The filmmakers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, who have long worked together as a duo, got their big break in Hollywood by writing Short Circuit. Their script was sold for half a million dollars, which was a phenomenal amount of money for total newcomers to the industry. Prior to this, they had been making shorts and educational films. The latter were made alongside their friend Ron Underwood, so when Wilson and Maddock’s script sold they were keen to get him on board as director. However, Underwood backed off as he didn’t want to ruin their first big shot by having 3 newbies in charge of a fairly big feature.
After Short Circuit was a huge success, Wilson and Maddock wanted to use their clout to launch Underwood with their next film though, so developed Tremors, the concept for which had been on the backburner for a while. Despite the writers’ success, it took a long time to sell Tremors though. The studios weren’t convinced by this daft-sounding monster movie, particularly due to the fact it wasn’t clearly a horror film or a comedy. To convince producers, Wilson and Maddock had to write a spec script, which was something writers of their level of success wouldn’t usually do.
The writing process took a while to hone but, eventually, the pair came up with a script they were happy with. Their agent managed to pitch it to Universal and got Wilson and Maddock on board as producers too, so they could keep their intended vision and to help protect first-timer Underwood as director.
After this long pre-production process and a shoot plagued with weather problems and difficult effects work, the film didn’t perform nearly as well as expected. The film’s unusual tone wasn’t marketed successfully and the team were pretty dejected by the experience.
However, the home video market was booming at the time, allowing Tremors to have a second life on video. It became a big rental success as word of mouth spread.
Over the years it has become a cult classic and, despite its poor theatrical run, spawned six sequels (with the original writing duo taking turns directing up to number four) and a TV series.
The original Tremors has been a favourite of mine since back in the mid-90s, when I was a youngster, so I was thrilled to hear Arrow would be releasing it in newly-remastered, extras-packed Limited Edition UHD and Blu-ray sets. I eagerly snapped up a copy of the Blu-ray version and my thoughts follow.
Tremors is set in the tiny remote desert town of Perfection, Nevada, where nothing much usually happens. Local handymen Val McKee (Kevin Bacon) and Earl Bassett (Fred Ward) are fed up of the place and the fact their neighbours expect them to do all their dirty work. They decide to leave town and look for a better life in the nearest city.
However, on their way, they discover the dead body of the town drunk, Edgar, stuck up an electrical pylon. After they take Edgar’s body back to town they attempt to leave again, only to discover another fatality down the road. They initially think a serial killer is on the loose, but soon discover something much worse is killing the town’s residents, a group of giant flesh-eating worms!
These worms, named ‘graboids’ by store-owner Walter Chang (Víctor Wong), move underground, only rising to the surface to grab their victims, using smaller tentacles that extend from their mouths to reach further.
The residents of Perfection discover that the graboids sense the vibrations caused by their movement and sounds, so try to evade the creatures by staying on their roofs, giant rocks and vehicles. However, the graboids aren’t as dumb as they look, so Val, Earl, geologist Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter), survivalists Burt and Heather Gummer (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire) and the rest of the locals have to use their wits to survive.
Mixing comedy and horror can be a tricky business and wasn’t done a great deal back in 1990, but Wilson, Maddock and Underwood perform a terrific balancing act. Often comedy-horrors skew too far one way or the other, but Tremors gets the blend just right. It’s frequently very funny, aided by some wonderfully quotable dialogue, but knows when to get serious and pulls off some very effective moments of tension and excitement. Underwood gets the pace spot-on too, with no lulls, using the comedy to keep you entertained whenever the frights have died down.
Like in Jaws, the full extent of Tremors’ creatures are kept hidden for a good portion of the film, building tension through a hidden menace before gradually revealing the true size and danger of them.
When the graboids appear they’re pretty impressive too. Tremors came just before the big CGI boom caused by Jurassic Park in 1993, so the effects here are all practical and still hold up surprisingly well. Using a mixture of full-size costumes for some of the heads, animatronic and hand-puppet tentacles and some miniature work, every element is blended seamlessly to great effect. Yes, the tentacles look a little naff in one or two shots, but never enough to detract from the danger of the creatures.
The film’s greatest assets though, in my opinion, are its characters. The residents of Perfection are a nice mix of relatable, average people, with just enough heightened aspects to keep them interesting. The Gummers are the most over the top couple in the film, but even then they don’t seem totally unbelievable. There are plenty of gun-nuts in the US!
The characters are successful partly through the sharp dialogue but also the performances. Bacon and Ward are particularly good. Their chemistry together is excellent, with a blend of father-son and bickering-couple dynamics to their relationship. Gross and McEntire are memorable too, the former of which became a staple actor in the whole Tremors franchise. Both of those casting choices were unusual at the time, as Gross was best-known as the mild-mannered dad in the long-running sitcom Family Ties and McEntire had never acted in a film before, only finding fame as a country music artist. They both have a lot of fun with their gun-toting survivalist characters, without ever lurching too far into caricature.
Overall then, it’s a hugely entertaining blend of monster movie thrills and character-based comedy. With charismatic leads, quotable dialogue and a great sense of pace, it’s hard to fault and easy to enjoy. Perfection, indeed.
Tremors is out on 14th December Limited Edition UHD and Limited Edition Blu-ray, released by Arrow Video. I watched the Blu-ray version and it looks fantastic, with rich, natural colours and an impressive level of detail.
There are tonnes of extra features included in the set:
4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
– New 4K restoration from the original negative by Arrow Films, approved by director Ron Underwood and director of photography Alexander Gruszynski
– 60-page perfect-bound book featuring new writing by Kim Newman and Jonathan Melville and selected archive materials
– Large fold-out double-sided poster featuring original and 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
– Limited Edition packaging with reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Frank
DISC 1 – FEATURE & EXTRAS (4K UHD BLU-RAY)
– 4K (2160p) UHD Blu-ray presentation in Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible)
– Restored DTS-HD MA original theatrical 2.0 stereo, 4.0 surround, and remixed 5.1 surround audio options
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– New audio commentary by director Ron Underwood and writers/producers Brent Maddock & S.S.Wilson
– New audio commentary by Jonathan Melville, author of Seeking Perfection: The Unofficial Guide to Tremors
– Making Perfection, a brand new documentary by Universal Pictures interviewing key cast and crew from the franchise (including Kevin Bacon, Michael Gross, Ariana Richards, Ron Underwood, Brent Maddock & S.S. Wilson, among many others) and revisiting the original locations
– The Truth About Tremors, a newly filmed interview with co-producer Nancy Roberts on the film’s rocky road to the screen
– Bad Vibrations, a newly filmed interview with director of photography Alexander Gruszynski
– Aftershocks and Other Rumblings, newly filmed on-set stories from associate producer Ellen Collett
– Digging in the Dirt, a new featurette interviewing the crews behind the film’s extensive visual effects
– Music for Graboids, a new featurette on the film’s music with composers Ernest Troost and Robert Folk
– Pardon My French!, a newly assembled compilation of overdubs from the edited-for television version
– The Making of Tremors, an archive documentary from 1995 by Laurent Bouzereau, interviewing the filmmakers and special effects teams
– Creature Featurette, an archive compilation of on-set camcorder footage showing the making of the Graboids
– Electronic press kit featurette and interviews with Kevin Bacon, Michael Gross and Reba McEntire
– Deleted scenes, including the original opening scene
– Theatrical trailers, TV and radio spots for the original film as well as trailers for the entire Tremors franchise
– Comprehensive image galleries, including rare behind-the-scenes stills, storyboards and two different drafts of the screenplay
DISC 2 – INTERVIEWS & SHORT FILMS (BLU-RAY – LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE)
– Extended hour-long interviews from Making Perfection with Ron Underwood, Brent Maddock, S.S.Wilson, Nancy Roberts and creature designer Alec Gillis
– Outtakes with optional introduction and commentary by S.S. Wilson
– Three early short films by the makers of Tremors, remastered in high definition, including S.S.Wilson’s stop-motion horror/comedy classic Recorded Live (1975)
* The Limited Edition Blu-ray is the same as the 4K UHD, but with a HD presentation based on the same 4K restoration.
It’s an exhaustive collection of special features. There’s an awful lot of crossover in anecdotes and such, so perhaps you could say there are more extras than necessary. However, it’s all decent and though I occasionally got a little fed up of hearing the same stories, there was always something in each feature that kept me listening, so I ended up getting through everything. The only feature I didn’t watch all the way through was a lengthy Q&A (which I can’t see mentioned in the features above, but it was on my disc). The problem with this particular piece is that the audio quality is very poor (someone basically recorded the session on a consumer-camera with a terrible on-board mic) so I struggled to make out what was being said and gave up after a while.
That Q&A is merely a splash in the ocean of material in the set though. I won’t go through everything, but below are my general thoughts and some of the standout pieces to check out.
The new ‘Making Perfection’ documentary is very good. It’s slickly made and a tight coverall piece, which is a good option if you can’t be bothered to trawl through the many hours worth of other material in the set.
I was dubious about having the extended interviews from this documentary included too, but they’re all very good and I quite like listening to the more ‘raw’ recollections, rather than the trimmed down sound-bytes you get elsewhere.
A lot of the interviews discuss the influence and importance of less creative members of the team, particularly Nancy Roberts, who was Underwood, Wilson and Maddock’s agent, as well as executive producer Gale Anne Hurd and a Universal bigwig (I forget his name) that helped Tremors get made.
The camcorder footage of the FX work is a gem. You get to see the development and testing as well as the effects themselves being done on the day. It’s really cool to see. That and the new ‘Digging in the Dirt’ featurette (which mixes most of these clips with talking heads interviews) help you appreciate how good some of the effects are, particularly the miniature shots which I would never have spotted without being told about them.
‘Music for Graboids’ is interesting too, helping appreciate the unusual blend of styles on the soundtrack. It also explains how two composers worked on it but only one was credited.
The commentaries are also worth a listen. The filmmaker one repeats a lot of the stories heard elsewhere, but it’s nice to hear the trio chatting together instead of separated in talking heads pieces. Jonathan Melville’s track provides more of an appreciation piece and delves into the film’s legacy. It’s a great commentary.
Added to the bonus disc, which is likely to not be included in any standard editions further down the line, are a trio of short films made by Tremors’ main creative team. Recorded Live is fantastic. It features brilliant stop motion work, clever ideas and is a lot of fun. Dictionary is good too, again with some inventive stop motion techniques, though the film is aimed quite squarely at children. Library Report has an amusingly dated vision of the future (other than a few prescient ideas) but, for an educational film, it’s fairly enjoyable, if a little long. Once again, the effects work is great for the budget, with a cute little robot character that inspired Short Circuit.
I didn’t get a copy of the book to look at, unfortunately, but there’s so much else on offer here, it’s easy to recommend regardless.