun and wildlife. Gross makes the most of this scene, at turns both suspenseful and funny.

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