Watching Tremors, director and cowriter Ron Underwood’s sensational, ’50s-style monster flick, is an exhilarating experience, but, for a critic, it’s also a little depressing. On the one hand, the picture is an all but perfect update of fondly remembered genre movies like Them! and Tarantula — funny, suspenseful, charmingly acted, and complete with ace special effects. If it doesn’t make you smile, you’re a terminal curmudgeon. On the other hand, contemplating the movie’s dismal failure in theatrical release leads to disturbing questions about contemporary audience tastes: Have we become so jaded we can’t appreciate a fright film without gallons of gore?
Fortunately, the movie’s pleasures are palpably real on video. Unlike the typical movie homage, Tremors actually improves on the B-movies that inspired it. You’ll recognize the basic plot elements almost instantly: The inhabitants of a small desert town and a beautiful lady visitor are menaced by giant unseen whatsits. What you won’t expect is the skill with which Underwood, his terrific ensemble cast, and some of the effects wizards from the Aliens team bring the cliches to life. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward are unexpectedly winning as the not particularly bright ranch hands who first discover the creatures. And the monsters themselves, huge snakelike earth movers, are appropriately gross and scary. Since they prowl below the ground for their human prey, they give the movie the same sense of constant, unseen menace that energized Jaws.
So how come such a smart and entertaining picture bombed out on the big screen? The optimistic answer is that Tremors was really designed for home video in the first place: There’s so much good stuff here (like Family Ties‘ Michael Gross, all but unrecognizable as a heroic survivalist gun nut), you almost have to watch it with fingers on pause and rewind. The alternative explanation — that Tremors is a quaint anachronism in an age that makes a folk hero out of A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger — is too depressing to contemplate. Let’s hope Tremors finds the audience it deserves on video.