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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Tremors (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Tremors (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Universal // PG-13 // November 20, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted November 29, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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Tremors (1990) was a modest sleeper hit in its day; produced on a tight budget of about $11 million, the film did okay during its theatrical run, but went on to become quite popular on cable television and at video rental stores, eventually spawning three direct-to-video sequels (so far) and TV series. Like the later Jurassic Park (1993), Tremors is basically Jaws on land, but what really seemed to click with audiences were other elements, particularly its mix of humorous characterizations with an intelligent approach to its menace harking back to the best monster-on-the-loose thrillers of the 1950s. The HD DVD benefits from the film's bright, crisp cinematography - 90% of it was shot outdoors - the disc's supplements are a mixed bag, however, retro in their own way, though still valuable.

Strange things are happening in the small desert community of Perfection, Nevada (population: 14). Hick handymen Valentine (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward), not quite Dumb & Dumber but pretty close, find the dead, dehydrated body of the town drunk hanging from an electrical tower. Later they discover sheepherder "Old Fred's" livestock have been ripped to pieces, along with Fred's own mutilated body. Meanwhile the phone lines have gone dead, and a strange landslide blocks the only way out of town.

Eventually a strange, eel-like creature gets tangled up in the handymen's truck axle, but this turns out to merely be one of several tentacle-like tongues emanating from the mouth of a much larger, cigar-shaped monster, one of four, that begin gobbling up the town's residents one-by-one. The community bands together, hoping they can figure out a way to get to Bixby, the nearest city and some 38 miles away, before the monsters get 'em.

Nineteen fifty-three saw the release of both The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the first '50s monster on the loose film, and It Came from Outer Space, the first of myriad '50s sci-fi films to effectively use a desert setting to create a sense of eerie isolation. The two elements were combined the following year for Them!, about giant mutated ants, and the success of that film spawned countless big-bug monsters, from The Deadly Mantis to The Black Scorpion (both 1957). Before Tremors, this little sub-genre had been laying dormant for several decades (except, of course, in Japan) but Tremors single-handedly revived it for several years with low-budget filmmakers pouncing on its budget-conscious ingenuity. (The way the monsters grab ahold of their victims, pulling them under the desert sand, also recalls 1953's nightmarish Invaders from Mars.)

The best things about the film are its shrewdness in confining the story to a handful of characters, a single (if expansive) locale, and the intelligent way screenwriters S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock treat the menace and the way the human characters try to outwit it. The four creatures burrow underground at a fast clip and can sneak up on their victims but they have no eyes, relying on sound vibrations to stalk their prey. They also can't burrow through solid rock, so when Valentine and Earl, along with visiting PhD seismologist Rhonda (Finn Carter), find themselves trying to escape one of the monsters, they simply climb onto a large bolder where the creatures can't get at them. Later, when trying to reach Rhonda's truck, they use metal poles to pole vault from boulder-to-boulder. The concept is funny yet logical, recalling the way the cast of The Killer Shrews (1959) effected their escape, comically hidden under barrels.

But the monsters, dubbed "graboids," are also intelligent. They begin to predict the human characters' moves so that when the townsfolk take to scurrying up to the roofs of the town's buildings, the creatures begin ripping away at their foundations. Conversely, the ordinary human characters come up with ideas to thwart the graboids that are reasonable and believable. (In a neat twist, Rhonda's scientist is no better equipped to cope with the monsters than anyone else; she is, after all, a seismologist. In '50s sci-fi films, the requisite scientist character always came up with the solution to defeat the menace.)

The light tone of the picture and its low-brow, small town stereotypes seemed to resonate with audiences. One wonders if perhaps the screenwriters and/or producers were hedging their bets, worried that as a straight-faced thriller the film might have been labeled as just another Jaws imitator. In any case the film's abundant humor offsets the grisly nature of the attacks, which are just as graphic as those in Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster. It's a little weird to have characters cracking jokes moments after witnessing one of their friends getting eaten alive, but it does serve to soften the horror and keep the film fun and lighthearted. Bacon and especially Ward (an underrated actor) are certainly likeable, as is Carter, though the most memorable roles go to Michael Gross (TV's Family Ties) and country singer Reba McEntire as gun-nut survivalist types (with a "Free Afghanistan" bumper sticker on their truck; shades of Rambo III and its Taliban heroes!), with a basement arsenal that would make Dirty Harry green with envy. Their characters must have been especially popular at drive-ins in the Deep South.

Produced on the cusp of the CGI revolution, Tremors's effects were accomplished the old-fashioned way: miniatures, matte paintings, mechanical and hand puppets, etc. Though the high-def image reveals a wire here and there controlling the creatures' movements, the visual effects work couldn't be bettered with today's technology. The miniatures especially are flawless; even in high-definition you'll be hard-pressed to recognize those shots.

Video & Audio

Tremors looks terrific on HD DVD. The bright exteriors certainly help, as do the preponderance of on-set special effects and miniatures versus optically-printed ones. In this way the film almost accidentally adapts better to the format than other sci-fi fantasy titles from its era crammed with optical effects (which supposedly was the main reason the original Star Trek series' effects were redone). The 1.78:1 image (adapted from its original 1.85:1 theatrical release; it's not matted, despite what it says on the box) is strong throughout with good color (original lab work by DeLuxe) and incredible detail here and there; one can count the freckles on McEntire's face or the hairs in Ward's stubbly beard. One can also notice very subtle shifts in focus in the driving scenes with Bacon and Ward that draw our attention to one actor over the other.

The image is very clean with practically no dirt or damage. Given the clear blue skies frequently dominating the background, this is no small feat. Some reviewers have complained about the disc's edge enhancement, but on this reviewer's 50-inch plasma it was at worst a minor issue. The disc is an HD DVD 30 in 1080p, with audio in Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, adapted from the original Dolby SR tracks. The audio mix is modest by today's standards with little directionality though the bass has been upped considerably and impressively for the subterranean rumblings of the graboids, but it's not ineffective. A French Dolby Digital Plus 2.0 track is included, along with English and French subtitles.

Extra Features

The extensive supplements, all in 480i/p standard definition, are disappointing only in there's nothing new - everything has been carried over from the April 1996 deluxe laserdisc edition. I have to admit, watching "The Making of Tremors," its Star Profiles of Kevin Bacon, Michael Gross, and Reba McEntire (but not Fred Ward - boo!), slim featurette, outtakes and full-frame trailers I was swept with a wave of nostalgia for the long-dead laserdisc format and how exciting it was to see these kind of special features in a home video release, still a novelty in the mid-1990s.

The documentary isn't slick by today's standards, but it covers a lot of ground with director Ron Underwood, Maddock and Wilson, and a few others. There's a long "creature features" section at the end with a lot of great raw video of the special effects unit hard at work. For fans of that kind of material it's great stuff. The other extras are all rather blah because of their self-promotional nature and/or because the video is so inferior to the feature presentation. (I mean, couldn't Universal have at least sprung for new trailer masters?)

Parting Thoughts

Tremors's solid narrative and excellent "old school" effects hold up surprisingly well, and the HD DVD offers a strong if not quite flawless transfer accompanied by some good if badly dated extra features. Recommended.

  Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.

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