Color, 1990, 95 muns. 44 secs.
Directed by Ron Underwood
Starring Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McIntire, Robert Jayne, Victor Wong, Charlotte Stewart
Arrow Video (UHD, Blu-ray) (US/UK R0/RA/RB 4KHD), Universal (Blu-ray & DVD) (Global R0 HD/NTSC/PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
A welcome surprise when it rolled out in theaters at the beginning of 1990 and a perennial home video favorite ever since, Tremors has turned out to be the little monster saga that could. With its snappy, endlessly quotable script and engagingly creative subterranean creatures, the film came at the right time as direct-to-video sequels were just starting to take off and has spawned six of them to date (most recently 2020's Tremors: Shrieker Island), a 2003 TV series, and an attempted reboot in 2018. The fact that the series has managed to hold up a fairly high standard of quality over two decades is impressive, especially considering how it pivoted to make a scene-stealing supporting character portrayed by Michael Gross the linchpin that ended up tying it all together. The original film still remains a textbook example of how to craft a crowd-pleasing popcorn film, deftly balancing characterization and thrills in just the right doses while paying tribute to the '50s monster movies it so affectionately emulates.
In the very tiny desert town of Perfection (pop. 14), trailer-dwelling Earl (Ward) and Val (Bacon) eke out a living as all-purpose handymen but plan to pack up and move to the biggest nearby town, Bixby. After a septic tank job gone wrong, they finally decide to make the big move only to be constantly thwarted a string of sinister discoveries involving townspeople and peripheral farmers being attacked by something very large and very deadly, including a couple dragged beneath the ground and a man dying of thirst on an electrical tower. Meanwhile newly arrived seismologist Rhonda (Carter) detects a string of abnormal readings outside the town, with the trio ultimately joining forces to outwit a burrowing beast underneath the earth that hunts by sound. After a lengthy fight for their lives, they end up back in Perfection where the locals including shop owner Walter Chang (John Carpenter regular Wong) and gun-loving survivalists Burt and Heather Gummer (Gross and McIntire) find themselves under siege from the threat they decide to call "Graboids."
A feel-good horror movie if there ever was one, Tremors (which was originally conceived in the early '80s by Short Circuit writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddox) is a textbook example of pulling the best lessons from Hollywood westerns, action films, and creature features and repurposing them to craft a savvy piece of entertainment that pushes its PG-13 rating to the limit while remaining essentially family friendly apart from lots of orange glop, a high but discreetly handled body count, and one well-timed f-bomb. Of course, the secret ingredient here is the character writing with Bacon and Ward's buddy chemistry forming the warm heart at the center of the film with Carter (who oddly didn't spring to a bigger career after this) making for a solid, smart foil for them both. The rest of the townspeople get plenty of juicy material as well, with Gross and McIntire in particular making for a powerhouse comic relief pair including a basement showdown that still works like a charm.
Despite its popularity, Tremors hasn't been treated terribly well for most of its home video life with the early VHS and laserdisc editions suffering from that wacky early '90s Universal color timing that pushes everything orange and blue to such a harsh extreme that the film virtually seems to pulsate at times. Things didn't improve much when it hit Blu-ray either (first as a standalone special edition, then packaged as a no-frills pack with its first three sequels). That initial HD transfer was one of the worst offenders from a batch of dire Universal catalog releases including its three John Hughes films, The Last Starfighter, and Flash Gordon that suffered from a ridiculous amount of edge enhancement that looked like a TV's sharpness setting cranked all the way to the max, with some hit and miss DNR added to the mix at times to make matters even sketchier.
In 2020, Arrow Video made a very welcome revisit to the film as two separate limited editions on UHD and Blu-ray in the U.S. and U.K., making this the last of the major batch of Universal offenders to finally be corrected in HD. (A few others of the era like Scent of a Woman and Fried Green Tomatoes could certainly use a revisit, but at least those were passable.) The fresh 4K restoration from the original negative looks wonderful and makes the most of those wide, spacious landscape shots, which don't look like a noisy mess anymore and finally evoke the classic western atmosphere seen in theaters. Fine detail is impressive with hair, clothing, dirt, and Graboid slime all looking exceptional while maintaining a fine, natural level of film grain. Audio comes in DTS-HD MA 2.0, 4.0 and 5.1 options; to these ears the 4.0 is the winner of the bunch with the most presence when it comes to the rousing music score, with the 2.0 coming in second; the 5.1 has some nice separation throughout and isn't a bad option but, as with many remixes, skimps on the bass a bit and doesn't sound quite as natural. In short, this is the first time in ages the theatrical mix has been available, and it's great to have it back. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included. The UHD also benefits from the HDR grading, which keeps the colors nicely in check with warm but pleasing flesh tones and skies that looks rich but subtly modulated. Two new commentaries are included, starting off with one featuring director Ron Underwood, Maddock, and Wilson charting the evolution of the film over the years, the casting, location scouting, creature conceptions, title changes, the absence of CGI (something that wouldn't hold true for the later films), and tons more. It's a low-key but enjoyable track, and one has to wonder why they never did one together for this film before. A second track with Jonathan Melville, author of Seeking Perfection: The Unofficial Guide to Tremors, is a thorough and well-informed guide to the film and its progeny with lots of trivia about the uncooperative weather, notes on the original script, the background behind the score by Ernest Troost (and an uncredited Robert Folk), and his own personal favorite moments.
In the new featurette "Making Perfection" (31m7s), a slew of participants including Bacon, Gross, Underwood, Maddock, Wilson, Ariana Richards, agent Nancy Roberts, and future series participant Jamie Kennedy among others chatting about the creation of the film from initial reactions to the script through the production, including a funny anecdote about Bacon's final moments on the set and a later apropos marriage proposal, and the lackluster initial box office that led to a sudden burst of popularity on VHS. You also get a return to the shooting locations and some fun VHS-shot production footage, too-- and stick around for the end credits. More focused production stories can be found in "The Truth About Tremors" (22m2s) with co-producer Nancy Roberts, "Bad Vibrations" (10m47s) with director of photography Alexander Gruszynski, and "Aftershocks and Other Rumblings" (12m38s) with associate producer Ellen Collett, all filling in details about a challenging daylight horror production with more than its share of technical snafus. Speaking of which, "Digging in the Dirt" (20m59s) rounds up the crews of Fantasy II Film VFX and 4-Ward Productions VFX discussing the state of the industry at the time, their family and professional influences, memories of working with Gale Anne Hurd going back to the Roger Corman days, and the wide variety of elements and practical tricks including rotoscoping required to bring the monsters to life. In "Music for Graboids" (13m35s), both composers (in voiceover only) recall the process of how the score came about under unusual circumstances as well as their own musical backgrounds that played a part here in finding the right balance between comedic and adventurous accompaniment. The 1996 archival piece "The Making of Tremors" (44m15s) by Laurent Bouzereau is also here, a mainstay since the special edition laserdisc days, and it's especially surreal to watch now given how different all the participants looked back then. "Creature Featurette" (10m26s) compiles the highlights from the camcorder coverage of the Graboid effects in various stages of development (lots of foam and puppetry here!), followed the familiar four deleted scenes (5m2s) from past editions including an alternate opening and a "Pardon My French!" (16m18s) comparison of the theatrical and sanitized TV version, which overdubbed most of the profanity and saucier comments. (Of course, the PG-13 original was quite visibly toned down quite a bit to soften some of the stronger language itself, e.g. "motherhumpers"). Selections from the original 1990 electronic press kit include a quick promo featurette (3m50s) and sound bites with Bacon (2m53s), Gross (2m20s), and McIntire (1m53s), plus two trailers, 4m21s of radio spots, 1m23s of TV spots, a VHS promo, and trailers for the six sequels. No less than seven image galleries are devoted to production stills, behind the scenes, the original laserdisc gallery, two different screenplay drafts, storyboards, and poster and video artwork.
The limited edition also comes with a second disc that kicks off with five extended raw interviews from "Making Perfection" with Underwood (47m44s), Wilson (81m44s), Maddock (63m6s), Roberts (50m37s), and Gillis (59m31s), followed by a 2015 pre- and post-film Q&A (26m31s and 44m40s) at the ArcLight Hollywood moderated by David Weiner with pretty much everyone from the doc including Underwood, Wilson, Gross, Maddock, Roberts, Finn Carter, Alexander Gruszynski, Ivo Cristante, Tom Woodruf Jr., Alec Gillis, John Goodwin, Robert Skotak, Conrad Bachmann, Robert Jayne, Richard Marcus, and Charlotte Stewart. The quality's not the greatest but as a reunion panel, this is a great and welcome addition with some stories that didn't slip in elsewhere on this release. The original gag reel (9m54s) prepped for the film's wrap party is included with an optional intro (10m48s) and partial commentary by Wilson, and some of the flubs and stunt goofs are very funny indeed. Finally the disc closes with three early short films: Wilson's terrific 1975 USC student short Recorded Live (8m12s) about a big mass of killer magnetic tape, which used to play on HBO constantly in the early '80s; Maddock's 1978 educational short Dictionary: The Adventure of Words (16m26s) produced by Underwood with stop-motion animation by Wilson; and Underwood's Library Report (24m32s) from 1984 with animation by Wilson featuring a pre-Johnny 5 robot and an amusing look at the state of kid-friendly computer programming in the Reagan era. All three shorts have been newly transferred in HD and look great given their lo-fi roots. The limited edition also comes with a 60-page book featuring new liner notes by Melville and Kim Newman plus archival material, a double-sided fold-out poster with the original poster art and the new cover art by Matt Frank, a small fold-out poster with Graboid X-ray art by Frank, and six double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproductions.
Arrow Video Blu-ray)
Reviewed on December 26, 2020.