Weird Westerns: Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (2004)
The popular giant worm franchise relocates to the Old West with an admirably diverse cast, a healthy sense of humor, and a much lower budget.
By Max Sparber
The original "Tremors," filmed all the way back in 1990s, was an unexpected delight: An entertaining daffy giant monster film set in a small town in the Nevada desert populated by enjoyable eccentrics, some of whom were swallowed by a giant worm. The film boasted an unusually terrific cast, including Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as shit-kicking leads, along with an assortment of enjoble supporting performers, including Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as survivalists with a bunker and a cache of high-powered weapons.
In the same way that Meredith Baxter, Gross' costar on "Family Ties," managed to find a home in women's confessional-style television movies, Gross made a cottage industry of his character from "Tremors," appearing in and quickly turning into the star of each of the film's five direct-to-video sequels.
As regular readers know, I have come to the realization that if a horror or sci fi franchise has enough sequels, eventually it will come around to setting one in the Old West, something that I am going to call the Spectre of the Kirk law after the Star Trek episode in which the cast must reenact the OK Corral gunfight. In the case of "Tremors," it took four sequels.
The film revolves around a silver mine in Nevada, near the location of a frontier town that would eventually turn into Perfection, the central town in the "Tremors" series. At this moment, however, the town is called Rejection and is barely a town, consisting of a half-dozen facades that hide the fact that the buildings are actually canvas tents.
The residents of the town are a likable and admirably diverse group, including Chinese immigrants who own a store (Lydia Look and Ming Lo), a Mexican immigrant who formerly worked in the silver mine (Brent Roam), a Native American man who — well, I'm not sure exactly what he does, but he's amiable enough and likes to claim that he was the model for a cigar store wooden Indian (he's played by August Schellenberg). Impressively, every one of these characters seems to be played by actors who are actually members of the their character's ethnic group, which shows a genuine commitment toward representation that other films might duplicate.
In fact, instead of having white people play Indians, as usually happens in these films, "Tremors 4" has the part-Chiricahua Apache actor Billy Drago playing an ostensibly White gunfighter. Drago doesn't play the gunfighter as having any particular ethnicity, but it's nice to see Indian actors in roles that formerly would have just reflexively gone to white actors.
The plot of the film is relatively straightforward: The mine unwittingly awakens the series' monsters, an enormous, intelligent and voracious sand worm called a graboid, who then gobble up the miners. Michael Gross shows up as a prissy mine owner, hired Drago's gunslinger, and they head off to gun down the graboids, culminating in a showdown in the town that involves all the remaining townsfolk.
The original "Tremors" had the touch of sadism that a good horror film requires — it was willing to introduce lovable characters and then kill them off, often in a spectacular manner. This film doesn't quite have that nerve, and so, but for a few secondary characters getting chewed on, this film has the odd feel of the more gentle sort of fantastic film made for children. It has broad characterizations, a child hero (Sam Ly), as is notably without suspense.
Fortunately, the film does have a pretty decent sense of humor, which has been the case throughout the series. It's quite good at establishing and then comically defeating audience expectations, such as a scene in which Drago insists a child throw him an apple. Everybody expects him to draw his gun and shoot the apple out of the air, covering their ears and complaining loudly that he's about to shoot a gun indoors, but he simply catches the apple and eats it.
The film uses exactly the same setup later, with characters seeing a hat on the ground and gingerly moving it, certain there will be a human head under it. As with the apple scene, it turns out to be a letdown, and then the camera zooms in to reveal a severed human head right behind them. There are not enough movies that use decapitated heads as punchlines, although, thinking on it, there are more than you might expect.
A lot of the film is made up of in-jokes that reference earlier films in the series, which is complicated, as I haven't seen the original "Tremors" in years and have seen none of the other sequels. As a result, the only joke I really caught is that of Gross playing the ancestor of the series' most notorious gun nut, but playing it as a nearly helpless and notably prim rich man. The film follows as he starts to become familiar, and eventually obsessed, with guns, presumably somehow burning into his DNA an obsession that later family members would share. It seems unlikely, but, then, it is also unlikely that he would exactly resemble his own grandson, but this is a cinematic convention and so we must respect it.
The film was obviously made with a small budget, far smaller than the original had, but still manages to have fun with the film's monsters. They are mostly represented by their tendrils anyway, which look like snakes with the head of Uncle Deadly from the Muppets and can be surprisingly canny. At once point, our heroes hide in a barn with wooden beams for floors, which the graboids cannot break through. Instead, their tendrils simply pop up and start dismantling the floor, moving the beams out of the barn with an unexpected patience and care, as though they are not simply monsters, but anal retentive monsters who must place everything just so.
The final duel has Gross bringing a wagon filled with guns to town and handing them out, and, as sometimes happens with Wikipedia, the page for the film has been edited by a gun nut, so there is a detailed inventory of the weapons used.
It seems somehow appropriate, and I like to imagine the page was actually edited by Gross' character from the first film, Burt Gummer, the gun collector grandson, and obsessive fascination with firearms now stamped into his genetic code.