Sci-fi horror is arguably one of my favorite genres, if not definitely my absolute favorite. And the Stone Cold Steve Austin of sci-fi horror franchises is easily the Alien series. (Now that I’ve made this analogy, all I want to see is a xenomorph with a goatee driving a zamboni into Madison Square Garden while wearing a bandoleer of Natural Light.) But when you think about it, that actually isn’t saying much. I can come up with dozens of individual films in the genre that are absolute classics (The Thing, Event Horizon, Scanners, The Fly), but very few actual franchises. After Alien, the biggest is probably Predator, and then… what? Cube, I guess? Does Cube count? Maybe the Riddick movies, but those are so all over the place that they occupy every nerdy genre at once, like Vin Diesel himself. You could argue perhaps George A. Romero’s Living Dead series, or the Resident Evil films, but in general I don’t consider zombies to be science fiction, so anything involving the shambling dead can fuck all the way off to the cemetery and wait for Barbara.
For my money, one sci-fi horror franchise stands head-and-body-segments above the rest in terms of consistent quality. One series that has managed to maintain an entertaining cast, impressive practical effects, and genuine appreciation for its fanbase for 30 years. Friends, that storied franchise is Tremors, which turns 30 this year.
For those of you not in the know, Tremors was a 1990 sci-fi comedy horror film starring Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as two hilarious cowboys who do odd jobs for beer in the crucially small town of Perfection, Nevada. They stumble upon a group of gigantic killer worms, called Graboids, who hunt by detecting vibrations against the earth, like footsteps, or peeing. (That becomes vitally important in a later sequel.) Val, Earl, a paranoid gun-loving survivalist named Burt (Michael Gross), and the rest of the town have to outsmart the Graboids using a combination of homemade pipe bombs and clever tricks, the latter of which results in a 1 ton worm flying straight through the side of a mountain whilst Bacon screams, “Can you fly, motherfucker?!” It is, without hyperbole, the greatest moment in cinematic history.
The film is a master class in top-shelf B-movie horror, born out of a pure love for the genre, a blend of a 1950s atomic age idea with modern special effects. Beyond wearing its earnest fanboy affection on its sleeve, Tremors has a surprisingly tight script full of memorable characters, genuinely funny jokes, and some well-executed gore thanks to creature effects by Amalgamated Dynamics, founded by Academy Award winners Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis. The two would later work on the Alien franchise, beginning with Alien 3. They would also create Tim Allen’s Santa belly for The Santa Clause, easily their most terrifying horror prosthetic of all.
To date, there have been five Tremors sequels, all of them direct-to-video. And believe it or not, Tremors has the most consistent quality record of any science fiction and/or horror series I have ever seen, including Alien. Actually, especially Alien. Let me elaborate.
The Tremors films have a ton of heart, and you can detect real joy in the filmmaking. The series manages to maintain its fun B-movie tone without ever dipping into cynical self-parody, like Sharknado and its exhausting brand of “ironic” schlock. It never tries to come up with a massive overarching universe or a dense, cryptic mythology around the Graboids, because the appeal of Tremors has never been about the monsters. It’s been about assembling a cast of borderline wacky characters and tossing them into a situation wherein they have to deal with angry blind monsters, one of which gains the power of flight by ripping fireballs out of its asshole. (Appropriately, those ones are called Ass-Blasters.)
There’s an underdog feeling to each installment of the series. The budget constantly shrinks, and the filmmakers and special effects artists are forced to do as much as they can with as little as possible, and they always manage to pull it off in creative ways. (Some less-than-impressive CGI in Tremors 3 notwithstanding.)
Stampede Entertainment, the production company of series creators and writers S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, and Ron Underwood, left the series after Tremors 4: The Legend Begins. But the two latest sequels, Tremors 5: Bloodlines and Tremors: A Cold Day In Hell, still manage to maintain the charming, fun spirit of the series. The monsters are completely CGI in these two recent installments, but thankfully the quality of digital effects has advanced quite a bit since Tremors 3. Also, the Graboids and the Ass-Blasters were totally redesigned to make them more intense and menacing. All of this is to say that the redesigned, fully digital Graboids look pretty dang awesome. All of the action sequences involving the Graboids also incorporate practical effects, like moving dirt, launching cars, toppling buildings, and explosions of worm guts. One Graboid gets struck by lightning and detonates like a doomsday prophecy, and it fully rules. And while the tone of the humor has changed to be more crass (owing to the departure of the original creators and the general acceptance of what was considered funny to mainstream cable audiences in the mid-2010s), the underdog spirit and charm is still present.
There’s a consistent through-line in the series of the Graboids and the humans constantly one-upping each other. Each time the survivors figure out a new tactic, the Graboids subvert or outsmart it in some way, sending our heroes right back to the drawing board. It’s a simple game, but it’s always engaging, and it results in some memorably clever moments. In addition to the one-upsmanship tug of war between the monsters and the humans, there’s also a thread of the Graboids constantly evolving, which presents a fun new wrinkle for the characters to overcome in each sequel. I expect we’re not far from a Tremors movie wherein the Graboids learn to drive, or speak English.
Burt is the only character to appear in all 6 films, but that’s not a bad thing whatsoever, because the amount of joy the cartoonishly gruff presence of Michael Gross brings to each film cannot be overstated. Gross maintains such a command and understanding of his character that Burt always sounds and acts like Burt, even as writers and directors have changed over the series’ three-decade run. And each new cast provides a colorful batch of endearing characters. With the notable exception of Jamie Kennedy, who looks windblown and hungover in every scene of Tremors 5 and 6.
Also, Tremors can never be accused of being a soulless cash grab. Nobody is getting rich making Tremors movies. (Although I’m certain Gross is not complaining about having a relatively steady gig.) These are all passion projects, made by people who love the characters and the series. It’s a B movie franchise that is content to be so, and never strives to be anything different. The humor is corny without being self-referential or winking at the camera, unlike the aforementioned Sharknado, the albatross of horror comedy. It’s not playing a joke on you for watching it, or treating the movie or the story itself like a joke.
So, what of the shots fired at Alien a few paragraphs ago? Well, first of all, let’s compare total number of films in the series with total number of *actually good* films in the series. Tremors has 6 films, all of which are surprisingly good (the worst being the still super-fun Tremors 4, the Wild West installment which suffers from such a microscopic budget that things get a little Graboid-less and boring in the film’s middle section.) Alien has eight films – Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, Alien Vs Predator, Alien Vs Predator: Requiem, Prometheus, and Alien Covenant. Of those 8, only the first two are actually any good. It just so happens that those films are two of the best movies ever made, which makes the franchise seem better than it actually is, because the other six films are exoskeletal piles of steaming dogshit.
So what went wrong? Here’s the biggest factor, in my estimation. Tremors never made the mistake of trying to expand the mythology of the universe. Over the course of the series, we see the entire life cycle of the Graboids (from larva to worm to bipedal Shrieker to flying Ass-Blaster), but the movies never waste time trying to explain where they came from. They weren’t created in a distant space lab by swole albino giants. They’re just big-assed worms.
Conversely, every film in the Alien franchise tries to expand upon the universe in some way. The first film was a haunted house in space, with a monster that was utterly terrifying because of how mysterious and unpredictable it was. We never learned anything about it, so every surprise the crew of the Nostromo experienced was shared by the audience. The problem is, that idea really only works one time. After that, we all know what the monster looks like and how it operates. Aliens established the life cycle of the xenomorphs and introduced the idea of the Alien Queen, but wisely turned the focus from horror to action, throwing the creature into a different context. And after that, there’s really nowhere to go except to introduce crazy new plot twists and club-footed world-building elements, like an alien-human clone, a fleshy human-alien hybrid, a Wrestlemania matchup with another franchise creature, and a bizarre origin story about an insane robot creating parasitic bug monsters for shits and giggles.
The next Alien movie, if there is ever another one, is going to have to do a hell of a lot of work to convince me to put on pants and drive all the way to an AMC to see it. Meanwhile, a seventh Tremors film, Tremors: Island Fury starring Gross and Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder, is on its way sometime this year, and I literally cannot wait to sit pantless on my couch and watch it.