Out in the Nevada desert, general handymen Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) are greeting the day by arguing over who makes their breakfast; they do "scissors, paper, stone" and Val loses. Val is forever grumbling about making a better life for himself, and as they put up a barbed wire fence he decides to do something about it once and for all. But first he's keen to meet the latest geology student who is out performing tests in the area - Val has a list of things he likes in a woman that she must live up to (blonde, green eyes, and so on) and is disappointed when they draw up in their truck to see that Rhonda the student (Finn Carter) looks nothing like his ideal. She asks them if they have noticed anything strange locally that might explain her weird seismic readings, but they can't help and drive on. However, whatever is making those tremors is certainly there... underground... and hungry...
You would have thought the "Jaws on land" genre would have been all sewn up by the likes of Grizzly in the seventies, but in 1990 this film came along with an ingenious revision of the notion, and with all new monsters into the bargain. Scripted by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock from their story with the director Ron Underwood, Tremors also owes something to those desert-set science fiction movies of the fifties, with their small town folk menaced by a threat, whether it be a giant tarantula or an alien from outer space. In those films, there was always a scientist around to offer explanations as to what exactly was going on, yet here the creatures have no back story, they just appear one day and nobody knows what to do about them.
Except get out of their way, that is. Once they have made up their mind to leave, Val and Earl pack up their worldly belongings and head off down the highway out of the wide desert valley, but they notice a figure stuck halfway up an electricity pylon. They recognise him as the local drunk, and Val goes up to get him, but finds to his dismay that the man is dead. The doctor is called, and informs them that he didn't die of a heart attack, but of thirst, as if he was too scared to climb down. Val and Earl start to get panicky, and warn those the encounter that there's a killer on the loose when they find what seems to be the severed head of a sheepfarmer, but they don't know the half of it. Eventually they end up back at the tiny settlement of Perfection, where they make a discovery - a large worm of sorts wrapped around the axle of their truck.
What makes Tremors stand out from other monster movies of its time is the sense of community and personality of the characters: almost every one has been given their own traits to make them believable. Bacon and Ward never have you doubting for a second that they are old friends, and each relationship rings true, after all, in this underpopulated location everyone knows everyone else. And there's genuine tension that is carefully built up, mainly due to the way that the monsters (who never get a proper name) are hidden from sight until the moment they really have to be revealed, and when they emerge from the ground they don't disappoint. Having its threat winding their way underground through the sand also helps with the suspense, only popping up to yank some hapless victim down. The monsters are a deadly puzzle to be solved, and along the way Val and Earl and their friends prove themselves capable of outthinking them, despite the creatures' animal cunning. Tremors may be undemanding, but none the worse for that. Music by Ernest Troost.