Actor Fred Ward died last week. He was 79. Ward made a name for himself by playing tough, rough-around-the-edges characters, who also had seemingly limitless reservoirs of depth and emotion. And while Fred Ward starred in many notable films, The Right Stuff being one of his biggest hits, when I think of Ward, I will always think of one: Tremors.
Tremors is a 1990 horror/comedy that shouldn’t work. The plot is bare bones. A small, isolated town in Nevada (Perfection, to be exact) plays home to the sudden and destructive attack of giant, subterranean creatures. Chaos ensues. Some people die. Lots of yelling, bad ideas, and shenanigans occur. 96 minutes of glorious, ridiculous madness later, we are left with a feeling that while this isn’t great art, it’s absolutely wonderful and 100% entertaining.
It’s the people, stupid.
Tremors works because of the characters. I won’t even claim that the acting is great. In some cases, it’s passable at best. The two leads, Kevin Bacon (Valentine McKee) and Fred Ward (Earl Bass) definitely bring their A-game, playing two good-ole boys. They aren’t exactly lazy, yet they clearly aren’t the industrious types either. And they clearly aren’t the brightest bulbs for that matter. The point I’m making is that “Val” and Earl are not your typical Hollywood male protagonists, and the film is all the better for it. Most of the charm of Tremors is watching and listening to Val and Earl bicker, argue, joke, and interact. Both Bacon and Ward are so convincing in their roles, it doesn’t even feel like acting. It’s more like the studio went out to the dessert of Nevada and found two local odd-job workers and told them to react to whatever was happening in the scene.
The supporting cast is adequate enough. To varying degrees, they all bring various colors and textures to the story. For my money, the anti-government, doomsday planning couple, played by Michael Gross and Reba McEntire, bring the most to the table, including ALL THE GUNS. Honestly, if there is a movie with a more entertaining scene of two people shooting at the basement wall of their bunker, I’ve never seen it.
Tremors is competently directed. The set pieces are inventive and clever. The filmmakers establish the locations quickly and effectively, giving the audience all the information we need to understand the situation and anticipate potential scenarios. For a film that doesn’t take itself that seriously, there are some seriously tense moments, which is a credit to the writers (Ron Underwood, S.S. Wilson, and Brent Maddock) and the director (Ron Underwood).
I like “high art” cinema, for the most part. I enjoy great dramas with subtle performances, detailed and delicate character development, and careful and meticulous directing. Those are all good things to look for in the films we watch. But the older I get, the more I am realizing that sometimes, I just want a film that will provide 90 minutes or so of entertaining fun. Tremors does that and more. I’ve seen the film a half dozen times in my life, maybe more, and I’ve never tired of it. Yes, it’s dumb. Yes, it can be crude and a bit coarse. But I like movies that don’t overcomplicate things. Films that set out to entertain and do just that. No preaching. No message. Just fun. Tremors is fun. We need more films like Tremors these days.
(Parental note: Tremors is rated PG-13 for violence, gore, and language. The language really pushes the envelope for a PG-13 film, though it stays away from the biggest offenders for the most part. Proceed with caution.)