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MOVIE REVIEW : Wormy Thrills, Fear and Humor Burrow Up in 'Tremors'

January 19, 1990|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Most horror movies take place in the dark. "Tremors" (citywide), a jocular good-time monster film with surprises up its sleeve, is set in the clear day, in a desert landscape that seems to stretch endlessly toward the Sierra.

In this National Geographic wasteland, full of vast cliffs, buttes, arroyos and clumps of rock, nothing, so it seems, can hide. The air is so clear, the terrain so vast, that the little desert town slapped in the middle of it--sarcastically named Perfection--seems invulnerable to sneak attack. Except, of course, from below.

That's where producers-writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock and director Ron Underwood spring the assault on their nine complacent Perfectionites. That subterranean menace comes from four huge earthworms: 30 feet long, ravenously hungry, with huge split, snaky tentacle-tongues that grab victims and suck them down.

These worms, ingeniously designed by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis, have a lot more personality than the ones in "Dune." For one thing, they're frighteningly fast and agile, tunneling under the desert with terrifying speed, executing all sorts of clever ruses and strategies, tearing up the phone lines, closing the roads. Gradually they pin their victims down in a small area, driving them up to the roofs or onto the huge rocks. The worms can't see--which is their fatal flaw--but they hear everything, nailing their prey from the ground vibrations. In this isolated, paralyzingly sunny landscape, they're the ultimate burrowing-from-within terror: the earth striking back.

This is Western territory, and Wilson and Maddock infuse "Tremors" with a comic-Western sensibility. The characters are a bit reminiscent of the old "Andy Griffith Show." The heroes are bumbling handymen named Valentine and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward) and they keep playing kid games and razzing each other. How they keep busy at all in a town with barely a dozen people is an unsolved mystery.

The heroine is a city girl who seems to exist as a feminist refutation of Valentine's bosomy Playboy-blonde fantasies: Finn Carter as discombobulated but plucky seismic scientist Rhonda LeBeck. The action is big and garish and the narrative pattern--the isolated community under siege by out-of-scale monsters--goes all the way back to '50s horror movies like "Attack of the Crab Monsters" or "Tarantula."

Most recent movies that try to revive the spirit of those postwar-nightmare pictures fail because they can't recapture the right kind of innocence. They get too knowing or overscaled, or they let the gore-meisters take over. But "Tremors" suggests the early '60s as well. Like Hitchcock in "The Birds," the film makers make their beleaguered community a cross-section: the obsessive, over-fortified survivalists (Michael Gross and C&W star Reba McEntire,) the rustic store owner (Victor Wong), a cute Spielbergian mother and child and an obnoxious teen-ager who keeps crying wolf.

There's even a moral: If we all pull together, we can survive any catastrophe. This is a pop-populist horror movie. It isn't about the tensions that pull people apart, but the bogymen that drive them together. At the end, even the survivalists put the community's interests first, leaving their bomb shelter and joining a mass action.

Maddock and Wilson, who wrote the "Short Circuit" movies, are keyed in to small-town rhythms and sensibilities and, though they're imitating hack writers here, at least they're trying to be clever hacks. And they are. They're also well served by the cast in general and by Underwood, who keeps everything loud, fast and shiny. There's even a genuine battle of wits going on between the humans and the worms. If the humans mostly make dopey decisions and the worms show uncommon cunning and resilience, they're still more interesting opponents than the slaughtered lambs and nightmares from hell in most other horror movies.

"Tremors" (rated PG-13) probably isn't for aesthetes or sophisticates, even slumming ones--though they may enjoy it, too. In this cheerful, unsadistic monster film, there's nothing oozy-sick or over-gory. Though the worms, or "graboids," are a fairly repulsive creation, they aren't the slimy ecch- beings popular since "Alien." It's a zippy melodrama for small-town America and small-towners at heart: well-executed kitsch for audiences that will still be amused at the notion that the bugs are getting so big, they'll drag us all down.

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