The appeal of TREMORS has always baffled me. Not that I dislike the film; it will always hold a place in my monster-loving heart. But rather, I’ve always wondered why the film has such a cult following. I had always thought of it as a slightly campy Kevin Bacon vehicle with no real distinctive features, but on closer inspection I was wrong. TREMORS does set itself aside from the rest of the creature features of its era, and in doing so created a lasting legacy for those darn Graboids.
The film takes place in a tiny western town. They have one general store, a few scattered houses and trailers, and two handymen (Bacon and Fred Ward). These two men, McKee and Bassett, have had enough of living in this dead-end town and try to make a break for a bigger city. On the road out of town they reluctantly elect to stay in order to help the town fight off an odd infestation. There are several incidents where cars and people are getting sucked into the ground. After seeing a few of these prehistoric giant mutant worms, which they deem Graboids, McKee, Valentine, and an in-resident seismology graduate student (Finn Carter) need to work together to get the townsfolk to safety.
The plot is quite predictable. The characters are honestly a little stereotypical and forgettable. The soundtrack somehow sounds like the theme song from Northern Exposure. These are not the factors that make TREMORS unique. What makes it stand out are the ways that fear is created in the film.
The majority of TREMORS takes place outdoors. With the exception of inside the general store and inside one couple’s home, everything in the film is shot in the open. The desert is sprawling and you can see far off into the distance. This is in direct opposition to the more typical fear of entrapment in closed, confined spaces.
Contrasting TREMORS with three other horror films released in 1990 highlights the oddity of its setting. HARDWARE, GREMLINS 2, and MISERY are TREMORS’s contemporaries, but each of them features a smaller constrained setting. HARDWARE takes place almost entirely in a single apartment. GREMLINS 2 is in a slightly larger setting, but it is still entirely contained within an office building. And while MISERY is ultimately about escaping a cabin, it could be argued that the fear in the film is generated from containment to a single bed. Each of these horror films are in small, isolated spaces, but not TREMORS. TREMORS manages to trap its characters while they are out exploring the vast desert. The characters cannot touch the ground, unless they want to be eaten, and the desert is almost entirely made up of ground.
Another way that TREMORS distinguishes itself from other monster movies is that nearly every scene takes place in broad daylight. McKee and Bassett need to outrun the Graboids when the sun is high in the sky, and rarely at night. Even though it takes place almost entirely during the day, TREMORS is able to keep the monster a mystery. Often in creature features, the monster’s reveal to the audience is slow. First we see a claw, then a part of its face, but it takes the length of the film to see the entire monster on screen. The Graboids’ subterranean habitat means that we often see signs of them without actually seeing the total monster, even in daylight. We see the sand shifting, and dust kicking up far more than we actually see these beasts. From the filmmaker’s standpoint, this can serve two purposes. It is less expensive for the production to not need a giant monster on set and functioning in each scene. But also, from a storytelling standpoint, it can be far scarier to see the precursor to the monster. Take JAWS, for example. While the shark itself is terrifying, seeing the yellow barrels that are attached to the shark tracking through the water is chilling.
While I am not going to make the argument that TREMORS is in the same league as JAWS, I will concede that it has many more merits than I tend to give it credit for. Making a monster movie that takes place in open spaces and in broad daylight is not the norm for the genre and it helped TREMORS make its mark as a cult classic.