Michael Gross

Tremors 3: Back to Perfection (2001, Brent Maddock)

The first Tremors sequel probably used up all the goodwill the first movie created… and the presence of Fred Ward helped quite a bite. Ward was a lead in the first film–not to mention being a highly recognizable character actor. The third movie opens poorly, with Michael Gross doing something silly under the opening titles, and barely recovers enough to be watchable. I can’t bring myself to call it a film and movie gets annoying after a while, so I guess I’ll just say there are a number of major problems with the production.

Even though it’s from the same producers–one of the original writers even directs–the guy performing scripting duty is severely lacking. He can’t make the jokes work, even with Gross giving some decent deliveries throughout. And besides the dumb things about the script (the flying monsters, the guy making zen observations), there’s also the constant references to the earlier movies. It gets to the point a regular person couldn’t sit down and understand what’s going on, even after expository dialogue tries its best. There were references in the film I had to think about–and I just watched the original a few weeks ago.

The direction’s another defect. Maddock’s obviously composing for full frame television–the whole production was just a backdoor pilot for the Sci-Fi Channel–and the pseudo-widescreen presentation gets annoying all the time. He’s also just not a good director. He can’t do the humor (which is odd, given his screenwriting career). The script doesn’t help things, but Maddock’s responsible for a lot of the one liners falling flat.

The acting is all mediocre, sometimes better. Shawn Christian isn’t much of a sidekick, but Gross isn’t much of a lead, so it doesn’t matter. Susan Chuang’s probably more likable than she should be, given how dumb her character is written. The best performances come from the other first movie returnees–Charlotte Stewart and Tony Genaro. Ariana Richards has some terrible writing, but if she were in it more, the movie would probably be a lot better.

Another problem is how bad the effects get. The monsters are almost all cheap CG and, if they aren’t, there’s a visibly felt sock puppet in use. The music’s awful–I find it incredible Kevin Kiner’s ever worked again.

The movie runs long (there, I called it a movie again) and gets boring in stretches. I don’t think it ever actually gets interesting, but there’s always something moderately compelling about the genre. There’s also the car wreck aspect–watching Michael Gross run around pretending to be chased by cheap CG monsters… it’s mildly amusing.

With a decent rewrite, a little bit more money and an adequate director, it might have been fine. But there’s still the problem of Gross… he’s a TV guy, not a movie guy. Besides the first Tremors, I’ve never seen him in any other theatrical release. His presence as protagonist makes the whole thing immediately suspect.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Brent Maddock; screenplay by John Whelpley, based on a story by S.S. Wilson, Maddock and Nancy Roberts; director of photography, Virgil L. Harper; edited by Drake Silliman; music by Kevin Kiner; production designer, Ken Larson; produced by Roberts; released by Universal Home Entertainment.

Starring Michael Gross (Burt Gummer), Shawn Christian (Desert Jack Sawyer), Susan Chuang (Jodi Chang), Charlotte Stewart (Nancy Sterngood), Ariana Richards (Mindy Sterngood), Tony Genaro (Miguel), Tom Everett (Statler), Barry Livingston (Dr. Andrew Merliss), John Pappas (Agent Charlie Rusk), Robert Jayne (Melvin Plug) and Billy Rieck (Buford).


Tremors II: Aftershocks (1996, S.S. Wilson)

I remember when Tremors II first came out. I believe it was on the heels of a special edition laserdisc of the first film, but it might have been at the same time. Universal made a lot of direct-to-video sequels in the 1990s, but Tremors II was a little different. First, it was an actual sequel–writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock return from the first film, as do Fred Ward and Michael Gross. Second, it was at least an attempt at a real movie–instead of shooting Tremors II for television, it was shot for a theatrical aspect ratio (I guess that special edition laserdisc sold well, because the only widescreen advocates in 1996 were laserdisc buyers). Unfortunately, it still looks like it was shot for television and it still feels like a hackneyed direct-to-video sequel.

Not all of it is bad. Wilson and Maddock make their characters appealing–the stuff with Fred Ward and Helen Shaver is fantastic–and there’s still a lot of humor… but it’s not a real movie. No one’s really afraid of the monsters. Shaver loses a friend–watches the sequel’s new monsters eat off a leg–and is flirting with Ward twenty minutes later. There are some funny lines and funny details, but it’s NutraSweet overall. Ward stumbles a lot as some of his dialogue is terrible and, as his new sidekick, Christopher Gartin manages to be both agreeable and annoying. Gartin’s performance is agreeable, his character’s writing is annoying. But the big problem is that lack of fear. It’s a monster comedy, not a monster movie with comedy.

As for Michael Gross… he’s pretty bad for most of the movie. He’s got a few moments here and there, but his performance is an exaggerated repeat. He does what he did before, just amps it up a little bit; makes it cheesy.

Given the effects–done on the cheap–are excellent, the main problem falls on Wilson, who directed this one. He’s got no idea how to do establishing shots during scenes. The whole movie feels cheap because of the lack of these shots (regardless of its actual, frugal budget). He directs comedy scenes like “Mr. Ed” used to do. The inexperience is startling. With everything else trying (and maybe not succeeding) at making Tremors II more than a video cash-in, the director (slash co-writer) isn’t cutting it. He’s making it feel cheap. Worst is when he tries to mimic the Underwood crane style from the first film.

Tremors II is better than it should be–that Ward and Shaver romance standing out–but it’s a surprise, for the first film anyway. This one shows off how important having a good director can be.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by S.S. Wilson; written by Brent Maddock and Wilson, based on characters created by Maddock, Wilson and Ron Underwood; director of photography, Virgil L. Harper; edited by Bob Ducsay; music by Jay Ferguson; production designer, Ivo Cristante; produced by Christopher DeFaria and Nancy Roberts; released by MCA Home Entertainment.

Starring Fred Ward (Earl Bassett), Christopher Gartin (Grady Hoover), Helen Shaver (Kate Reilly), Michael Gross (Burt Gummer), Marcelo Tubert (Señor Ortega) and Marco Hernandez (Julio).


Tremors (1990, Ron Underwood)

Tremors is a unique film. Even with the derivative setting–the isolated desert town reminds of 1950s Universal sci-fi pictures–and whole “Jaws with giant worms” aspect, it’s a monster slash thriller slash comedy. It starts a comedy and ends one, with S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock’s script full of comedic dialogue, in addition to all the thriller elements. The attention to character is important, but the entire production is high on itself. From casting Michael Gross, who–at this point in his career–was singularly familiar as the “Family Ties” dad, as a survivalist to the ornate effects (the use of miniatures is incredibly well done), it’s certainly under appreciated (and I make this statement about a film popular enough on video to spawn a television series thirteen years after first release).

Wilson and Maddock’s script is economical–if it weren’t for director Underwood’s use of crane shots and the special effects, one would think Tremors was an independent production. The film runs a little over ninety minutes and I’d guess the monsters are hinted at, then revealed, then encountered in the first twenty. Maybe twenty-three. But in the same amount of time, the script introduces all of the film’s characters and establishes the rather important rapport between Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward. Bacon’s probably the lead (since he’s the one incompetently romancing Finn Carter to humorous effect), but Ward’s just as important. Their back and forth makes Tremors enjoyable.

The characters–not just Gross and Reba McEntire’s survivalists, but also Victor Wong’s store owner and Bobby Jacoby’s incredibly obnoxious teenager (the film never really addresses how Jacoby’s living on his own or where his parents are, which gets a little distracting on repeat viewings)–are all perfect. They’re fun to spend time with (Tremors is one of those Tarantino “hang out” movies).

Underwood keeps his camera moving a lot of the time, creating a frantic tone. The viewer and the characters discover things at the same pace and Underwood facilitates it well. In the quieter, static scenes, Underwood’s comedic touches come out. But he can also get in the grandiose landscape–Tremors occasionally feels like a Western, or at least like it’s supposed to feel a little like a Western. Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski and composer Ernest Troost really help Underwood in making Tremors feel bigger than a lower budgeted, ninety minute monster movie. The film really draws the viewer in and holds him or her for the running time.

Tremors is a modern classic. It occurs to me the “modern classic” might not be based so much on box office gross or artistic import, but on rental returns. Tremors was a video hit. Strangely, DVD hits don’t produce “modern classics,” as Netflix has stamped out the communal video store atmosphere where film discovery could still occur.

But Tremors is a good film and it’s more important for its quality than its footnote in film history (even if it’s got one of the last PG-13 uses of the f-word).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Underwood; screenplay by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, based on a story by Wilson, Maddock and Underwood; director of photography, Alexander Gruszynski; edited by O. Nicholas Brown; music by Ernest Troost; production designer, Ivo Cristante; produced by Maddock and Wilson; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Kevin Bacon (Valentine McKee), Fred Ward (Earl Bassett), Finn Carter (Rhonda LeBeck), Michael Gross (Burt Gummer), Reba McEntire (Heather Gummer), Bobby Jacoby (Melvin Plug), Charlotte Stewart (Nancy Sterngood), Tony Genaro (Miguel), Ariana Richards (Mindy Sterngood), Richard Marcus (Nestor), Victor Wong (Walter Chang), Sunshine Parker (Edgar), Michael Dan Wagner (Old Fred), Conrad Bachmann (Dr. Jim) and Bibi Besch (Megan).


Tremors (1990, Ron Underwood)

When I first rediscovered Tremors, around 1995, it was on laserdisc. In the 1990s, Universal was one of the finest laserdisc companies, probably the finest. They put out a special edition of Tremors and, remembering that I liked it when I saw it on video (everyone saw Tremors on video), I bought it. Probably from the expensive place next to this movie theater… laserdiscs were hard to find in suburbia. At that time, somewhat due to the mad-love for their laserdiscs, but also because Universal still made generally acceptable films back then, I actually believed Tremors was a willful decision–a film to invoke fond memories of Universal’s 1950s sci-fi films. Tonight, I watched Tremors over It Came From Outer Space, also set in the desert….

Tremors, quite nicely, holds up. Perfectly acted, amazingly well-constructed, it’s a shame the team behind it hasn’t gone on to more. They actually went on to more Tremors, during Universal’s 1990s direct-to-video rush… Sequels that are all right. The first film being made for cheap probably didn’t hurt the following films from being cheap either.

I’ve had Robert McKee on the brain all day, reading him for the first time today, all about the deconstruction of a scene. Tremors doesn’t work like that. It has some scenes, sure, lots of them, but it’s mostly action and it’s almost all in one setting. I’m not going to sit around and pick at it–it’s too good–but, for me, thinking about McKee, it’s interesting. I’m reading McKee for fiction writing and McKee writes for screenwriting. So how come he doesn’t work for Tremors? It is–arguably–one of the more lastingly popular films to emerge in the last fifteen years….

Anyway, if you haven’t seen it in awhile, check it out again. I always watch Tremors after dark, though. Don’t know why, it’s just one of those films that you watch after dark.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Underwood; screenplay by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, based on a story by Wilson, Maddock and Underwood; director of photography, Alexander Gruszynski; edited by O. Nicholas Brown; music by Ernest Troost; production designer, Ivo Cristante; produced by Maddock and Wilson; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Kevin Bacon (Valentine McKee), Fred Ward (Earl Bassett), Finn Carter (Rhonda LeBeck), Michael Gross (Burt Gummer), Reba McEntire (Heather Gummer), Bobby Jacoby (Melvin Plug), Charlotte Stewart (Nancy Sterngood), Tony Genaro (Miguel), Ariana Richards (Mindy Sterngood), Richard Marcus (Nestor), Victor Wong (Walter Chang), Sunshine Parker (Edgar), Michael Dan Wagner (Old Fred), Conrad Bachmann (Dr. Jim) and Bibi Besch (Megan).


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