Girl Meets Context: November is going to be our Best of the 1990s Month, where we watch some of Sean’s personal favorites from one of horror cinema’s darkest decades. We continue with this riff on the classic 1950s monster movie. Set in the small town of Perfection, NV (Pop. 14), Tremors centers on a pair of drifter handymen named Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) who find themselves leading the residents in a battle against a sudden invasion of gigantic, carnivorous underground worms. Isolated and unprepared, the residents of Perfection – including libertarian survivalist couple Burt (Family Ties‘ Michael Gross) and Heather (country music’s Reba McEntire), doctoral student/seismologist Rhonda (As the World Turns‘ Finn Carter), shopkeep Walter (Big Trouble in Little China‘s Victor Wong), single mom Nancy (Twin Peaks‘ Charlotte Stewart) and daughter Mindy (Jurassic Park‘s Ariana Richards) and a handful of others – must band together to fight off the invasion of giant monsters and escape the valley. Combining nostalgia, comedy, genuine scares and the aesthetics of the Western, Tremors is considered one of horror’s most purely fun and enjoyable riffs on the monster flick. It spawned three direct-to-DVD sequels – some of which brought back key players from the original – and one 13-episode season of television, centering on Michael Gross’ character Burt (you can watch all 13 episodes online here). Kristine and I sat down to discuss the film and try out some theories. If you haven’t seen Tremors, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: It’s been a weird and stressful week, so I’m glad you picked a fun movie.
Sean: So you liked Tremors?
Kristine: Yeah, it was a romp. Though plenty of things had my eyeballs a-rollin’. It’s funny, after all the nastiness we have seen in the other movies we’ve watched for this project, Tremors was the first movie in a long time where I recall audibly saying, “Gross!” and “Disgusting!” out loud.
Sean: Haha! What was gross?
Kristine: Umm! The graboids (or whatever they are called). Ick nast vom.
Sean: Hahahaha! Wait, why? Why are they vom?
Kristine: Because they are made of rancid bologna.
Sean: They’re just silly worms!
Kristine: I don’t like them grabbing that horse around the neck. : (
Sean: That poor horsey.
Kristine: Wait. Before we talk about the graboids, we must acknowledge the fucking batshit insanity of this cast.
Sean: Oh, you mean like Reba? Were you living for Reba’s hair?
Kristine: I was going to say Michael Gross playing a gun-loving survivalist. What a complete about-face after his long tenure as Steven Keaton, PBS employee, on Family Ties.
Sean: I love him in this, and I totally agree that seeing Mr. Keaton, the hippie suburban “man of feeling” from the 1980s, reinvented as a paranoid libertarian is great.
Kristine: Tremors, by the way, may poke gentle fun at survivalists, but it also ultimately says, “You better have one or two on your team.”
Sean: Oh, I have lots to say about that.
Kristine: Hee! This movie seemed like it was from an earlier time than 1990, in lots of ways. Kevin Bacon looked hella young, for one. I have never heard of Finn Carter, who plays Rhonda the seismologist.
Sean: She never went anywhere after this.
Kristine: Oh, how can that be? Hahahaha!
Sean: I adore the fact that the movie makes her being not cute into a plot point.
Kristine: That was so awful (and funny).
Sean: Her frumpy dumpy reveal is hilarious.
Kristine: It’s like, ‘She is supposed to be a girl…’
Sean: Right. ‘Not… that.’
Sean: When Earl is like, ‘Let’s get to know her…’ and Val is like, “Um… why?” I was seriously cracking up.
Kristine: I also thought it was hilarious how maybe twice they throw out some extremely half-assed attempt to explain the existence of giant, flesh-eating monster worms, and then it gets quickly tossed away to resume the lassoin’ and explodin’ and celebratin’ of worm huntin’.
Sean: Oh, I like that the movie never explains their origin, and it just has all the characters come up with their own theories.
Kristine: I don’t remember many theories.
Sean: I don’t understand how you don’t remember them floating their theories, when there’s a protracted five-minute scene of them debating what the monsters might be and it showcases their basic character traits. According to Val, the government built them as a surprise for the Russians (rugged militarist/amateur conspiracy theorist). Rhonda notes that they must predate the fossil record and tries to find a natural explanation for them (woman of science and reason). Earl thinks they’re from outer space (fabulist).
Kristine: I just remember their origins being not the point.
Sean: Did you really watch the movie?
Sean: Hmmm… I am suspicious of shenanigans.
Kristine: Stop it.
Sean: So, tell my why you were rolling your eyes so much.
Kristine: My re-occuring eyerolls were directed at the constant congratulatory celebrations of the ragtag crew at every turn. They are always punching the air with jubilation, doing victory dances, saying “Yeeeeeeeeeesssssss!,” and fist-pumping. It happens like, 50 times throughout the movie. It drove me crazy! It felt so mid-‘80s.
Sean: Hahahaha! That made me really mad actually. “Way to gooo, duuuuuuuude!”
Kristine: Thank you! It bugged, right?
Sean: It was so dorky.
Kristine: What was most annoying about it was that their celebrations were always so premature. I was like, ‘Get the job done, then you can celebrate your glory.’ But not before. Christ! Another thing that bugged was that I felt like the ragtag crew was supposed to be made up of recognizable archetypes of some sort, but they really weren’t, except for Burt and Heather. And I also loathed how the dynamic between “Val” (and his heart-shaped belt buckle) and “Earl” was that Val never planned ahead. The movie belabors the point to the edge of madness, with Earl constantly saying “We need a plan” and finally Val has a “plan” and it saves everyone. Because he has grown up? I don’t know. It was dumb.
Sean: Haha. Yes, but I still cracked up at Val going, “Oh yeah, we plan ahead, that way we don’t do anything right now. Earl explained it to me.” But overall, you enjoyed the movie?
Kristine: Yes, overall, I enjoyed it. It keeps things moving and the graboids are fun. They reminded me of a game we’d play when we were kids, where you can’t touch the ground because it’s made of burning hot lava that’s also filled with crocodiles. All the “stay off the ground!” stuff was my favorite, I think.
Sean: Did you find Val and Earl charming?
Kristine: Earl had some charm. Val did not.
Kristine: What’s your take on Tremors?
Sean: First, some backstory. I saw this in the theatre when it came out. I was 15 and I immediately became obsessed with it and it was my favorite movie for a while. And in looking back at my obsessions from when I was 15(ish), I realize that they’re all movies with very strong homoerotic subtexts.
Sean: I remember, at 15, being like “Val and Earl live together? They’re like… together?” and loving it without really knowing why. It made my body feel things.
Kristine: I love this!
Sean: So it’s really hard for me to separate all that out from the movie now. But basically, I have a slew of Freudian theories about Tremors.
Kristine: Proceed! This is amazing.
Sean: Keep in mind as you hear me out, I am sort of kidding, but sort of dead serious.
Kristine: No, this is all good.
Sean: Basically, it boils down to this: I think the whole movie is about Val and Earl denying their gaylove for each other. I think the graboids are metaphors. They’re manifestations of queer desire. I mean, they’re super-phallic, obvs.
Sean: But also vaginal.
Kristine: Because they “grab” with their “mouths.”
Sean: They “open up” to reveal a scary, gloopy interiority (monster-womb) but they also protrude, poke, stick (monster-cock). So they’re vaguely hermaphroditic/queer/non-heteronormative. The whole movie is about Val and Earl fighting their queer desire for one another.
Kristine: I am in love with your theory.
Sean: And by defeating the graboids, queerness is vanquished and Val is now free to hook up with that lesbian.
Sean: After Val and Earl accidentally kill the first graboid (when it slams into a concrete culvert or whatever), Val’s reaction is to freak out and dance and he is like, “It’s dead. We killed it… We killed it! Fuck you!” and it is so clear (to me) that he is really talking about the specter of queer desire, which has manifested as this big penismonster that wants to get them and suck them into its hole. He is beyond relieved that they actually can battle these feelings, and actually can “kill” the faggotry in their hearts.
Kristine: OMG Sean! Val’s “FUUUUUCK! Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeewwwwww!” was like the greatest thing in the entire movie.
Sean: Hahaha! I mean, did it strike you at all that Val & Earl were a couple?
Kristine: I am on board with Val and Earl reading as a couple. I must admit it didn’t really occur to me while I was watching, except in a comic way. Like when their suitcases and rocking chairs and whatnot are all packed up in the truck because they are “getting out of this town!” But it totally makes sense. It never seems to occur to them that they could, I don’t know, part ways and do their own thing with their lives?
Sean: But that very phenomena, that it only occurs to the audience “in a comic way” that they’re a couple, is all about how we can only work through our anxieties about men being together through comic relief. I mean, its basically the movie being like, ‘Yeah, its super weird that these two grown men are living together as husband and husband, and so here’s a bunch of intentional hilarity to defuse anybody’s discomfort about that.’ I mean, goddamned The Odd Couple? It’s a classic technique to de-queer the two men and make sure their heterosexuality is reconstituted.
Kristine: That’s why Val has this unobtainable girl crush – because he doesn’t actually want her.
Sean: Yes! “Tammy Lynn Baxter” is a necessary fiction in order to deny Val and Earl’s gaylove. She’s their fucking beard!
Kristine: Right. Remember, Earl is like, “Doesn’t matter what her name is.” And Val’s imagination is pure Playboy centerfold cheesecake, the kind of woman that someone trying to “fit in” would pretend to be into: “ long blonde hair, big green eyes, world-class breasts, ass that won’t quit, and legs that go all the way up!” She’s exactly what Val thinks a “normal” man should like. She’s basically like some loser kid’s Canadian girlfriend. Val totally found those pictures somewhere and put them on his visor for show.
Sean: Ha! One of the things that’s most charming, to me, about the movie is how it depicts a right-wing America in which this queer couple is living and it is just not a problem. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, Val and Earl? They’re “together” but we don’t talk about that!’
Kristine: Except the characters who are the furthest right-wing are also indispensible to defeating the invasion. Don’t forget that big setpiece where that invading graboid is defeated by Burt and Heather, the right-wing heteronormatives. (And as an aside: I love how you can just feel the glee coming from Michael Gross as he pumps rounds of ammo into his Family Ties persona, and I like to think that Reba is making fun of the stereotypes about country music fans.)
Sean: Oh god. That scene of Burt and Heather pumping the graboid full of ammunition is, to me, a high camp hysterical explosion of homophobic terror. I was dying about it. It is literally a right wing fantasy about coming face-to-face with queerness and annihilating it with tons of bullets. Can I also point out that after Burt and Heather kill the graboid, Earl turns to Val and goes, “Well I guess we don’t get to make fun of Burt’s lifestyle anymore, huh?”
Sean: I mean, do you remember how much they’re all obsessed with the size of the graboids? When they dig out the penismonster? Cut to a shot of Val going “I found the ass end! Jesus, we really caught something here” and straddling the monster’s ass and thrusting his hips and then Earl sees it and goes “Man, that’s one big mother.”
Kristine: I totally remember the ass end! Right after the graboid kills itself by slamming into the concrete, when the lesbian shows up, remember how Val and Earl are both super annoyed? ‘What’s she doing here?’ Remember when Val wakes up on the rock and Rhonda is all snuggled against him and wearing his jean jacket and he is horrified?
Sean: See? I am not making any of this up. It’s in the movie!
Kristine: Sean, you are right.
Sean: Val is completely disgusted that Rhonda is touching him, but that’s because they haven’t killed all the penismonsters yet. The more they kill, the straighter Val gets, the more oriented towards Rhonda.
Kristine: Poor Earl. Poor gay love.
Sean: Kristine. It says ‘V&E Odd Jobs’ on the side of their truck. ODD JOBS. Like the pottery-kiln building mother from Twin Peaks would say to Reba, ‘Those boys, they’re a couple of …. odd jobs!’
Kristine: Hee hee. ‘Hand(job)y Men.’
Sean: The sign on their fence reads ‘E. Basset’ and below that ‘V. McKee.’ (Notice that Val’s on the bottom). But we knew that anyway because in the first scene Val teases Earl about how many cows make a stampede and Earl’s reply is something about “stampede” and “up your ass.” Earl is always thinking about putting things (like his cock) up Val’s ass.
Sean: So that’s my big Tremors theory and my explanation for why my 15-year-old self what completely obsessed with it (as well as with Stand By Me, another a document of male love that gets queerer the more you think about it).
Kristine: Well, I cosign this interpretation and think you are brills.
Sean: So, another topic. As I’ve aged and come back to Tremors, I see more pathos and genuine melancholy in the Val and Earl characters than I did in my teens.
Kristine: Sure. Frustration.
Sean: Remember when they find the old guy dead up on the telephone pole and Earl asks Val, “Do you suppose he hated Perfection more than us? Do you reckon he wanted to kill himself?” Like, that is a possibility. Their life is lonely. There’s a lot of nothingness in the West.
Kristine: Exactly! And the irony of that name. That town sucks.
Sean: I know.
Kristine: Sean, they even turned down free beer in order to leave. Free beer. Grown men in their 30s/40s. There are 10 million dudes like that in Tucson, btw.
Sean: Haha! I know, ridiculous. When Val says to Earl, “Now there is nothing, and I mean nothing, between us and Bixby but nothing,” I was like, this is a metaphor for the Western experience/lifestyle to the rugged, working class types that populate the landscape. Pioneers, basically. Contrast that against the yuppie doctor couple who get killed at the site where they’re building their retirement manor and the wife is like, “Just keep looking at that beautiful sky. That’s the sky that’s going to be over our roof every night when we’re done.” A different take on the ‘nothingness’ and expanse of the West.
Sean: Is the American West an inherently sad place?
Kristine: I vote yes, because it is full of promise, and promise is almost always false and breaks your heart. You are reminding me of another issue with the film. Umm, Walter, the super problematic this-might-as-well be Deadwood money-grubbing no-backstory Asian shopkeep character?
Sean: Hahaha! Earls calls him “a man with a plan,” but also “slick as snot.” That actor is a cute little dumpling and cracks me up. Walter made me laugh the loudest when he randomly goes “Earl, here’s some Swiss cheese and some bullets!”
Kristine: Yes. Melvin, the ugly preteen boy was a nightmare and I hated him.
Sean: He was so nothing and so dumb.
Kristine: He was ugly and stupid. And I am pretty sure he was eating gummy worms in the shop scene when they discuss the graboids.
Sean: So, I think I agree with you that the West is inherently sad, especially because all that expanse feels like possibility one day, endlessness the next. I also think the movie agrees, and is making fun of the conventions of the Western, even as it invokes some of the West’s romanticism (like that ridiculous slow-motion shot of Val & Earl on horseback riding across the plains with the Sierra Nevadas in the background). Did you pick up on all the 1970s country music in the movie? I thought that was another way the movie plays around with the conventions of the Western/our ideas of the West.
Sean: Tanya Tucker’s “It’s a Cowboy Lovin’ Night” is the song playing on the radio as the doctor’s wife is killed, which I thought was an instance where the filmmakers are making fun of people who head west because they’ve got some “romantic” notions about cowboys and the open range. But then they’re completely unprepared for the reality, which in this case is that the Wild West is haunted by penismonsters….
Kristine: Hee hee!
Sean: Bobby Bare’s “Drop Kick Me Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life)” is playing on the car radio when Val & Earl find the buried car. Country music is craycray.
Sean: But that Bobby Bare song is all about a kind of fatalism that’s mixed with ambition. We’re not in control, we’re just props in a cosmic stageplay. Jesus pulls the strings. We might just find ourselves sailing heavenward. I think another way Tremors is slyly subversive is how that song (espousing that sentiment) only turns up in the movie buried in the dirt, eerily coming out of the ground. The car – a modern symbol of the trip Westward, the road movie and the open highways – gets turned into a steel coffin, this uncanny object buried vertically, impossibly, like a sunken monolith.
Kristine: Right. But Earl and Val make most of their major decisions by playing Rock Paper Scissors. I mean, isn’t that the same thing as “dropkick me, Jesus”?
Sean: Ha! I’d forgotten that. Yes, it is the same. But significantly, when they have to decide who runs for the Big Cat tractor, Val undermines the results of Rock Paper Scissors and runs for it himself. He chooses free will over cosmic randomness or “divine” intervention.
Kristine: True. This is where the movie also takes a turn towards the saccharine. Because if its burying that religious fatalism in the dirt, it’s replacing it with this very afterschool-special-feeling “can-do” spirit. Like, you can do anything you put your mind to, against impossible odds! Which accounts for all of the ridiculous cheering and whooping and hollering throughout the movie.
Sean: The characters, just by inhabiting the landscape, embody a pioneer, ‘we can do anything’ spirit. Which is classic Western.
Kristine: I do love their entrepreneurship, though. How they want to name and monetize the creatures. That felt like a good modern twist on the giant monster movies of yore. I also kept thinking about Tremors in comparison with The Host. This movie is so much slighter (though it is much more fun and watchable) because the “monster” in Tremors is so utterly lacking pathos. It’s just a menace that must be destroyed.
Sean: Yes, contrasting this against The Host is a really smart – and they’re both, of course, descendants of Jaws. Also, the basic graboid design of “mouth opens and inside are other mouths” is straight out of Alien. But The Host is also pure melodrama, whereas Tremors plays like a caper movie. It’s like Ocean’s 11 by way of Jaws. By way of Brokeback Mountain.
Kristine: Yes! So, that movie Arachnophobia came out the same year as Tremors. I (obviously) haven’t seen it, but I am wondering if it is similar and if there was something going on there – a mini-resurgence of giant monsters in movies?
Sean: Oh right. Yeah, Tremors is a certainly a love letter to the monster movies of the 1950s.
Sean: Arachnophobia is just lots of regular spiders, not giant ones, but it does have that 1950s monster movie vibe, for sure.
Kristine: This is far-fucking-fetched, but I am wondering if Tremors’ “menace in the desert” can be linked to the Gulf War in some way. “Don’t understand it, just kill it!”
Sean: Oh, right. That’s good. What year is Desert Storm?
Sean: So this would have been made just before that and released in 1990. Interesting parallels.
Kristine: Obvs there was stuff going on in the region fore and aft.
Sean: Right, the American West as a metaphor for the “alien environment.”
Kristine: Plus, Val and Earl reminded me of Desert Storm soldiers – living together, pics of unobtainable women…
Sean: I actually find that really compelling, I mean, that’s the thing about depicting this kind of male camaraderie. It’s hard to know when to read it as actively rejecting “normal” hetero-maleness and when not to. The thing that is queer (to me) about Val and Earl is that they’ve made a life and a home together and this is like, their lifestyle of choice. They cook each other breakfast and make every decision together. They’re total husbands.
Kristine: I mean, they worship maleness (at least, Earl does and by the end so does Val). Rhonda is embraced not for the bringing a new female energy to the table, but for being mannish and a tomboy and having “balls.”
Sean: Yes, totally. Though I really liked that Rhonda is served up as an antidote to the classic 1950s bombshell blonde. In most 1950s monster movies, they’d just throw a pair of eyeglasses on a lingerie model or a stewardess and call her a “lady scientist.” Rhonda is like, ingenious and physical and strong, which is good. She certainly qualifies as a female RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority], much like Ángela in Thesis. Though, the movie still manages to make getting her out of her pants into an action movie plot point (sexistboyscreenplaywriters)… But then she is wearing gigantic cotton grannypanties (wickedbuthilariousgaymalecostumedesigner).
Kristine: I’m so awful because I wish that Rhonda had rocked some haute couture lady scientist glam. Those pleated pants and grandma undies? Ugh and ugh.
Sean: Hahaha! But the fact that she has to get out of her pants to escape the monster underlines the fact that the graboids are phallic, that the threat they pose does have an erotic undercurrent.
Sean: Still, it’s really dumb.
Sean: Do you hate tomboys?
Kristine: No. I will admit I prefer a stylish gal with lots of pluck over a “tomboy.” I know this will be met with incredulity on your part, but… I happen to be considered a rough and tough, isn’t-afraid-to-get-her-hands-dirty gal by both my boyfriend and my co-workers.
Kristine: Shut up!
Kristine: It’s true!
Kristine: I am a “heavy lifter” at work. I do all the stuff the other ladies won’t!
Kristine: And I know how to drive the huge standard-shift truck and operate a dock leveler, etc. And a palette jack, a fork lift…
Sean: I am like, dying. If only they knew what I know! I am putting this to the test when I see you in December. I will set aside some rugged chores for you to help with.
Kristine: Oh Christ. I am imaging you having me throw tires and crawl under barbed wire to “prove” this to you. I knew this would kill you! I am RUFF and TUFF. Deal with it!
Kristine: Stop laughing.
Sean: I’m sorry, but I don’t think I ever will…
The Girl’s Rating: Worth watching for the campy dramz AND Queerer than you’d think AND This film IS America
The Freak’s Rating: Pop perfection AND Queerer than anyone can think AND This movie shaped my brain for all time