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‘Tremors’ (PG-13)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 22, 1990

"Tremors" is a delightful throwback to such '50s and '60s films as "Them," "The Deadly Mantis" and "Attacks" of both "The Giant Leeches" and "The Crab Monsters." Like those genre films, "Tremors" is less focused on its oversized monsters -- in this case, 30-foot-long hydra-headed carnivorous worms with a penchant for sucking people underground -- than on their potential victims, and how these people react to attacks by unknown, and previously unimaginable, creatures.

All the action takes place in and around an isolated Nevada town named Perfection, population 14 and counting down. Unlike most of today's horror films, "Tremors" situates itself in the great wide open outdoors and in bright sunlight -- there's no moody claustrophobia or menacing darkness to cover plot deficiencies. Of course, "Tremors" makes no attempt to explain logically the sudden appearance of what surviving townspeople dub "graboids." In fact, they are initially noticed through their leftovers -- a herd of sheep, a farmer (his head, actually), a buried station wagon, a treed wino.

First on alert are Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward), a pair of bumbling handymen who dream of abandoning Perfection only to end up saving it. They are joined in this endeavor by a pair of no-nonsense survivalists whose instincts and firepower prove crucial; this odd couple is portrayed quite charmingly by a hardened Michael Gross of "Family Ties" and country star Reba McEntire in her first film role. Also aboard: Finn Carter (daughter of Hodding Carter III) as a seismology student and just enough Perfectionists to suggest that the town is a microcosm of society and that survival is possible only through cooperation -- and strategic weaponry. Sure, we've seen this before, but it's been a while since it's been offered up so simply and effectively.

The "graboids" were designed by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis (who worked on "Alien" and "The Terminator" with executive producer Gale Anne Hurd). Bigger than the slugs of "Slither," smaller than "Dune's" sandworms, they are ferocious without being particularly horrifying (this is a PG-13 film with minimal gore). Blind and odoriferous, they do have acute hearing, which allows for some clever desert chases. Alternately stupid and smart, they seem suddenly to have the munchies -- maybe they're just getting revenge for 1977's "The Worm Eaters."

As concocted by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock (who also did the original "Short Circuit"), "Tremors" evokes the populist spirit of '50s B-movies, much more so than such high-powered '80s remakes as "The Fly," "The Thing" or "The Blob." Director Ron Underwood keeps things moving briskly, celebrating not the single-mindedness of the "graboids" but the resourcefulness and resilience of the townspeople. He captures their myriad responses, from terror and anger to humor and opportunism ("We discovered them ... we could name them" says the town's only merchant, envisioning a major tourist attraction -- just before being gobbled down).

As the handymen, Bacon and Ward make a good team. Ward, who didn't quite cut it as super hero Remo Williams, has the rugged looks and good humor of a friendly desperado, while Bacon continues to move beyond his glamour-boy roots and prove himself as an actor; he hasn't been stuck in such a dangerous small town since "Footloose." Underwood also throws in some funny allusions to "Jaws" and "Moby Dick" and comes up with a horror film that's rare in its appropriateness for family audiences (young children not included).

"Tremors" contains some scenes that should be called gross rather than gory.

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