You would think that there’s room enough for only one well-made giant-carnivorous-worm movie in this world. And you would not be wrong. For a direct-to-video follow-up, Tremors 2: Aftershocks is reasonably engaging, but it muffs the chance to extend the inventive tone of the movie that preceded it — and, in so doing, exposes the whole rickety conceit of sequel making.
The original Tremors wasn’t made for home video, but it might as well have been. Stars Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward weren’t enough to pull audiences into movie theaters (this was well after Bacon’s Footloose fame had trickled away), and the motley supporting cast — including country singer Reba McEntire and Family Ties‘ Michael Gross — didn’t so much appeal to different moviegoers as cancel each other out. But Tremors remains a small, sardonic gem in the big-bug genre, and it has found an appreciative audience on home video and on cable (it also helped launch the career of director Ron Underwood, who next directed City Slickers).
The movie works so well on the small screen because it grafts the and-then-there-were-none principle to monster movies: A group of people are trapped in a flyspeck desert town by four huge ”Graboids,” sightless underground behemoths that sense the lightest footsteps and rise up toward them like trout to bait. Much of the time the actors are huddled on top of car hoods or leaping from oil drums to front porches and clotheslines, all the while yammering away in sarcastic panic. Imagine sneaking upstairs after staying out too late, and imagine that your parents are flesh-eating worms.
Most of the pleasure in this sand-stranded Lifeboat derives from the interaction of the characters. Ward and Bacon make a marvelous Mutt-and-Jeff team as brain-crimped losers who are the local handymen only because they can’t be bothered to find real jobs. And it’s a hoot to see Gross and McEntire play a ratty survivalist couple whose stockpile of firearms finally comes in handy. But the real satisfaction lies in the script written by Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson. The action always plays fair — even when Bacon and Ward figure out how to beat the monsters, it seems the result of inspired dumb luck rather than Uberhero strategizing — and the layabout humor never turns self-conscious. Tremors is the Slacker of monster movies: bemused, improvisatory, willfully low-key.
Tremors 2: Aftershocks isn’t as bad as a lot of straight-to-tape sequels. It appears to have had a decent budget and tries hard to retain the breezy tone of the original. But that’s just it: You can’t struggle at being relaxed. A lot of the key players have returned, some in different capacities: Underwood as executive producer, Maddock and Wilson as writers, Wilson as director. Fred Ward shows up again as Earl Basset, now living out of a trailer and jumping at the chance to travel down to Mexico and bounty-hunt some Graboids that are lurking around an oil field. With his scraggly hair, wild eyes, and a performance that suggests Walter Brennan’s long-lost son, Ward has a high old time. But while Michael Gross reprises his role as Burt Gummer, in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing there’s just not a lot of yuks to be had from militant, ammo-hoarding survivalists.
Perhaps the most serious misstep is the lack of respect toward the beasties themselves. I mean it. You rent Son of Frankenstein, you want to see the monster. You rent this movie, you want to see the Graboids. But Tremors 2 lets Ward and friends easily pick off the big worms that gave them such trouble in the first film, only to be stymied when the monsters give birth (à la Alien) to an army of cattle-size, fanged, heat-seeking critters that trap them in an isolated compound — at which point the movie becomes a bald-faced imitation of Jurassic Park. The creature effects are fine and unsettling; the overall effect is not. And it makes you wonder: Why are these filmmakers swiping from Spielberg when they could have ripped themselves off far more profitably? I’d be willing to rent a Tremors 3 — but only if the worm turns back.
Tremors 2: Aftershocks: C+