With the recent passing of Fred Ward, movie fans mourn the loss of a talented actor. desde The Right Stuff to Silkwood, Ward proved himself to be a talented, if not underrated, presence. When we think of Ward though, one movie comes to mind above the rest: Tremors.
when Tremors was released into theaters in 1990, it was a colossal failure. Debuting at number five on opening weekend, it never gained any traction. It found a second life, however, on home video, becoming a cult hit that would lead to a seven-film franchise and a short-lived TV series.
Part of this success is due to the film’s clever premise. A story about giant worms under the earth who can sense the vibrations of their human prey was familiar enough in its monster movie roots, but it had never been done in quite this way. With its interactive atmosphere, hearing back to zombie films, it leaves the viewer asking how would you escape and how could you fight back.
While the film lives up to that potential with its fast-paced story and astounding practical effects, it’s the characters that make the film memorable. film review Roger Ebert summed it up best, when in his review for the film, he said, “Tremors is smart enough to realize that the characters are the driving force of a great story, not the monsters or the violence.”
Tremors is an impeccable ensemble film. While kevin bacon may have been one of the two main stars, this was not a vehicle used to promote his success. Sure, footloose had changed the movie landscape, but that was half a decade earlier, and Bacon had yet to follow it up with anything nearly as successful.
It’s every member of the cast that makes Tremors work, from the nerdy female seismologist who is braver than everyone else (and who Bacon’s character pins for), to the badass husband and wife survivalists played by Michael Gross and Reba McEntire. It’s Ward and Bacon’s Earl and Val, as handymen in a sparsely populated Nevada town named Perfection, that the film revolves around. On paper, the two don’t work together. Ward’s Earl Bassett is 15 years older than his counterpart, and a bit of a grump. Bacon’s Valentine “Val” McKee is the younger 20-something, energetic and carefree.
When we first meet them, it’s morning in the desert and Earl is fast asleep in the back of their pickup truck. To wake him, Val jumps on the truck and yells, “Stampede!” until Earl, fearing for his life from him, jumps up and falls out of the truck. That’s followed up, though, with Val offering Earl a cigarette. They move to then arguing over whose turn it is to make breakfast, but when Val loses a game of Rock Paper Scissors, he accepts his fate with only minimal complaining about Earl’s age. When getting frustrated over hanging a barbed wire fence, Earl asks, “Is this a job for intelligent men?” Val is quick with the harsh comeback of, “Show me one. I’ll ask him.” Ouch. Still, they move straight from that to going right into talking about getting different jobs and the possible loss of their freedom. When Earl gets on Val about never planning ahead with their jobs, Val keeps his mouth shut, knowing that the old man is right.
That’s how it is with these two. They argue over everything, but it’s more repartee among friends than genuine fighting. Not even five minutes in, and we’ve already had an effective introduction to our heroes. They’re opposite in so many ways, but they also come together. They depend on each other. And we can already see how their traits (Earl’s ability to plan ahead and Val’s desire to live in the moment) is going to help them later on.
That is tested when the graboids (the name given to the deadly giant worms) appear. It’s then that these two men, who are sick of their jobs and low on money, must focus to alert the town to what’s going on. After finding a few dead bodies, and fearing that a serial killer is on the loose, Earl and Val race to Perfection without hesitation. More than anything, they are brave and care about their neighbors. When the serial killer theory turns out to be monstrous, killer earthworms, the duo take to horses, racing to get help, planning out what to do along the way. Even the unimaginable can’t scare them off. They are fighters.
When they accidentally manage to kill one of the graboids, they begin to argue again as they decide what to do next. “Why don’t we just make him run for it, we outran him yesterday?” Val offers, to which Earl counters, “Run for it! Running’s not a plan, running is what you do when a plan fails.” As they escalate, Earl stating that they need to think of a plan, and Val hitting back with, “I have one. You start thinking,” we can only laugh. Even in a moment of impending doom where their lives are in serious jeopardy, the two still argue.
Their best moments come in the second half of the film, as the town begins to fight back. Earl and Vale pole vault onto rocks. Val runs to save a little girl on a pogo stick as a graboid heads straight for her, putting his life on the line without a second thought, before racing to save the seismologist right after.
In the film’s climax, what we learned in those first five minutes about Earl and Val shines through. The town’s remaining survivors are trapped on a large rock, surrounded by the last two graboids. It’s then that Earl, the smarter one, the more patient one who plans ahead, gets the bright idea to put a rope around a homemade explosive and throw it out across the dirt, pulling it to trick one of the graboids to take it. It works. The graboid takes it and blows itself up. Only one graboid remains.
The last graboid isn’t so gullible. It, too, takes the lasso like a hooked fish, but then spits it back out. It lands on the rock, sending the townspeople scurrying for their lives. Earl and Val end up several yards from the rock, completely exposed. With one bomb left, the roles are reversed. Earl now doesn’t know what to do, but the carefree Val suddenly does. He’s calm. He’s planning ahead. Val has learned from Earl. He runs full speed from the rock, and Earl runs right with him instead of toward safety, even though he has no idea what Val is up to.
Val leads the graboid to the edge of a cliff, where it bursts through, and falls to its gory, guts-splattering death. Everyone is saved. Earl and Val came together, as they have for so long, to protect their friends and each other. In the end they also learn from one another. Val showed that with his ability to plan ahead and outsmart the final graboid. Earl shows what he’s learned from his friend in the film’s final moments. The carefree Val it turns out is more scared of women than giant worms, as he’s afraid to tell the seismologist he’s been smitten with how he feels, letting her walk away from her. Without uttering a word, Earl slams the truck hood down and gives Val a long stare. Go get her, he says it. He’s not planning ahead, thinking about the next job. He’s living in the moment. Earl remembers what it’s like to be young and carefree and wants only the best for his friend. Val runs after her and gets the girl.
While Fred Ward would return for Tremors 2Kevin Bacon did not (he was off making Apollo 13 instead). Another young, wisecracking character was brought in to try to recapture the Earl and Val magic, but it didn’t work. What Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon accomplished couldn’t be replaced. They transformed what could have been a simple paint by number monster movie into something more.
Their relationship makes a potentially dark horror film a fun one, where friends can bicker and groan, but still be there and learn from one another while making us laugh. They are the perfect action movie buddy duo. Their characters could have been found in any of the Lethal Weapon type buddy copy movie clones that were so popular at that time. Instead, we get them in the middle of nowhere, hunting human-eating worms. Who can ever forget that?
Fred Ward, ‘Tremors’ Star, Dies at 79
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