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Tremors (1990)::rating::3.5::rating::3.5

Look beneath the gloriously goofy shenanigans in Tremors, and you’ll find an undercurrent of pure innovation. After all, this film pioneered the freewheeling wackiness of horror-comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Here, the filmmakers exact a careful balance of savvy and stupid, funny and frightening, and the result is an irresistible cult flick for the ages.

It’s often referred to as Jaws on Land, and the movie makes that connection explicit from the get-go: The entire plot takes place in the Nevada desert, which is essentially its own broiling ocean of swirling sand, sagebrush, and a few sweaty denizens who can scratch out a living within its sun-baked misery. We open on two intrepid knuckleheads, Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward), as they go about their day as handymen for tiny town of Perfection. Turns out, the boys have grown weary of menial tasks like stretching barbed wire and unclogging sewer lines. After an all-morning bitch-fest, Val and Earl decide to hightail it out of Perfection and find a new line of work.

Not so fast, my dudes! As they Irish goodbye their way outta town, Val and Earl happen upon the roasted corpse of Edgar Deems, a well-known local, nestled in a nearby electric tower. It seems that Deems had lingered in this power station until he died of thirst. What could’ve made him so afraid to come down?

As with Jaws, the bodies start piling high and deep. The townsfolk begin to panic, and it soon falls to a core group of weirdos to figure out what’s happening: Along with Val and Earl, we also meet Burt (Michael Gross) and Heather (Reba McEntire), a survivalist husband and wife who own enough guns to retake San Juan Hill. Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter) is a visiting seismologist who brings Perfection a welcome infusion of brain power. Also, there’s Nancy (Charlotte Stewart) and Mindy (Ariana Richards), a mother-daughter combo whose main function is to clutch each other and scream all through the film. Finally, you won’t want to miss Melvin (Bobby Jacoby), the hormonal teenage butthead who’s so obnoxious, he’ll be first on your wish list to become monster food.

Oh yeah–I suppose we’d better talk about those monsters. Turns out, Perfection has fallen victim to a trio of Graboids: They’re massive, man-eating worm-beasts who burrow underground and snatch their unsuspecting prey by the feet. Graboids are fast, smart, and heavily armored. As the population of Perfection begins to dwindle, it becomes clear that this is a race for survival.

I could reveal more of the film’s plot, but I don’t want to spoil Tremors‘ relentless sense of silliness. Besides, my descriptions, although brimming with undeniable beauty, could never do justice to the real deal. Tremors is just one of those movies you have to experience.

That must-see factor starts with the performances. Everybody’s clearly having a ball, especially Bacon and Ward, whose comic timing falls somewhere between Hope and Crosby, or Yogi and Boo-Boo. Meanwhile, Gross–known to millions as the reformed hippie dad on Family Ties–steals a few scenes as Perfection’s last action hero. His off-kilter gun nut feels like an impossible hybrid of Ned Flanders and Ted Nugent, and it’s no mistake that Gross became the breakout star of the sequels. Additionally, Reba plays off Gross with great finesse, supplying the most level-headed Bonnie his Clyde could ever find.

The film also wins big points for its practical effects. Tremors was born just before the dawn of CGI, and old-school movie buffs can revel in its array of puppetry, wire work, and miniatures. The Graboids look absolutely fake, but that somehow only adds to the fun.

In fact, if you could boil Tremors down to one word, “fun” would probably do best. Well, that and “mother humpers.” The old cliché says that a good movie will eventually find an audience, and that’s certainly proven true for this one. Tremors tanked at the box office, only to become one of the top rentals of the year. It’s maintained that cult status ever since, as new generations have fallen in love with a scrappy little movie that staunchly refuses to take itself seriously.

96 min. PG-13. Available on demand. (This is a god damn national treasure, how is it not streaming anywhere?!?)

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