The “Tremors” franchise is an acquired taste. The cult following started with the 1990 original starring Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward. The sequel brought back Ward in 1996, but by then Bacon’s star was already too high for a superfluous sequel, which went the route of Cameron’s “Aliens” — it redefined the villains and multiplied the number by hundreds. In 2001, the third installment could only bring back Michael Gross, who had a co-starring role in the first two. Gross has now become the franchise’s de facto star, and has gone on to star in a “Tremors” TV series currently showing on the Sci-Fi Channel, as well as helming this prequel.
“Tremors 4: The Legend Begins” opens in the same Nevada town we’re used to, only at this point (the year is 1889) the town’s name is not Perfection, but rather Rejection. (Warning: only fans of the franchise will “get” most of this prequel’s humor, since much of it is based on knowledge of the previous three films.) Gross plays Gummer, the ancestor of the same character he’s played in the last three movies. In this 1889 incarnation, Gummer is a genteel from the East with a prissy attitude and an abhorrent personality.
As the movie opens, Rejection’s silver mine, owned in absentia by Gummer, is under attack by worm creatures. After a bunch of miners become worm food, Gummer travels to Rejection to solve the problem himself. Alas, you don’t send a wimp to battle giant worms, and this Gummer is two times the wimp. Luckily for Gummer, there’s spunky hotel owner Christine (Sara Botsford) and resourceful miner Juan (Brent Roam) to lend a hand. But after an initial encounter with the worms end with all of his hired guns eaten, Gummer telegraphs for an expert. He gets Black Hand Kelly, a creepy gunslinger played by the always creepy Billy Drago.
While “Tremors 4” can be enjoyed without having seen the previous installments, one’s enjoyment will be higher with passing knowledge of the series. For those new to the series, the prequel will still be entertaining, but there will be some head-scratching moments because the film doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining the rules. A plus for the prequel is the western setting, which has its own trappings, especially when it comes to firearms. Not that future residents of Perfection/Rejection had it any easier with their modern weaponry, as the worms prove to be smart buggers in any era.
Michael Gross clearly relishes playing a character that is the exact opposite to the Gummer that showed up in the last three installments. Gross manages a lot of humor with the role, and the character’s complete lack of ability with a firearm is a running joke from beginning to finish. Also, there’s the clich’ moment when Gummer changes from dipstick to hero, and you can see it coming a mile away. At any rate, Gross manages to be a pretty decent leading man — surprisingly so, in fact. Perennial creepy B-movie villain Billy Drago doesn’t last too long, but he’s insanely entertaining while he’s there. Watching his tough character interact with Gross’ coward is the film’s main highlight.
As sequels go, “Tremors 4” is probably better than most. It helps that the franchise can backtrack its success to its tongue in cheek humor, which means bad performances and cheesy action doesn’t count against it. Even the clich’d characters, all based on archetypes of course, can’t change the fact that the movie is just too damn likeable to hate. Compared to the last installment, the prequel is not only a welcome change, but also proves to be far superior. Although I have to admit that I must have fallen asleep during part 3 because I remember very little about it.
While setting the prequel in the west is a good idea, it really doesn’t improve all that much on the franchise’s mythos. The ending, while not rendering the previous installments obsolete, does offer up a lame excuse why no one in the original had forehand knowledge of the worms’ existence. Also, you’d think going back to when the worms first surfaced would involve some elaborate Big Reveal when it came to the worms’ origins. Not so. The worms, we discover, hatched from eggs that were unearthed when the silver mine’s water supply washed over the dirt holding them in place. I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it too: That’s it?
“Tremors 4: The Legend Begins” is only good if you know the franchise and like its mesh of black comedy and disgusting worms exploding into big yellow chunks. The prequel uses mostly practical effects, which is a good thing because its limited use of CGI really brings home the fact that this installment is working with a limited budget. For the most part the CGI basically consists of the filmmakers manipulating footage. It’s not very impressive, and it might also explain why nearly half of the worm attacks take place at night and in the dark.
At any rate, this isn’t Oscar material, but it is a decent “Tremors” sequel.
S.S. Wilson (director) / S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, Nancy Roberts, Scott Buck (screenplay)
CAST: Michael Gross …. Hiram Gummer
Sara Botsford …. Christine Lord
Billy Drago …. Black Hand Kelly
Brent Roam …. Juan Pedilla