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Tremors Poster
Tremors (1990)
Directed by Ron Underwood
Written by S. S. Wilson & Brent Maddock
Starring Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire, Victor Wong, Bobby Jacoby, and Ariana Richards
96 minutes, rated PG-13

 

I was bored, and so I watched Tremors.

It was the fall of 1996. Michelle (my first wife) and I were engaged, but not yet married. She was enrolled in college full-time at the University of Illinois and working part-time at The Center For Women In Transition. I was enrolled part-time in the theatre program at Parkland College and working full-time at Comfort Inn.

That’s where I was– at work– on the night I was so bored that I watched Tremors.

At the time, I was working overnights from 11:00 pm until 7:00 am. This was considered “the night audit” shift and it was nothing if it was not boring. As a general rule, this was not a very busy hotel. There was usually only two or three rooms rented out on a given night. We were situated far enough away from the interstate that we didn’t get much business from travelers too tired to drive any longer. On the night in question, we had a few more rooms rented out than average, but most of these guests were in town on business and probably sound asleep by the time my shift started. One of the rooms that evening was rented out to Scott, who was an employee of the hotel. He was scheduled to work at 7:00 am, but had lost power in his home. He had rented a room so that he could make it to work on time without having to sit at home and fester in the dark. This tidbit will be important later.

Night audit shifts were fairly uneventful. Most of the duties assigned to the front desk clerks were null and void on overnight shifts. I rarely even had to answer the phone– most people don’t call a hotel at 3:00 in the morning to make a reservation. I had three main job functions: 1) run the night audit report (which, basically, meant that I had to push a button on the computer and let the internal finance software work its magic for two or three hours) 2) set up the lobby for continental breakfast at 5:45 am and 3) fold laundry. Most of the time, I avoided #3 for as long as I possibly could, folding just enough to make it look that I had done something. I’d probably wash and fold two loads of sheets or towels while the audit ran, but the rest of the time I spent doing homework or reading. I had an affinity for long novels back then, and I read quite a few of them during the long stretches of uninterrupted time. I read Infinite JestThe Recognitions, and Don Quixote while working overnight.

On the night my story takes place, I had volunteered to work some overtime. A shift that normally starts at 11:00 pm started on this night at 7:00 pm. I had agreed to start early so that my co-worker on the previous shift could leave early for an observation in her astronomy class.  It had already been a long night before I even got through the first extra four hours. For starters, I had finished reading Dune. I had not, however, brought another novel to begin when the current one was complete, so I was fairly aimless. I did some organizing behind the counter to pass the time. I wrote a few pages in the notebook that I almost always had with me back then. I did some paper shredding. And I watched Tremors.

There was a television hanging on the wall in the lobby and it was programmed to show all of the channels that one might be able to access were they to rent a room. The television was almost always on, but there were strict rules about what could be broadcast. It usually aired news or old sit-com reruns. Maybe a sporting event of some sort. Safe, family fare. Nothing too untoward. Nothing with foul language or nudity. Nothing that more sensitive patrons might take offense to should they happen to come to the front desk for extra towels or to request a wake-up call. HBO was definitely verboten.

Overnight was really the only shift that you could be daring enough to watch HBO. Ordinarily, I would not have even bothered, but it was almost 11:30, laundry had not come out of the dryer yet, and I still had an hour and half before I could start the audit. There had been no guests in the lobby for more than an hour– except for Scott, and I highly doubted that he was going to narc on me. I figured that I was safe to watch the lobby’s forbidden channel.

Like I said, Tremors was on. It was a movie that I had seen before. It was a movie that I enjoyed. It wasn’t a movie that I had a particular fondness for, but it was mildly entertaining at least and would serve its purpose of passing the time.

You’ve seen this movie, right? It’s a 1990 horror comedy about gigantic sandworms that terrorize the denizens of a sparsely-populated town in Nevada named Perfection. Perfection is one thing this movie is not. I mean, it’s perfectly serviceable as a comedy, but this is not high-class horror. It’s B-level at best. The kills are cartoonish, the special effects aren’t spectacular, and the script doesn’t even try to develop any of the characters beyond mere stereotypes. But whatever . . . Tremors knows what corner of the filmgoing market it’s playing to, and it plays it without apology.

 

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The movie stars Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as Valentine and Earl, respectively. They’re the billed stars, but they play second fiddle to Michael Gross and Reba McEntire (in her film acting debut), who completely steal the show as Burt and Heather Gummer, a survivalist couple who are armed to the teeth and more than capable of defending their homestead from gigantic alien sandworms. Also in the mix is a visiting seismologist (played by Finn Carter), who serves as a potential (and tacked-on) romantic interest for Kevin Bacon, and an Asian shopkeeper (played by Victor Wong), who sees tourist potential in the newly-arrived creatures. Robert Jayne (billed at this time as Bobby Jacoby) plays Melvin Plug, a teenager so annoying that you hope the sandworms will eat him.

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The action scenes are ridiculous, but intense. Kevin Bacon, in particular, has a third-act chase sequence that involves luring one of the worms (referred to in the film as “graboids”) onto a cliff edge and then using explosives to frighten the worm into a plummet to his death. There are lots of explosions, several thousand rounds of gunfire, and an almost-relentless need to up the ante as far as thrills are concerned. It’s kinda hard to take it all in.

No, this is not a great movie, but neither is it terrible. There’s nothing specific to really hate about it, but if this is your favorite film, then you probably need to go out more often and see more films. It’s, as I said, perfectly serviceable. At the very least, it is the single best movie to open with a shot of Kevin Bacon peeing off a cliff (I did NOT  just make that part up), which actually says something because this is not the only movie that we see Kevin Bacon urinate in.

It’s a good time-waster, and it served that purpose for me splendidly on the night that I watched it illegally in the lobby at work. I watched it. I was amused by it. I joked with Scott about it a little bit when he came wandering through. It killed time. Just enough time to keep me occupied before I had to do some actual, you know, work at work.

Around 1:00 am, I punched the button that started the night audit and then I went into the laundry room behind the front desk to fold dried sheets and start a load of towels. There was a radio back there (usually turned to 107.1 The Planet whenever I was working) and a bathroom for employee use. We were allowed to smoke back there, and a lot of us did, keeping an eye on the TV monitor that connected to a closed-circuit camera that covered the front desk area. I was actually being semi-productive, was folding a load of towels and starting a second load of sheets in the washing machine, when I noticed on the monitor that someone was standing at the front desk.

I thought nothing of it.

That is, until I came out from the back room and realized that the vestibule door– a door that was supposed to be locked after dark and could only  be opened if the front-desk clerk buzzed you in– was standing wide open. A rug in the vestibule was not laying flat and the door had gotten caught on it. It had not closed. This man at the counter, a man that I did not recognize as one of my guests this evening, had just walked in around 2:00 am off the street. Still no cause for alarm, though. See what this man wants, right?

The man was a small African-American man. He was stocky and muscular, but short. Unshaven and stubbly. He was also wearing sunglasses, which did strike me as odd at this hour of the morning, but not enough to be concerned. More concerning was the other thing I noticed when I emerged from the laundry room: I had left the keys to the cash till in the lock of the drawer. In the moment, this was only a concern because I could be fired for it. In the moment, my concern was about me and not about this strange man at the front desk.

I asked him if I could help him. He said that he was looking for directions to the Motel 6. Ah, I can help him with that. Attached to the front desk counter, we had a map of the city and I used it to show him the location of the requested location. It was pretty close, actually. Just up the highway, one mile to the next exit north. He thanked me and then asked if he could have change for a few dollars to make a phone call. He wanted to call his friend and let her know that he was on his way.

I offered to let him use the front desk phone, but he declined my offer. He stated that the call was long distance and that he didn’t think he would be allowed to make one from the front desk. He stated that he was fine to use the payphone but he needed change. In retrospect, it should have struck me odd that he was making a long-distance call to call his friend who was one mile away, but it did not. So I took the crumpled dollar bills he was offering, opened up the cash drawer, and traded them for twelve quarters. I closed the cash drawer, making sure this time to remove the key and place it in my front pocket.

The man took his change and thanked me as he headed into the vestibule to use the payphone. I stood behind the desk waiting for him to finish. I didn’t want to be rude and lock him in the vestibule while he was standing there looking at me, but I did want to make damn sure that the rug got flattened and the door got closed properly when he was finished . . . But it was looking like it might be a while before he planned to finish.

He fussed with the payphone for a little while. He muttered cursewords under his breath. It appeared from my vantage point that he was putting change into the payphone and then immediately pressing the coin return lever. I could not be certain. Whatever it was he was doing, he did it multiple times.

He came back into the lobby. He asked me if he could have change for another dollar because the call was going to cost more than he initially thought. I was beginning to get suspicious, but agreed to the exchange. Again, I popped the key out of the drawer when I was finished and placed it in my pocket.

He took the additional quarters, thanked me again, and then headed back out to the payphone. Same business: it appeared that he was putting in coins, hitting the coin return, recycling the coins back into the phone, hitting the coin return again, popping the same coins back in. All the while, he is cursing quietly at the phone, like the phone is broken and the issue isn’t him repeatedly pushing the coin return lever. I was definitely getting suspicious. But I also definitely wanted that door closed, so I pretended to be busy with some filing or some such nonsense at the front desk.

The guy comes back in a third time. He asks if he could get change for a quarter. He says that the phone isn’t registering this particular quarter as a quarter. It keeps spitting the quarter out and will not let him make his call. “Two dimes and a nickel,” he said. “Five nickels. I don’t care.”

By this point, I knew this: I was not opening that drawer again. I reached in my pocket and pulled out a handful of loose change. I had three nickels and a dime as well as a shiny quarter. I offered to trade. He accepted the trade. Transaction complete. He thanked me again and headed back out toward the vestibule. I decided, however, that I was going to follow him and close the door behind him. In the split second that it took me to turn my back away from the front counter, this tiny little man vaulted the counter and tackled me to the floor.

I did what any sane person would do and yelled “Shit!” really loudly.

That’s when he put the pistol to my head and said that I had shouted just a little too loudly for his taste.

“Just keep quiet. Keep cool,” he said. “And I won’t have to use this.” To punctuate that statement, he pushed his pistol pretty hard into my temple. I closed my eyes so that I wouldn’t have to see my own blood splatter onto the door to the lobby room.

Image result for tremors movie broke into the wrong god damn rec roomI was lying on the floor on my stomach. He was straddling my back. I hear the sound of tape as it is being taken off of the roll. I open my eyes slightly and see his gun. Lying on the floor next to my head. He has left his gun unattended so that he can tape my hands! I did seriously contemplate playing hero for a second. Grabbing the gun and protecting myself. I heard myself shouting Michael Gross’ iconic line in Tremors when the graboid busts through the wall of his arsenal: Broke into the wrong goddamn rec room, didn’t you, you bastard?! The thought of actually doing this made me laugh. Laugh out loud.

So, this guy is back here using duct tape to tape my hands together, and he says, “What’s so funny?”

I said, “Tremors.”

He says, “What?”

And I say, “Never mind.” At this point, I open my eyes again and see his hand picking his gun up off the floor. Missed my chance, I guess.

I hear the clunk of his gun– it was not a very big gun, but heavy-looking– as he sets it down on the counter. I hear more tape ripping. Scritch scritch scriiiitch. He stretches a long piece over my eyes. But he fumbles with it because I wear glasses and this guy is clearly not too bright. I’ve already seen what you look like! Just take what you want and get out of here!

I hear him trying to open the cash drawer. Gingerly at first, but then increasingly more violent as he realizes it is locked. He curses again under his breath, and then asks, “How do I open the cash drawer without reaching into your pocket?”

I tell him, very honestly, that he can’t.

He then asks, “Is it possible to take the cash drawer with me?”

I said, “Do you have a screwdriver?”

Frustrated and, perhaps, perturbed at my smart mouth, he kicked me. I hope he wasn’t aiming for my head because, if he was, he missed. His boot-clad foot clips me in the left shoulder. It didn’t hurt, but it scared me.

So, now I’m being manhandled as this guy rolls me over onto my back so that he has easier access to the pockets of my pants. Of course, he goes into the left pocket first, which is the wrong one. I’m pretty much holding my breath at this point. I’m thinking to myself that if this guy takes much longer, he’s bound to get caught and then me and whomever happens to be traipsing by is surely going to die after bleeding out from gunshot wounds. He moves on to my right pocket, but can’t find them there either . . . because they fell out of my pocket when he tackled me to the floor. I can’t see where they are with tape “on my eyes”, but they’ve apparently been lying on the floor for this entire time.

Finally, he gets the cash drawer open. He cusses again. “Fuck!” he says. Possibly because the cash drawer . . . doesn’t have any money in it. I’ve already run the audit, remember? Today’s deposit has already been separated, sealed, and dropped into the safe. “How much is here?” he asks.

“One hundred dollars,” I tell him.

“Where’s the rest of it?”

“In the safe.”

“Can you open it?” he asks.

“No.”

“Who can?”

“The manager,” I tell him.

“Where is he?”

“At home. Probably sleeping.”

“Probably can’t call him, can we?” he says, and then he laughs. He laughs. Like this is the funniest thing in the world.

The next thing I hear is the sound of him jumping back over the counter. I hear what sounds like the front door swinging closed. I hear what sounds like a car peeling out of the parking lot. I don’t think that I actually heard any of those things that I am right now telling you that I think I heard because as soon as I heard them, I busted the tape and jumped to my feet. I ran to the opposite end of the front counter to grab the phone as I tore the tape off of my face. I yanked the cordless phone out of its charging cradle, hovered my finger over the numeral 9, and was just about to push the button to get the old ball rolling . . . when I realized that this asshole was still standing in the vestibule. He hadn’t left yet.

In a matter of seconds, he was hoisting himself over the counter again. He came at me feet first, nailing me right in the hip as I tried to dodge him. I went down, hitting the floor hard. I saw him standing over me, appearing at that second to be larger than life. He tried to punch me in the face, but I moved my head and he only nicked my ear. He kicked me again in the side.

It was at this point that I thought for certain that these were going to be my last living seconds on Earth because he grabbed me by the collar of my shirt and dragged me into the laundry room. I began to cry. Like, shed actual tears. I began yelling for help, which made him slap me. Once he had me in the laundry room, he took out the roll of tape again. Scritch scritch scriiiitch. It was deafening. I could hear it loud and clear over “Macarena” which was blaring from the radio. Incidentally, this (aside from it just being a terrible song) is why I cannot be within earshot of that song without feeling a bit like I might release my bladder.

He bound me much better this time. One long strip wrapped around my knees five or six times and another strip wrapped around my chest and elbows ten or twelve. My hands were free, but the tape was constricting movement of my arms. He left me in the employee bathroom, basically propped up against the wall like a mummy prop in a movie about archaeology digs. I stayed in the bathroom like that for almost a half hour before I was discovered by Scott. He had called down to the front desk to get a wake-up call programmed and became concerned when I did not answer the phone. Doubly concerned, when he saw the condition that the front desk was left in from the robber jumping the counter three or four times. I told you that him staying in the hotel would be important later.

The first thing we did was call the police. Then, we called my boss. My boss offered to finish out my shift for me so that I could go home, but the police weren’t about to let me leave until they had every i dotted on their paperwork. This included riding me in the back of a cop car up the highway one exit north to the Motel 6 to do a visual determination on whether or not a man they had arrested with a car full of stolen electronics was the culprit who had robbed me, assaulted me, and tied me up. It wasn’t him, but I remember being terrified that the man in handcuffs peeking in through the cop car window was going to recognize me one day in public and exact bloody revenge, believing that I was the one who identified him for a crime that had nothing to do with the crime that I was there to potentially identify him for. I was actually cowering in the floorboard of the police car’s backseat so that the television thief couldn’t see my face. I was crying as well. Utterly terrified for months. Of everything. Especially the night audit shift, which I never agreed to work again.

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I remember very vividly having a conversation with Scott in the lobby of Comfort Inn when he saw that I was watching this movie. He told me that he had been to the very site where this movie was filmed, that they had used the Alabama Hills mountain range in Lone Pine, California as the location for the fictional town of Perfection, Nevada. I recognized that location because I knew of it as a setting used for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. He laughed at me that I knew enough about Star Trek V to know where it was filmed. I, of course, defended my love for Star Trek and said that I was surprised, knowing what I knew of him, that he was not a fan. He informed me that he was a fan, and then delivered a pretty grand speech about how he believes that there has never been a greater television show in the history of television than the original Star Trek. He confided that he doesn’t think that there has ever been a better movie than Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. “I pretty much bleed Star Trek, Aaron,” he said, “and I’m not afraid to admit that Star Trek V is a terrible, terrible movie.” My response was to point at the television– we were right at the part where the doctor’s station wagon is getting sucked into the ground– and say, “It’s better than this.” Scott pointed to the television and said, “In comparison to Star Trek V, Tremors is Casablanca.”

Tremors is not Casablanca. Tremors isn’t even the first two minutes of Casablanca with the sound turned off. It’s not a legendary cinematic masterpiece in any way, shape, or form.

But it is better than Star Trek V. The only thing that Star Trek V has on Tremors is that I can watch it without remembering the night that I almost died.

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