Underwood: Tremors (1990)

It was fashionable, at the beginning of the 90s, to treat genre as a source of metafictional play and to deconstruct genre tropes for a new kind of knowing and self-referential audience. In some ways, genre-defying films became a genre in themselves, and yet few of them exhibited the same sheer joy in genre, and the same acute taste for the peculiar pleasures of genre, as Ron Underwood’s Tremors. Set in Perfection, Nevada, it follows Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward), a couple of hired hands, who spend their days bumming from one odd job to the next with dreams of one day leaving the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When they do eventually pack their bags and hit the road, however, they find every path is marked by a corpse and blocked in some kind of way, forcing them to bunker down in Perfection as a community of gigantic underground worms start to converge upon the town. As they gather with the other twelve residents to figure out a strategy for escaping the “graboids,” they’re forced to resort to ever more ingenious and comic measures to survive, all the while trying to figure out a way to take leave of Perfection, and Nevada, for good.

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Although Tremors takes its cues from a whole host of genre films, Jaws plays a particularly important role, with the presence of the worms beneath the ground seeming to render the surface of the desert more and more liquid, and forcing the characters to navigate it as they would the surface of the ocean. Beyond that, however, this liquid valley floor feels like an effort to visualise the notional, ludic space that constitutes genre in the first place, which is perhaps why Tremors seems to fondly inhabit and parody the idea of genre itself, rather than staying with any genre in particular. Over the course of the film, Underwood touches on westerns, monster movies, siege movies, post-apocalyptic dystopias and, of course, buddy movies, since this is already a pretty funny, feel-good film without the worms. Yet Tremors isn’t exactly an amalgam or mashup of genres either, since all of those genre cues play out as semi-detached spectacles, united by the valley floor even as the valley floor also abstracts and dissociates them from each other as well, until it’s almost like watching an anthology of short films that are only connected by their intense love for genre. That’s particularly clear in one of the most memorable set pieces – a sustained siege scene in which the characters find themselves on the roofs of all the structures scattered across the valley, able to see each other clearly but for that very reason more aware than ever before of the sheer expanse of the space yawning between them, especially as they are unable to make even the slightest communicative sound for fear of attracting the worms once again.

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For all the charisma and character development, then, most of Tremors revolves around how the characters – and the camera – conceive of the ground, as well as how they relate to each other through and upon it. From the very beginning, Underwood focuses on activities that disrupt the surface of the ground (and attract the worms), most of which relate to Val and Earl’s odd jobs, which range from building fences, to dumping garbage, to operating a septic pump, to inspecting a vibrating refrigerator. From there, the duo trace map out every point at which the valley floor gives way to something beyond it, only to find themselves continually forced to return to Perfection as every possible escape route (and there aren’t that many in the first place) are colonised by the worms. In the process, Underwood provides us with one eerie “aftermath” spectacle after another, as Val and Earle stumble upon an apparently endless series of expendable characters, all of whom have perished in a mysterious or ambiguous way. Usually, there are only one or two of these sequences in a monster or mystery film, but Tremors really relishes them, to the point where the first act is effectively devoted to these marginal figures, and their various encounters with the worms.

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Yet this first act isn’t just about Val and Earl discovering new victims, but their comic failures to escape the valley, with each new effort forcing them to return with a corpse in tow. While the valley floor might be as expansive as genre, it also turns to be as contained and circumscribed as genre, a situation that the worms clarify rather than actually create: “We are completely cut off. We got the cliffs to the north, mountains to the east and west. That’s why I settled here – geographic isolation.” Those words are spoken by Burt Gummer (Michael Gross), a survivalist, and as the film moves between his siege mentality and Val and Earle’s escape mentality, it feels as if we are inhabiting the very push and pull between creativity and convention that makes genre so galvanising to watch. At its most extreme, this juxtaposition sees Val and Earl saddling up like western heroes to ride to Bixby, the nearest town, while Burt and his wife Heather prepare for the home invasion they’ve been awaiting all their lives, as Underwood fuses the most expansive and claustrophobic of genres into one luminous pleasure principle. It’s wonderfully appropriate, then, that Rhonda is played by Reba McEntire, since Underwood’s oscillation between wide open space and holed-up chamber drama is not unlike the sudden shifts in scale so characteristic of country music, which also tends to be expansive and cosy, panoramic and lived-in, all in the same breath, and to embrace convention as the best way to demonstrate creative ingenuity and vision.

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For that reason, Val and Earl’s thwarted efforts to get to Bixby play out as a way of testing the boundaries of genre, as their continual attempt to escape the valley just ends up reiterating its flexibility and elasticity. The more strenuously they try to leave Perfection, the more thoroughly they find themselves enmeshed in Perfection, and yet that is precisely the pleasure of genre, as least as Tremors conceives of it. At a time when postmodern “subversion” or “deconstruction” was all the rage, Underwood seems prescient that the conventions that constitute genre aren’t quite the whole point, or at least don’t quite constitute the whole story, since the point of genre is innovative and infinite variations on a single theme, and the particular models of creativity that are bound up with that. Accordingly, he delights in providing every little gradation and differentiation of spectacle that he can muster, with the result that Tremors is actutely alive to the pleasures of genre in ways that more “knowing” films could never be – or, more simply, presents genre itself as a form of pleasure. Watching it again after all these years, I’m reminded how rare it is to see a film where the register is one of pure joy, and yet that’s what Underwood manages to whittle genre down to here – pure, unrestrained joy, and an utterly exuberant sense of fun.

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In one particularly memorable scene, Val, Earl and Rhonda LaBeck (Finn Carter), a seismologist, find themselves trapped on a series of residual boulders, and forced to spend the night in the valley as they try to figure out how to elude the worms snaking through the sand beneath them. On the one hand, their sleepout under the stars encapsulates all the cosy cosmicity of the film, while their efforts to make their way to Rhonda’s car the next morning is a beautiful vision of the way in which conventions breed creativity, as their constrained circumstances force them to devise mechanisms for moving across the ground that they would never have considered otherwise. It’s a sequence that comes closer than any other to collapsing into Underwood’s signature shot – a vertical pan that both contains and elasticises the space above the ground in one gesture, tethering the characters to genre even as it opens up all the ingenuity that can only occur within the parameters of genre.

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In the end, then, the tremors that give the film its title are simply those local disruptions that genre conventions require to remain flexible, elastic and ingenious. While it might start out by focusing on the relationship between each character and the ground, Tremors eventually devotes nearly all its logistical and charismatic energies to the relationship between the ground and the space just above it – a space that becomes more contained as it is more disrupted, but also a space that becomes more flexible as the characters and camera are compressed further into it. In a weird way, this treatment of the ground reminded me of the role played by the floor in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay, as the characters become ever more minutely attentive to the thin sliver of space above it, and even more prescient of how ever the slightest tremor can engulf them within it. By the final scenes, this valley floor has entirely liquefied, as if to affirm the fecundity of genre even or especially when it seems to be utterly exhausted or impoverished, as the residents of Perfection band together to “go fishing,” which means remaining absolutely still until the worms can get close enough for Burt and Heather Gummer to blast them into annihilation.

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Yet the final worm isn’t blown up, or shot, or attacked, but simply lured by Val and Earl all the way to the cliffs at the northern perimeter of the valley, where it unexpectedly hits open space before falling to the even deeper valley below. At the very moment at which the ground gives way to a more expansive space, Tremors comes to an end, and yet the film could only constitute itself in the first place by envisaging that wider expanse as both its literal and affective horizon. Far from “subverting,” genre, then, Underwood instead imagines it as a threshold to be infinitely and joyously approached, which is perhaps why Tremors so often feels like a video game, designed to be replayed and rewatched over and over again. For that reason, the ending doesn’t really feel like an ending, taking us back to the first space we glimpsed in the film for a testament to the endless iterability of genre, and the way in which it offers the pleasures of never having our pleasures fully satiated, in stark opposition to the kinds of cathartic closure of pleasure to be found in more knowing deconstructions. It was inevitable, then, that this would turn into a franchise, and yet the fact that Tremors 2: Aftershocks wasn’t released until 1996 is also telling, since the perfection of Tremors as a genre exercise, and as a tribute to genre, is that it is already a serial experience in itself, endlessly rewatchable, yet somehow a first viewing every time.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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