Tremors: Horrific Comedy Done Right

Kevin Bacon as a rural Nevadan handyman, facing off against subterranean worm-snake monsters alongside a surprisingly entertaining ensemble cast?  Yes please.  Tremors is nutty, ridiculous, and entirely more fun than you’d first think.

Despite being billed as a comedy-horror, in my mind the film is almost entirely comedy.  I’m sure some people will be scared by watching Tremors, but I can’t say that I know any of them.  There are a few good startling moments, and some particularly dreadful scenes in which people die horribly, but I never really felt the same tension or clenching fear that I would expect from a horror film.  It’s laughable to think of this movie as being the same category as something like Aliens; despite having ostensibly similar story arcs and genre expectations, they are not at all like each other.

Case in point: the very first shot sets the tone for the rest of the movie, with Kevin Bacon pissing off a cliff down into the valley below.  Tremors repeatedly leavens its tension with humor, and it nearly always does it with moments that ring true to the characters involved.  Better put, it didn’t feel like any lines were being delivered as jokes.  If something funny happens, it feels like it happens because the characters would do that thing rather than because someone decided that that was the right point for a punchline.  I had no idea that people living in a remote town in Nevada could be so unintentionally entertaining.

I should clarify.  Living in a remote town in rural Nevada is mind-numbingly boring, but the characters are a delight.  Burt and Heather Gummer, the town’s two survivalists, are some of my favorites.  They are so enthusiastically over-prepared and so happy to finally have a chance to be proven right that it very nearly hurts.  And the town’s children are similarly entertaining; it’s their clear boredom that really sells me on the town’s isolation, even though I wouldn’t give them high marks for their acting and even though they don’t play a large part in the film.  It’s fascinating to see what develops when terrible things start to happen in a town where everybody knows everybody, and nobody has all that much to do.

Give it a try.  For more of my thoughts, read on after the break.

I’d mistakenly thought that the movie would focus more on Val, Kevin Bacon’s character.  I’m glad to have been wrong.  While there wasn’t any real point at which he takes a back seat, it felt like my interest was spread fairly evenly across a number of the other characters, giving that ensemble feel that I mentioned earlier.  Maybe it was because Val wasn’t interesting enough to me, but whatever the reason was I’m glad for it.  I thought, for example, that the other characters got far more attention than they normally would in other similar movies.

Here I go bringing up Aliens again, but the other characters in Tremors felt far more like main characters to me than the other characters in Aliens did (even despite all the work that’s done to make the marines not just faceless grunts in the director’s cut).  Again, they’re really not the same sort of movie.  It might also be because Aliens is all about Ripley, while Tremors is all about this town full of people, and where the narration follows Ripley in Aliens, it just uses Val as an occasionally convenient hub in Tremors.

Also, I have to say that they did a lovely job of lavishing attention on all the appropriate horror-movie beats, even while they turned the movie into a comedy underneath the heroes’ feet.  And when I say “they,” I suppose I mean Ron Underwood, or whoever was in charge of editing this thing.  You get all the appropriate moments of mysterious horrific revelation, delivered at just the right moments to let you know that things are getting serious and that there’s something terrible afoot.  Yet the characters are just too entertaining for me to take the whole thing seriously even though they clearly take it seriously themselves.  I really want to tell you more, but if you haven’t seen the movie I don’t want to spoil anything for you.

So be careful, because this bit has some *SPOILERS*

My favorite combination of scenes in the movie starts the moment a radio is fumbled into turning on during a desperate escape attempt.  The woman who has stumbled into the car has just watched her husband be pulled underground and eaten, and she’s horribly shaken up, and then the radio starts playing a sad country song about a lonely woman looking for a cowboy.  A perfect moment of diegetic soundtrack.  As her car is slowly pulled underground, the radio continues playing.

The followup to that scene, and the part which makes it especially well done, comes when Val and Earl go looking for the missing woman and her husband, only to find the area mostly clean while a ghostly hint of music plays somewhere in the background.  Having them find the buried car, with the radio still playing inside, is one of my favorite reveals in the movie.  It plays perfectly off of a previous scene, it leaves the protagonists entirely freaked out, and it does it all with a gentle little bit of investigation and discovery.

And this all goes hand in hand with the first moment when the main characters learn that something might be wrong, when they see the local drunk stuck up on one of the high-voltage power-line towers.  They don’t worry that anything might be wrong at first, and they don’t even get really worried when they find out that the local drunk is dead and had to have stayed up there for several days before dying.  They just think it’s weird and a damn shame, which is entirely appropriate.  Even their behavior around all of this is vaguely comedic, given their resigned approach to all the trouble that’s come their way.  But it perfectly establishes the same trouble that they’ll be facing shortly, and hints at just how much danger they’re in without saying anything clearly.  It’s perfect mysterious horrific revelation, done just right but with comedy.  I love it.

Ok, *NO MORE SPOILERS*

Like I said above: give it a try.  It’s not deep or complex, but it’s fun and impressively well done as a representation of two separate genres.  Enjoy.

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One response to “Tremors: Horrific Comedy Done Right

  1. Pingback: 2 Bad 2 Guns isn’t 2 Better | Fistful of Wits

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