Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Tremors; following the on-going plight caused by a species of underground-dwelling carnivorous megafauna known as “graboids,” as well as the struggles of the man who becomes their de facto Ahab, Burt Gummer. The franchise spanned four films from 1990-2004, and a failed television spin-off in 2003.
The Installment: Tremors 2: Aftershocks (1996)
Body Count: 3
The Story: Years have passed since the first film. Valentine (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) became famous, as America got graboid fever, but they never saw any of the money. Valentine and the seismologist chick got married and moved away, and now Earl is living alone in a trailer. A second chance at fame and fortune comes Earl’s way when Grady Hoover (Christopher Gartin), an excitable superfan, connects Earl with a representative from a Mexican oil company with a pesky case of the graboids. Against Earl’s desires Grady demands to tag along. In Mexico the sheer number of graboids proves too much for the two men to handle, so Earl calls in survivalist Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) for assistance. With Gummer’s presence the trio are making quick work of the graboids. Then a new wrinkle appears when one of the larger graboids births a smaller two-legged type of graboid known as a “shrieker.” Soon there are shriekers everywhere.
What Works: Fred Ward is still Fred Ward. While I miss his buzzcut from the first film (his scraggly mop here doesn’t really fit the character in my mind), Earl continues his great grumpy presence. I also enjoyed the nature of his romance with the geologist Kate (Helen Shaver). For one thing, it’s nice they gave Ward someone age appropriate to play with. And screenwriters Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson continue to show their cleverness when they give us the ol’ switcheroo on the classic “check out that ass” moment — having Kate checking out Earl’s ass, instead of the other way around. Sexualizing Fred Ward is just patently amusing.
This is really Michael Gross’s show though. Once Burt enters the film, things lock into gear, both tonally and plot-wise. Maddock and Wilson treat the character smartly. Burt is such a capable badass that he threatens Earl’s standing as the hero of the film (you would think after what happened last time that Earl wouldn’t crack jokes about Burt being over-prepared), but Maddock and Wilson are shrewd to routinely undermine the character, making him a victim of his own gusto. A perfect example of this is when Burt finally uses his anti-tank gun (the sequelization of his bitchin’ elephant gun from Tremors). He snipes a shrieker, looking like a badass and allowing our foursome to make it to a nearby jeep. Only his moment in the sun proves short-lived when they reach the jeep to discover that Burt’s gun was so powerful that it went through the shrieker and a cement wall and right into the jeep’s engine. “How was I supposed to know?!” Burt cries defensively, deflating his top dog status. Another such moment is when Burt bravely lures all the shriekers inside a warehouse, trapping them, only to then discover it is full of food (which will allow the shriekers to asexually reproduce).
In general, Maddock and Wilson continue to display their knack for fun banter and clever plot evolution. When the shriekers first appear, it seems like they’re super geniuses, destroying the engines of vehicles and the oil field’s communications shed. Then our heroes discover that the damn things are deaf and blind, and see only by sensing heat. The shriekers attacked the engines and communications shed because they were hot and the creatures thought they were food. “You mean they’ve been acting so smart because they’re so stupid?”
There are several fun bits in the film too. The scene in which Earl and Grady’s truck is being pulled around by a graboid (hooked on a chain) was great, and kinda Jaws-esque. And I loved the gag with the graboid that swallows their radio, which continues to play music from within the creature, like the ticking clock inside the crocodile from Peter Pan. There is also a solid simple gag where our heroes run for the safety of a building, only to discover once they’re inside that it is under construction and has no walls. It is these sort of adventure film comedy bits that make the Tremors series.
What Doesn’t Work: There are three significant things working against this film. Tremors 2 is missing Kevin Bacon, a big budget, and Ron Underwood.
1) Let’s start with Bacon. I think most Tremors fans would say they prefer Earl to Valentine, if forced to choose. But Earl was crafted as supporting lead. Though Valentine and Earl share equal screen time, Valentine was still the “hero.” He defeated stumpy. He got the girl. Forcing Earl into the position of being the full-on hero does not entirely jibe with his best character traits. This is clearly why the filmmakers created Grady. But Grady is a poor, poor replacement for Valentine. In fact, he’s hands down the worst aspect of the film. I don’t want to bag on Christopher Gartin too much, because the character is annoying on paper, but Grady is just obnoxious. He’s barely established as a character before he’s elevated to co-lead status, and his aggressively wacky demeanor gives him a very Poochie vibe. He becomes slightly more acceptable as the film goes on, but the damage is already done early on. Reba McEntire is missed too. Burt doesn’t need his wife to function as a character as much as Earl needs Valentine, but the fact that both Earl and Burt now appear solo is a little too much.
The portion of the film prior to Burt’s arrival is a bit of a slog, and really not that much fun. Largely because there is no danger whatsoever. Killing graboids is now easy; the only issue being that there are so many of them that Earl decides he needs extra help. I suppose Maddock and Wilson wanted to do this to make the shriekers feel necessary, but shriekers simply aren’t as cool as the graboids. Frankly I thought it was a mistake to completely do away with the graboids. The Peter Pan graboid with the radio inside it was a brilliant little idea. That graboid should have stayed around or reappeared for the climax. Switching what kind of monsters your hero is fighting makes a film feel disjointed, and this feeling is only doubled by the fact that the movie doesn’t get good until Burt shows up. So really Tremors 2 is two films: a sucky film about Earl and Grady boringly exploding graboids, and pretty decent film about Earl, Grady, Kate, and Burt fighting shriekers.
The movie might have worked better if Burt and Earl had been paired together from the get-go, with no Grady at all.
2) Tremors had a surprisingly big budget. $11 million in 1990 dollars. Tremors 2 had $4 million, in 1996 dollars. I can’t fault the film for getting handed a smaller budget, but it nonetheless shows. The film feels small. There are hardly any characters, which means there are hardly any deaths. It also means the big exciting set pieces that made the first film so spectacular are no where to be found here. Aside from the previously mentioned truck pulling scene, and a nice big explosion at the end, there really isn’t much else one would call a “set piece.” Tremors 2 is also a post-CGI revolution film. While the puppet shriekers look great, the CG shriekers look terrible. The scene in which the shriekers are stacking themselves to try and reach our heroes (on top of a water tower) looks like something from a crappy SyFy movie.
Though we learn in this film that the graboids are not aliens, and are in fact the oldest lifeforms on the planet (predating dinosaurs), I do like that Tremors 2 continues the trend of not really explaining anything — but this also comes dangerously close to being problematic too. The shriekers barely make sense. I don’t care that it doesn’t really make sense why graboids turn into shriekers, but the degree to which the shriekers are deaf and blind is kind of illogical and inconsistent. And serves to make them crappy foes. Tremors 2 lacks the simplicity of the graboids and their vibration sensing ways.
3) It is funny to remember that it wasn’t that long ago that sequels generally sucked. Remember all those conversations you used to have with other film fan friends, trying to name all the sequels that were better or at least as good as the original film? No matter who was making the list it pretty uniformly came up Godfather II, Terminator 2, Road Warrior, Aliens, Empire Strikes Back, then with some subjective add-ons of the Gremlins II variety. We’ve been living through a golden age of movie sequels this past decade, in which Part 2 often finds the filmmaker of the first film now returning with the freedom and the budget to show us what he’s really got. Alas, Tremors 2 was not such a situation. No Ron Underwood. As a director, writer S.S. Wilson is acceptable, and keeping things in the family, as they did, is probably why the film works as well as it does. But bottom line is, S.S. Wilson is not as gifted a director as Ron Underwood. The actors don’t interact as well as they did in the first film, and many of the action scenes feel lifeless and flat (the film’s opening scene, with a Mexican oil worker being killed by a graboid is “good” example).
Best Human Kill: None are deserving of mention.
Best Graboid Kill: The shrieker that Burt snipes with his anti-tank rifle, exploding it to bits.
Best Burt Gummer Validation Moment: [After his insane store of explosives saves the day] Burt: You know, Grady, some people think I’m over prepared. Paranoid. Maybe even a little crazy. But they never met any Precambrian lifeforms, did they?
How the War Is Won: After Burt traps all the shriekers inside a garage, Earl sets a bomb inside Burt’s truck (which is also inside the garage and full of explosives), and blows the creatures to high hell.
Should There Have Been A Sequel: Sure, why not.
Next Up: Tremors 3: Back to Perfection