This 1990 monster romp still feels bright, smart & fresh, a mix of light comedy and old-fashioned scares. The entire show is one long battle against smelly burrowing beasts called ‘Graboids.’ Desert handymen Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward must work hard to avoid taking their place in the Graboid Food Chain. Ambitious it ain’t, but it delivers what monster fans want — gross-out thrills, excellent effects and solid laughs. Arrow’s 4K Ultra HD disc is as sharp as a tack, and a second Blu-ray disc contains an unprecedented volume of featurettes, interviews and production documentation.
4K Ultra HD
1990 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 96 min. / Street Date December 15, 2021 / 59.95
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire, Robert Jayne, Bobby Jacoby, Charlotte Stewart, Tony Genaro, Ariana Richards, Richard Marcus, Victor Wong, Bibi Besch
Sunshine Parker Sunshine Parke.
Cinematography: Alexander Gruszynski
Production Designer: Ivo Cristante
Special Effects: Robert Skotak, John Teska, Gene Warren Jr.
Film Editor: O. Nicholas Brown
Original Music: Ernest Troost
Written by S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, Ron Underwood
Produced by Gale Anne Hurd, Brent Maddock, S.S. Wilson, Nancy Roberts
Directed by Ron Underwood
Around Christmastime in 1989 there appeared a bus stop poster proclaiming the arrival of what looked like yet another tacky horror item — the artwork for Tremors featured an image of a huge creature reaching up at new victims, swiping the graphic motif from a certain Steven Spielberg hit. I remember a derisive comment on what looked like a rip-off — ‘somebody made a movie about the Land Shark from Saturday Night Live.’ The show was not a runaway success in theaters but cleaned up in home video, as soon as word got around.
Tremors looks awfully nice in this classy 4K presentation. Buyers be careful — the 4K and Blu-ray releases are separate. As with the earlier Arrow 4K of Flash Gordon, no standard 1080p Blu-ray feature is included in the 4K release.
Arrow Video’s impressive 4K disc is accompanied by a load of goodies that brings back the heyday of DVD — once upon a time, any kind of promotional item that would fit into a disc box was fair game. This one contains two posters, a set of mini-lobby cards and a ‘video rental’ coupon redeemable at Walter Chang’s desert market.
How does a monster movie distinguish itself? By breaking away from 35 years of dumbbell monster movie traditions. Teen audiences love outlandish & sneaky monsters whether they be werewolves, giant insects or things from outer space. But vintage monster epics almost always followed a generic pattern. Each tale begins from square one with strange phenomena and baffling killings that are ignored or written off to superstition. Then there’s the witnesses that nobody will believe. Not until Act 3 does the monster action really get in gear, and more often than not all the really exciting content (if any) occurs in the final reel. The rest is often humorless filler. By the late 1950s, one needed to be a real aficionado to stay involved in the subgenre. We all love Steve McQueen in The Blob, but for at least 95% of that picture, nothing happens.
The story concocted by S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock and Ron Underwood skips Acts 1 and 2 and goes ‘right to the good stuff.’ Perfection, Nevada is under siege by giant worm monsters that can tunnel through the earth at an alarming speed. Handymen Valentine McKee and Earl Bassett (Kevin Bacon & Fred Ward) learn to escape the these ‘Graboids’ by seeking safety high above their reach, preferably on solid rock outcroppings. Being blind, the Graboids use sound vibrations to hunt their prey, forcing Val and Earl to concoct clever strategies to outwit them. Helping the boys are geologist Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter), whose seismometers can track the Graboids. Burt and Heather Gummer (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire) are survivalists with a basement of firepower capable of wiping out a small army.
The remote and insignificant Nevada town of Perfection is little more than a collection of shacks and trailers. It’s more humble than Universal’s Sand Rock, Arizona, where space aliens, a giant Tarantula! and crystal Monolith Monsters threatened helpless small-town folk. Perfection’s phones are out and the roads are blocked but the citizens aren’t standard victim types — the gun-obsessed Gummers all but welcome the opportunity to break open the ammo boxes. Tremors allows its characters to do intelligent battle with the beasts for at least sixty minutes of its 96- minute running time. There’s no padding with folk singing, square dancing or drag racing — it’s all about monster-fighting.
Is it fair to say that older movies of this kind were usually underfunded? Rushed productions can’t afford to have expensive actors standing around while effects men wrangle with unreliable rubber monsters, so it wasn’t unusual to have entire movies (Giant Gila Monster, anyone?) where people and monster almost never share the same shot. The monster scenes were often filmed last, after all the money had been spent — and when the actors saw the show, they were sometimes appalled to see themselves reacting in terror to threats more funny than scary.
Backed by Universal for something around a million dollars, Tremors sets out to win over the audience for Alien and Carpenter’s The Thing without short-changing the effects. The animatronic Graboids are big fleshy worms with snapping jaws; from their mouths slither tentacled tongues, each tipped with an eyeless, hydra- like ‘grabber’ head. When they burrow through the earth we immediately think of Carlo Rambaldi’s sandworms from David Lynch’s Dune. When a Graboid smashes upward through the Gummers’ basement ceiling, we’re reminded of the old UA picture The Monster that Challenged the World.
No effort was spared to bring the Graboids to life. Crews dug trenches out in the desert to hold underground rigs that make it look like giant gophers are burrowing underground. Tremors was partly filmed up in the Alabama Hills, a favorite location for vintage westerns; when we were kids we called the piles of rounded rock formations ‘potato rocks.’ The visuals suggest that the desert is like the ocean, and a Graboid digging through ordinary dirt might as well be a whale, or a shark. The only safety is to clamber atop something solid, like those potato rocks. Our desperate heroes hop between boulders to get back to their vehicles; whenever they run on ordinary ground, the Graboids are after them like a coyote on a Pekingese.
The show also earns major points for suspense detail: the sightless Graboids are attracted to any motion activity. Rhonda’s seismograph tells her that three individual Graboids are hunting for prey, using their internal vibe sensors. When a kid plays with a basketball, we know that the bouncing is likely to serve as a homing beacon. Most everything that happens is reasonably logical — pounding the ground is a good way to distract a Graboid away from somebody in danger. 2018’s A Quiet Place was about identical blind creatures that find their prey by sound. I found most of AQP to be laughably stupid, but I was in the minority on that one.
The clever effects for Tremors are almost all are practical illusions filmed without optical work. A number of spectacular scenes with the giant monsters are actually filmed on a smaller scale, in miniature sets. Miniature buildings and the Gummers’ basement are entirely convincing. The trick used to create a Graboid’s eye view as it tunnels is simple but brilliant. The direction springs dozens of tricky angles of fierce monster action — although the show isn’t exactly Great Cinema Art the shots flow with an unexpected ease and clarity. As a survival ordeal in the ‘here and now,’ it’s both involving and funny.
We really like the light-comedy acting team of Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, unhappy campers that never quite comprehend why they end up on the wrong end of every deal. Swearing seems appropriate when their cesspool-pumping equipment blows a hose right in their faces. The grossest visuals are the showers of greasy grimy Graboid guts that follow every successful worm detonation. The gun-crazy Burt and Heather Gummer stop being satirical targets when a Graboid invades their basement armory. We practical monster kids often asked why nobody simply shot James Arness’ The Thing from Another World with a bazooka. The joke here is in the Gummers’ obvious joy – they’ve invested a fortune in their survivalist arsenal and the Graboid invader gives them a chance to put their violent fantasies into action.
Tremors is a perfectly satisfactory monster thriller even if we’re not reaching to see if it won any Oscars. It launched a franchise that resulted in three more movies, so Universal must have thought somebody liked the concept. The creators worked on the sequels as well. Director Ron Underwood made several more films and became a busy TV director. Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson had credits on *batteries not included and the Short Circuit movies before Tremors and stayed with the franchise. Country singer Reba McEntire enjoyed a lively acting career including starring in her own TV sitcom.
A few years later, Wes Craven’s Scream series of slasher films introduced the reflexive idea that teenaged characters are fully aware of the movie-clichés they face. Tremors has a bit of that as well — the show seems to wink at us, acknowledging that ‘monster movie laws’ exist and having a fine time playing games with them.
Arrow Academy’s 4K Ultra HD of Tremors 4K is listed as a new 4K restoration by Arrow from the original negative, approved by director Ron Underwood & director of photography Alexander Gruszynski. It’s truly a beauty. Most of the show is filmed in bright sunshine out on the desert, and its clear and sharp images are ideal for 4K. Although some opticals are used the relative grain isn’t obtrusive. Only now in 4K — with a lot of close examination — can we even begin to snoop for clues as to how some of the physical effects were done.
No Graboid is left unturned in Arrow’s extras, which are divided between the 4K disc and a second Blu-ray disc that carries long-form interviews, and three short films by the director and writers. Universal’s older featurettes and deleted scenes are present, outnumbered by new items of real value. A full list is below. I sampled them all but ended up seeing most all the way through. Elijah Drenner’s name pops up frequently; his disc featurettes concentrate on personalities and information, skipping the video glitz that I’m afraid was the norm back when I was editing making-of docus.
Perhaps it helps that the personalities on this show are so much fun. As did the executive producer Gail Anne Hurd, agent-producer Nancy Roberts and associate producer Ellen Collett came from the Corman school of production. They candidly explain how the show came together, and speak as if they liked working together. Cameraman Alexander Gruszynski is also an open book about the experience — and the fact that he and Ms. Collett became engaged on location.
The first new commentary collects the Underwood-Maddock-Wilson creative team, and the second is by Jonathan Melville, the author of a book on the making of Tremors. Other items: a sampling of censored redub dialogue for the TV version, a set of four deleted scenes and a gag reel.
I enjoyed all the clips and behind the scenes video devoted to the special effects, the great majority of which were achieved in camera. Effects supervisor Robert Skotak explains some of what we see. His company created numerous ¼ to the foot miniature settings. Full-scale Graboids were operated by a man inside, whereas the ‘miniature’ Graboid (still pretty big) just had a person’s arm working it like a puppet. More intriguing are Graboid tentacles worked with hydraulics to squirm and snake in real time. And the from-the-set video reveals that, although a lot of desert was dug up, extensive use was made of ¼- scale miniature landscapes, with trick Graboids manipulated to ‘cruise’ under the sand like sharks under the water.
Robert Skotak identifies his brother David as the master miniature-builder, and the work we see is truly excellent. In the interview takes with Robert my eye immediately goes to the space miniatures behind him — the rocketship seen in three Allied Artists movies and the rocket model made to ’embellish’ Rocketship X-M with new shots for Wade Williams in the late ’70s. You need to get your sci-fi movie books published, Robert!
The superior Tremors is a good choice for 4K — it may not be a timeless classic but it serves just fine as a fun, mentally healthy crowd-pleaser. Arrow is to be commended.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ultra HD rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Sound: Excellent Restored DTS-HD MA original theatrical 2.0 stereo, 4.0 surround, & remixed 5.1 surround
DISC 1 (4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY)
New audio commentaries: director Ron Underwood & writers/producers Brent Maddock & S.S. Wilson; author Jonathan Melville; New featurettes: Making Perfection with Kevin Bacon, Michael Gross, Ariana Richards, Ron Underwood, Brent Maddock & S.S. Wilson; The Truth About Tremors with co-producer Nancy Roberts; Bad Vibrations with director of photography Alexaner Gruszynski; Aftershocks & Other Rumblings with associate producer Ellen Collett; Digging in the Dirt to create the film’s extensive visual effects; Music for Graboids with composers Ernest Troost & Robert Folk; Pardon My French!, a newly assembled compilation of overdubs from the edited-for television version; 1995 Universal featurette The Making of Tremors by Laurent Bouzereau; Creature Featurette BTS camcorder footage of the effects shoots; Electronic press kit featurette & interviews with Kevin Bacon, Michael Gross & Reba McEntire; Deleted scenes, including the original opening scene; Theatrical trailers, TV & radio spots for the original film and the entire Tremors franchise; image galleries, storyboards & two screenplay drafts.
DISC 2 (Blu-ray)
Extended long-form interviews with Ron Underwood, creature designer Alec Gillis & others; Outtake gag reel with introduction & commentary by S.S. Wilson; Three early shorts by the makers of Tremors: Recorded Live; Dictionary: The Adventure of Words; Library Report;
6-PAGE INSERT BOOKLET
with essays by Kim Newman & Jonathan Melville, and selected archive materials; fold-out double-sided poster featuring original & newly commissioned artwork by Matt Frank, + small fold-out double-sided poster featuring new Graboid X-ray art by Matt Frank; six double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproduction artcards, and a video rental coupon redeemable at Walter Chang’s Perfection Market.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD disc and one Blu-ray with paper extras in Keep case, in hard sleeve box
Reviewed: January 17, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson