Tremors is the weirdly good, horror-comedy directed by Ron Underwood that kicked off the 90s sweet n’ scary storytelling era. The film follows a group of people in the Nevada desert fleeing huge, people-eating sand monsters. It made a profit at the box office and was up that year, in 1990, against the heavyweight Born on Fourth of July. What made the film successful at the time, and worth a rewatch, is the cunning strength and diversity of its ensemble cast. The characters carry you through the monster shenanigans with wit and camaraderie and make Tremors an unforgettable viewing experience.
The main characters are made up of a bunch of different personality types, from comedic and campy to controlling and serious. Together, they are a hodgepodge of personalities. The group is made up of two freelance, outdoorsy handymen, Val McKee (Kevin Bacon) and Earl Bassett (Fred Ward), a visiting, Ph.D. seismology student named Rhonda (Finn Carter), and a local couple, Heather (Reba McEntire) and Burt Gummer (Michael Gross). Val and Earl set the mood for Tremors with their banter, as they clash over cigarettes and who will make breakfast and start their odd jobs for the day (while tying barbed wire: “This is a job for intelligent men.” “Show me one, I’ll ask him.”)
They meet Rhonda, whose authenticity contrasts Val and Earls’ sarcasm. She’s on the ground in the desert observing earthquake activity. The seismographs don’t make sense to Rhonda because, as they will soon understand, the sand monsters are disrupting the desert’s insides. To Val’s dismay, the newcomer in town doesn’t have legs that go straight in the air, blonde hair, or green eyes. Next, Heather and Burt are introduced, cute with each other, tough on the outside, and teetering on the edge of minor conspiracy theories.
Val and Earl play buddy roles, Rhonda plays the smart, dedicated young woman, and Heather and Burt play the feisty, older couple. As Val, Earl, and Rhonda put their unique powers together – Val and Earl know the lay of the land from a worker perspective and Rhonda knows it from a geological one – they figure out the monsters sense vibrations and that’s how they know when and where to strike. This is where the importance of the group dynamic kicks in – they all have something different to offer.
Heather and Burt move to the beat of their own drum and therefore don’t take Val and Earls’ warning about the monsters seriously. Val and Earl, who act as the film’s comic relief, are the ones working alongside Rhonda, who understands the nature and danger of the monsters the best, trying to tell the couple to get onto their roof. Heather and Burt take out rifles and stay put, determined to kill the monster; they do, eventually, but realize their power. There is an equality that takes over the group when Heather and Burt join the rest of the gang on a nearby building’s rooftop. They figure out they can gain an advantage over the monsters by piling onto a truck nearby. While Rhonda and the rest of the team distract the monsters with noise, Val apprehends the truck and they all board safely.
With all this chaos and mania, it was only a matter of time before the group started to take their anger and fear out on each other. That moment happens when they face their test of killing the last monster, who has become smarter than the rest and rejects the dynamite they’ve thrown to the others. They blame each other for being stranded, but eventually, they realize they’ve gotten this far, killing all but one monster, because they stuck together. None of them would have lasted a second against these monsters on their own. With this realization only strengthening their defense, they devise another distraction plot and the final monster falls to its death over a cliff.
In the end, it turns out that someone with a Ph.D. (Rhonda) and someone who works with their hands (Val) might have more in common than their titles suggest. When they finally kiss, the film reminds us that romance can be found in all sorts of pairings. The scene plays out sweetly, revealing Val’s insecurity that Rhonda could be with someone like him after he quickly dismisses any romantic potential between them at the beginning because of how she looks. He comes to understand how important personal values are through journeying together to survive and Rhonda now sees beyond Val’s cocky demeanor and that he wants a genuine connection with others.
Without the group’s mix of cognitive and emotional intelligence, Tremors could easily be a formulaic monster film building towards human victory; instead, we’re laughing and attentive, not knowing what to expect from the team’s next steps but always here for it.