Thoughts and Trivialities: Tremors

So all this week I’ve gone over what I own of the Tremors franchise.  I did it in honor of Halloween, but as it turns out the fifth installment, Bloodlines, was released just this month on the 6th.  Whats more, 2015 is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first movie.  While I’m probably the last person left celebrating it (better late than never), I am pretty bummed that I missed out on the opportunity to see Tremors on the big screen back in March.  To make matters worse, Michael Gross made an appearance at the event AND I WASN’T THERE!  I mean, my parents even met the man before I was born, yet I ended up being the real fan in the family.

Tremors is really a story about Burt Gummer.  Even the prequel sets up the character.  As you should know by now, Burt is played by Michael Gross who has been present in every incarnation of the series.  He’s even listed as producer in the fourth film.  Unfortunately, Gross is reaching 70.  While that hasn’t halted his acting career, it does make me wonder if there will ever be a Tremors 6.  I canNOT imagine the series without him, but due to the great spans of time between entries the chance of the man dying before the next one happens is a sobering reality.  If that’s the case, my sincerest hope is that Universal lays the series to rest.  The overdone habit of rebooting franchises hasn’t worked out well in my eyes and I hate the thought of my beloved series being marred by such a silly concept.

Burt is one of my favorite fictional characters.  I’ve been praising him all week, but he really is great.  His no-nonsense attitude keeps him from joining the rest of humanity and he’s a-okay with that, but he is the sole reason anyone is left alive in the series.  The combination of advanced planning, superior firepower, and general paranoia has boosted the survival rate in Perfection Valley.  Sure, people still die.  But hey, that’s why they’re call background characters.

The initial uncertainty Burt experiences in the first movie is dissolved when his wife, Heather, leaves him.  We find out in the television show that he has never forgotten her and I like to think that their separation is what gives him such a driving force to grow and be his own person.  Burt is excited by danger and faces any challenge presented to him with a resolve that should make any A.B. think twice.  He never backs down and always pulls through.  It’s in these traits that the quirky militant loner has earned my admiration.

As a series Tremors is often labeled as horror and science fiction, but I disagree with both.  Sure, the introduction of Mixmaster to the show has given it a science fiction element, but graboids and their kind (you know, the real focus) are advertised as a natural species, not a mutation.  A movie about normal bears killing people wouldn’t be labeled as science fiction, so why should this be any different?  That being said, I do consider graboids and A.B.s to be monsters.  “Natural” or not, they are fictional and I certainly wouldn’t want to meet El Blanco face to face.  But this doesn’t mean I find the series very frightening.  Sure, there are a few feeble jumps scares, but the characters spend too much time on banter for me to take it seriously.  Add in the twangy country music and the fact that most everything occurs during the day and I just cannot support what I’ll call the “theory” that these are horror movies.

More than monster movies, these are formulaic buddy team-ups.  Every version has two guys, supported by a female love interest, who are the driving force behind the demise of the invading creatures which have shown up in groups of four several times.  The “buddies” often disagree with one another, which adds comedic value, and it’s become an expectation as the series progress that at least one of them is not going to return for the next installment because he’s run off with the woman.  I was quite surprised to see that multiple romances were beginning to take shape in the television show.  It’s unfortunate that they were never given a chance as it’s hinted that Burt may have found another woman as out there as himself.

I find it odd that the characters are unaware of the bizarre symbiosis present in the graboid life cycle.  Not being a biology major, I’m not entirely sure how to classify a graboid.  Or an ass blaster for that matter.  The two are very different species, but it’s obvious that they are both related and entirely dependent upon one another to survive.  While considered the same species in the series, they actually are not.  Let’s start with graboids.  They hatch from large eggs and can stay dormant for hundreds of years.  Once born, the larva move swiftly enough to propel themselves through the air for short distances.  But they cannot fly like ass blasters.  After at least a month, the larva mature into adult graboids.  These beasts hunt until their hunger is satiated.  Internally, the shriekers develop until they are strong enough to tear their way out of their host’s body, thus killing the graboid.

Onto the above ground animals.  Shriekers are hermaphrodites capable of spawning new life shortly after consuming food.  Through this rapid multiplication and through the use of their heat seeking ability not found on graboids, I can safely say that shriekers never were graboids, but it still remains a mystery as to how they magically show inside of one.  After a short time–somewhere not far over the 12 hour mark–the shriekers mature into ass blasters.  Again, not a different species as they seem to be classified in the series, but simply an adult version.  Larger and more capable, yes, but in reality still the same animal as a shrieker.  It’s merely the difference between a puppy and a dog.  A dog with firebutt.

Now here’s the weird part: ass blasters somehow develop graboid eggs.  The longest-living ass blaster in the series is Messerschmitt who is still alive in the television show years after being captured in Back to Perfection.  It eats at least two people and several burros, yet the creature still continues to gorge itself over a short period.  It’s unknown what the ultimate fate of this A.B. is, but since it is never mentioned that Messerschmitt lays an egg we can only speculate how much energy needs to be put into the maturation of the baby graboid.  This works though.  If the eggs lay dormant for hundreds of years, it makes sense that they would need a ton of energy to sustain themselves for so long.  This whole thing is just odd considering that their life cycles work like wearing a sock one day, turning the sock inside out the next, and continuing this pattern until the sock is threadbare.

One final note I noticed throughout this exploration is muted rivalry Tremors shared with Jurassic Park.  While it’s obvious who the winner was, there are some parallels worth pointing out.  The most obvious parallel is that both franchises are distributed by Universal Studios, the king of movie monsters.  Another easy crossover is the presence of Ariana Richards.  Better known as Lex Murphy in Jurassic Park and The Lost World, Richards also played Mindy Sterngood in the first and third Tremors films.  She wasn’t the only actor to crossover.  Stuntman Thomas Rosales, Jr. played Carter in The Lost World and he was also the oil worker killed at the beginning of Aftershocks.  Additional parallels include Tyler referring to shriekers as “Jurassic Park rejects” in the show, the 4-12 monster sounding exactly a velociraptor in JP, and the prolific Tippett Studios providing graphics for both bugs and dinos alike.  It’s likely other nods are present, but I haven’t noticed them yet.

If you’ve made it this far, I commend you.  It should be obvious by now that Tremors is one of my fandoms.  Surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be much–if any–merchandise attached to the series.  No novels or comics either, which is a serious failure for the marketing team since other ’90s franchises were absolutely saturated which this kind of stuff.  The lack of material presence surely didn’t help with its notoriety and holding power among the masses, but at least that means I don’t have to have more stuff cluttering up my shelves and I can just enjoy the smallness of the universe.

Considering how easy it is for people to go through movies through the spread of dollar machine rentals or online streaming services, I would suggest that anyone with a few extra hours should check this series out.  Really, it’s fun.  It may not be readily available, but why not support the series by paying a few bucks for a DVD or two?  Burt says thanks.

…Oh, and if you see Michael Gross around, tell him I said hi.

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Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (2004)

PG-13, 101 minutes, Monster

Starring: Michael GrossBrent RoamSara Botsford

Along with the entire last half of the franchise, Tremors 4 also came as a surprise to me.  Sitting there some Christmas past, pealing back the torn paper of a carefully present, my thoughts travel back a couple of decades to movie posters and worms.  My eyes devour the words “franchise collection” and a wicked smile crosses my face.  Instead of just owning the third movie, I held what was then the whole run.  But four movies?  What the heck is the prequel thing?

The importance of these two characters is demonstrated by height.
The importance of these two characters is demonstrated by height.

Tremors 4: The Legend Begins takes us back to 1889 during the days of the Old West.  If you’re counting, that’s exactly one hundred years before the first movie (going by copyright date, not release date).  After several miners die from animals attacks in a silver mine outside of Rejection, Nevada, the town residents begin to clear out.  Dissatisfied with the decline in productivity, Hiram Gummer, owner of the mine, arrives in town to resolve the problem.  And yes, Gummer.  Ancestor of good ol’ Burt.

After a botched investigation, Hiram and the only other survivor, Juan, discover the animals are actually a large borrowing insect capable of jumping through the air.  Returning to town the next day, the haggard escapees wire for a gunslinger.  A month passes before the hair-trigger Black Hand Kelly arrives on the scene, but in that time the creatures in the mine have grown into full blown graboids.  It’s up to the remaining citizens of Rejection to make their last stand against the swarm of oncoming dirt dragons using only their wit and 19th century technology.

HHEEEEEEEYYY!!!
HHEEEEEEEYYY!!!

We’ve come full circle with this movie.  Rejection, being the original name of Perfection, is just getting started.  The trademark Chang’s Market doesn’t stands without solid walls and the Gummer family arrives to start it’s century-long sentry over the valley.  Hiram, being a meek individual uninterested in both guns and work, eventually develops the personality Burt demonstrates throughout the rest of the series.  Additionally, the graboid life cycle explored in previous entries has been finalized with the introduction of their larval stage.

The production value of this made-for-television movie is actually fairly high.  Higher than the last movie.  Higher than the television series.  In fact, the quality is the highest in the series outside of the original.  Better sets, better graphics, slightly better music.  More than having better funding, it feels as though the production crew actually tried harder this time ’round.  Even with the digital revolution movies experienced in the mid ’90s they STILL use puppets.  Heck yes.

The family obsession with oversized firearms begins.
The family obsession with oversized firearms begins.

I still find the first film the most enjoyable and The Legend Begins would be little more than a low budget oddball without the rest of the series, but really, the effort put into this chapter shows.  And where, if anywhere, would Tremors be without the utterly faithful Michael Gross?  His devotion to the series has kept it alive and made it what it is today.  Unfortunately, Gross had to miss out on the last three episodes of the television series in order to film Tremors 4, but that’s more of a mark against the show.  Granted, Tremors may not be very well known–a shadow of a memory to most people my age–but it’s still one of the greatest Universal monster series out there.

Rating: Own it.

tl;dr
Watch:  For the heightened production value and well, graboids.  Duh.
Don’t watch:  If you hate TV movies and aren’t familiar with the franchise.

Special note:  I regret to say it, but as of this post I do not own the fifth movie in the series…  It came out just this month, but I do not have the funds to procure it.   Therefore, I cannot review at this time.  But it will come.  Someday.

Tremors (2003)

TV-MA , 13 episodes/557 minutes, Monster

Starring: Michael GrossVictor Browne

Oh, the glorious wonders of the great and merciful Bargain Bin.  That’s right, it’s now a proper noun.  BB for short, because why not?  *ahem*  While VHS tapes collect dust in thrift stores and garages across the nation and high definition stuff continues to remain both costly and unnecessary, in my eyes DVDs continue to be the modern cinephile’s best bet for physical media entertainment.  They’re everywhere and they’re affordable.  And for a Tremors fanboy finding out that 1) there was a Tremors television series and 2) the complete thing is like five bucks, BB and DVD make for good friends.

Yup, there was a Tremors television series.  After the original movie, the idea had been thrown around, but the dreaded Development Hell ensured that progress would get gummed up for over a decade.  It feels like that was the trend in the ’90s: make a movie, make a TV show out of it.  I mean what genius thought making a cartoon out of Robocop, a bloody and swear-laden flurry of childhood nightmares, was a good idea?  Hey kids, remember when Murphy was shot into a bloody pulp?  Or how about the time the bad guys chopped him in pieces and dumped the parts in the street?  The ’90s was a weird, weird time.  DIGRESSION!

TremorsTV3
Bug Killer meets Time Traveler.

Continuing where the third movie left off, Tremors takes place only a year or two after the graboid reappeared in Perfection.  As with most television series, the story had multiple plot lines.  The most of important of them revolved around the emergence of bizarre killer creatures that threatened the valley’s residents on a regular basis.  Mix in the occasional assaults from shriekers and ol’ El Blanco himself and you’ll wonder how the characters ever get any sleep.

The chaos begins after a new guy, Tyler, moves into town to take over Desert Jack’s tour business.  Tyler impresses Burt with his gun handling skills so the two of them make up the focus of this series while they handle the extermination work.  Jodi still runs Chang’s market and Nancy still makes pottery, though her daughter, Mindy, has gone off to college.  Miguel’s ranch has been taken over by his niece, Rosalita, and a crass government agent, Twitchell, regularly checks up on the town.  Together, the group faces off against a new menace every episode.  Why don’t they just move out?  Because reasons.

Not even El Blanco wants to deal with 4-12's crap.
Not even El Blanco wants to deal with 4-12’s crap.
Twitch has crabs.  Better let them know over in Chester's Mill.
Twitch has crabs. Better let them know over in Chester’s Mill.

I can’t really complain too much about this show.  Michael Gross is back and that means more of the greatness he has brought to his character.  More puppets.  More bug guts.  Christopher Lloyd even guest stars.  It’s great.  As a fan of the series, my only real complaint is that it was cancelled before the first season even finished airing.  That’s beyond frustrating as it obvious hasn’t been given a proper chance.  Questions will likely go unanswered forever and characters will probably just disappear.  Thanks a lot, Fo–oh wait, wrong network.  Compared to that giant smoking crater of a problem, the other issues are minor.  Quickly, they are: The music is tacky and reminds me of being put on hold; actors from the films did not return; Gladise Jiminez does nothing for this series other than add her nipples to the scene; the gore level has been amped up and now extends to human entrails.  These are more or less things you just notice while watching.  But loose plot lines… Those will haunt you for the rest of your days…

Solid proof we were never intended to look Rosalita directly in the eye.
Solid proof we were never intended to look Rosalita directly in the eye.

I like it.  As much as I hate it, I still like it.  It almost certainly will not hook the vast majority of the population, but fans probably already have this under their belt.  The show represents the single largest chunk of story that’s been entered into the series, with the compliment of having two movies to bookend it.  Back in 1990, it all started with four graboids, but in the early 2000s, Tremors came into its own, if only for a brief couple of years.  Will the show escape the depths of Development Hell once again in a triumphant return?  My guess is no, but that makes what still remains all the sweeter.

Rating:  El Blanco.

tl;dr
Watch:  If you’ve already come this far.  Also, the costume designer doesn’t believe in bras.
Don’t watch:  If you’re getting sick of these posts and you hate gore.

Tremors 3: Back to Perfection (2001)

PG-13, 104 minutes, Monster

Starring: Michael GrossShawn ChristianSusan Chuang

I buy cheap.  I’m not a downloader and I don’t use online services like Netflix.  I buy to own, but on a tight budget I can’t bother to pay full price for a luxury.  It’s in bargain bins that I find gems and junk alike.  This now long-running habit has exposed me to an odd assortment of films that I otherwise would never even hear of.  It has also rekindled memories.  As much as I explore a tangent movie-present, I occasionally unearth exhibits from the movie-past.  Such was the case when I fished out a copy of the third Tremors movie.  Smiling down at the cut-rate cover with Burt in a tacky commando pose, I realized that I didn’t care about the price anymore.

“For fifty bucks I’ll sell you a Twinkie split open to resemble a graboid. For five-hundred bucks I’ll traumatize your children with pipecleaners and an old Cher album.”

Starting fresh so many years after the original film, Tremors 3 keeps good on its promise to take us back to Perfection, Nevada.  Perfection, now largely empty, has grown quiet since the graboids were killed off.  Earl has made his own fortune and follows in Val’s footsteps, leaving the town overseen by Burt.  Upon returning from a shrieker hunting trip in Argentina, Burt discovers Desert Jack, a swindler who is running a weak tour business that plays out like a mock graboid attack.  To make matters worse, the bratty Melvin grew up and has returned in a bid to fill the valley with housing tracts.  Burt attempts to set them straight, but it’s not until a real graboid appears that the characters are forced to think straight.

The majestic white wha--er, graboid.
The majestic white wha–er, graboid.

Burt gets set for another hunt, but is stopped by government agents who deem the graboids a protected species.  Their natural life cycle kicks in and soon the graboids birth a small army of shriekers.  With the smaller noise-makers remaining unprotected, Burt and the others track them down only to find that they’ve mutated into something far worse.

Tremors 3 acts as a prequel of sorts… despite being in the middle of the series.  With so many years having passed, it was almost necessary to start again.  Many of the survivors from the original movie have returned and what’s amazing is that all of the actors returned to their roles.  While they aren’t exactly big-name actors, it was still quite impressive to see that the casting director went through all the work of reassembling the old group.  For the actors that were missing, new characters had to be plugged in to fill the gaps.

Continuing tradition, the movie once again uses puppets in place of the monsters.  Unfortunately, the graphics used to create full-body monsters in motion have visibly suffered.  It’s not surprising considering the economical production value.  While this movie was released straight to video, it has a bit of a late-night television movie vibe.  This would prove to be an important hint as it sets up many of the elements present in the Tremors television that was released a couple years later.

A.B. equip stats: +3 flight, +5 boost
A.B. equip stats: +3 flight, +5 boost, -2 sight

And then there’s Burt.  Finally in the lead role, Michael Gross is able to make this movie more about the paranoid militant than about the monsters.  Actually, he saves what would have otherwise been a lame chase around the desert.  The fact that the ending is a little blunt in regards to the monsters really leads me to believe that Burt was the bigger beast.  His rapid-fire one liners are the real reason to keep coming back–I’ve been chuckling at them for years.

As with the other Tremors sequels, Tremors 3 is really best consumed with its kin.  It could perhaps be watched in preparation for a helping of the television series, but the constant references to missing characters might go over some viewer’s heads.  Tremors is a series you really need to love from the start, so I’m glad that all those years ago I was exposed to those man-eating dirt dragons.

Rating: Fans should watch this.

tl;dr
Watch: Because you love Michael Gross.
Don’t watch: If you can’t stand gore and guns (yet again).

Tremors II: Aftershocks (1995)

PG-13, 100 minutes, Monster

Starring: Fred WardChris GartinMichael Gross

When my mother first told me, “Tremors II is on.  Do you want to watch it?”  I immediately perked up, wide-eyed and in awe.  “There’s another one?” my dumbfounded mouth managed to spit out.  It was some weekend two decades ago, but I remember watching that thing at least a dozen times on television after that initial viewing.  While I still enjoy the first film more, it’s first sequel has to be the installment I’ve seen the most.

Back in the lonely town of Perfection, Nevada, Mr. You’ve-Got-To-Have-A-Plan Earl Bassett (Fred Ward) has found himself broke and going nowhere.  Val, who is absent from this movie, has run off with his riches and Rhonda, the college student from the original.  Left only with his royalty regrets and a pair of uncooperative ostriches, Earl reluctantly signs up for a graboid hunt at an infested oil refinery in Mexico.

Just blowing up eight foot reptilian worms. No big deal.
Just blowing up eight foot reptilian worms. No big deal.

Joining Earl is Grady (Christopher Gartin) who is at best… a slacker.  The two of them are successful at first and net a large chunk of change for their work, but when a swarm of fresh graboids appear Earl calls in reinforcements.  Burt (Michael Gross), excited by the chance to hunt once again, rushes down with a truckload of guns and explosives ready for action.  After a short competition, Earl and Grady come across the remains of a hollowed out graboid.  A new threat has birthed from within the old foe and has begun multiplying…

Gooey bone flaps are far superior to pixels.
Gooey bone flaps are far superior to pixels.

Twenty years ago you wouldn’t have seen Tremors II up for any awards, but you may have heard of it.  The movie does little to actually add to the franchise, playing off habits from the original even in the absence of Kevin Bacon.  This retro-play creates for awkwardness between the characters and honestly makes Earl seem old, but the sarcastic jabs made at Kevin Bacon’s real-life success that led to him leaving the franchise will put a smile on your face.  Thankfully, the film continues to use puppets, adding the new shrieker monsters to the universe.  This feature also marks the first time that computer generated monsters are used in the franchise, but they are a far cry from the realism of the puppets.

The real hallmark of this film is Burt Gummer.  In the absence of his wife, Heather (due to Reba McEntire’s own success), Burt is less hesitant and more focused than he ever was in the original movie.  He is free to shine as the paranoid gun-nut the character has become known for and takes his first triumphant step into the forefront of the plot.

TremorsII3
We need MORE power! Haugh haugh haugh haugh haugh!

Tremors II is the kind of movie you watch because it’s the sequel to something you liked.  It grows on you, but alone it serves as a reminder of what kind of sequel it could have been.  I don’t hate it.  I don’t think it’s a bad movie.  I do have found memories of watching it as a kid and I still find it enjoyable.  Every time I watch the series, I make sure to do it all together and in order.  However, the original concept for this sequel had it set in Australia and I’ve been waiting years for that to happen.  If I live so long, I’ll happily set myself down in front of the TV with a stack of DVDs and not blink until it’s over.

Rating: The franchise set is cheap, just buy it.

tl;dr
Watch: If you’re a fan of the original.
Don’t watch: If you can’t stand gore and guns (again).

Tremors (1990)

PG-13, 96 minutes, Monster

Starring: Kevin BaconFred WardMichael Gross

When I think about monster movies, one of the first things to come to my mind is Tremors.  Graboids, the giant man-eating worms featured in the film, have always been my favorite in the monster world.  Long before I was exposed to the real monsters from both classic and slasher film lore, I remember my mother turning on the television just to watch bug guts exploding across the screen.

Tremors3
Stage 1: Graboid

Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, respectively) are two losers working as handymen in the isolated desert town of Perfection, Nevada.  Sick of letting their dreams get away from the them, they decide to abandon their trailer and move out.  Unfortunately for the two of them, they chose the wrong time.  A series of bizarre deaths leads them to believe that a serial killer is on the loose in the valley.  When they team up with a college student who is studying the odd seismic activity in Perfection, they discover the truth: four colossal worms are tunneling through the ground and eating anything that makes noise, including people.

As luck would have it, among the remaining citizens of Perfection there are two militant survivalists (played by Michael Gross of Family Ties fame and Reba McEntire in her first starring role) who firmly believe in their second amendment rights.  Locked and loaded, the survivors face off against the subterranean menace is an effort to escape and find help.

Tremors2
PEWPEWPEW!!!

While this is certainly a monster movie and does follow the slasher archetype, I can’t see this as really being horror.  It’s too campy for that.  Combine the facts that it’s a buddy movie, has goofy humor, and tawdry country music and the definition of horror seems too far away.  I can’t hate it though.  In fact it’s one of my favorite movies.  The lack of high-end production value adds its own charm to the film.  It takes place in a veritable shanty town, which might make it look cheap, but also it clues you in that the filmmakers are ready to break stuff.

As for the monsters themselves, they’re amazing.  This movie is too old to deal with too much of the CG garbage, instead they’ve created the real deal: massive puppets large enough to fit an actor inside.  There’s also miniature work, real explosions, and creative practical effects that give the sense of something massive burrowing just under the dirt.  And guts.  The graboids are meant to be about eight feet long, so when they’re hit with serious firepower there’s plenty of spray.  I’m not personally a fan of gore, but I have to admit that there is juicy satisfaction in watch these killer bugs go splat.  All of these make for a visual experience that is rarely seen in this century.

Tremors4
It’s important to look stern before doing something stupid.

Tremors is a personal favorite of mine stemming from childhood memories.  It repeatedly played on television during my youth and is one of the few movies that I watched over and over again that I didn’t own a tape of.  In hindsight it has remained something that I wish I had seen on the big screen, more for the nostalgia I would experience in present day than anything else.

Though copyrighted in 1989, the film was actually released in early 1990 making 2015 the 25th anniversary.  The best part for me is that the story doesn’t stop here.  With four sequels to date and a short-lived television series, Tremors still continues to be produced to this day.

Rating: Own it.

tl;dr
Watch: If you think campy monster movies are fun.  Or if you like Kevin Bacon, I guess.
Don’t watch: If you can’t stand gore and guns.

The Homesman (2014)

R, 122 minutes, Western

Starring: Tommy Lee JonesHilary Swank

Perhaps the greatest thing about westerns is that they don’t pull punches.  We’ve all read that life on the American frontier was full of hardships and death; opportunity and misfortune.  In this setting civilization has not yet reached its tendrils to the lonely plains of the Old West, thus leaving those brave enough to venture into it fairly alone.  This makes the perfect backdrop for the horror depicted in The Homesman.

The story starts with three women murdering their infants.  They’ve all slipped into some kind of prairie sickness that has caused them to kill their own.  Each woman succumbs to her own personal nightmare: one loses all of her livestock, another is raped, and the other has only her youth to blame.  Unable to handle the stress of the bleak existence of a settler and its grief, as well as a new screaming child, the women snap.  Their husbands, unable to raise their families and heal their ailing wives, agree to send them off to a reverend across the country for treatment.

This is where our unlikely heroes, who have been tasked with transporting the three mentally disturbed women, step in.  This is far from a buddy team-up comedy as our protagonists are close to being as cerebrally offset as the cargo they carry.  Cuddy is a Plain Jane spinster determined to show her worth before she surpasses marrying age.  She rescues Briggs, an aging squatter, who has been left to hang.  Cuddy spares his life in exchange for his assistance on the journey.  The two of them set out East to face the perils that await them.

Tommy Lee Jones really put a lot into this film.  Not only did he star in it, but he produced it, directed it, and even co-wrote the script.  This is actually the first time he’s filled all four roles at once and for the most part it works.  The story is depressing and honestly not that great, but it does get the job done as, like its setting, it is harsh.  This is most evident in the beginning of the movie as the mere shock value of a woman uncaringly tossing a screaming infant down an outhouse pit sets the dark tone.  The last section of the movie, especially the ending, further affirm the grim reality in which the characters exist.

Should have fed the man...
Should have fed the man…

Something that really bothered me about the story was the perspective change.  In the beginning, we follow Cuddy long enough to establish that she is the main character.  We are given her background and her passions long before Briggs enters the scene.  Once he’s there, it takes a while for him to loosen up around Cuddy, but then suddenly it’s his story.  It’s almost as though two pieces were fit together even though they overlapped.  Or perhaps one story was written, but it was determined that a secondary story would prove more interesting.  In either case it was a little frustrating to me since I was led to invest time in one character when the other was seemingly intended to be the focus.

Overall, this is a rough, but decent film: two parts western, one part non-traditional horror.  It’s limited release and poor performance at the box office haven’t helped its fame, but it’s still worth a watch if you enjoy westerns or Tommy Lee Jones.

Rating: Watch it once.

tl;dr
Watch: Because it’s a dark western.
Don’t watch: If you don’t like dead babies and need more action in your movies.

The Signal (2014)

PG-13, 97 minutes, Sci-fi

Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Laurence FishburneOlivia Cooke

     Once in a while a great film comes along that mixes all of the right elements, makes you really care about the characters, and leaves just enough mystery to keep you hooked… then it promptly screws it all up in the most glorious of fashion.  You sit there, dumbfounded.  Your mouth hangs open as the credits roll and the single syllable of “wa” floats in the air as a tiny puff of frustrated confusion wheezes around your vocal chords.  It’s over!  Pack it up and go home!  It’s enough to make you want to throw things.

     “Are you agitated?”

     The Signal follows three college students as they hunt for a mysterious hacker.  After some difficulty, the trio have an encounter of the otherworldly kind that puts them all into comas.  Upon waking, the main character, Nic, finds himself locked in a medical and psychological nightmare as government scientists probe his mind, keeping him isolated from the rest of the world.  Nic is monitored ‘round the clock until he realizes that something about him has changed… and has given him the power to escape.

     Sounds interesting enough, right?  And believe me: it is.  I was hooked—legitimately hooked.  Lawrence Fishbourne is the big name of this film, playing the role of the antagonistic psychologist bent on breaking Nic down.  His performance is actually quite familiar.  Wake up, Neo.  Morpheus included, you begin to realize that duplicating the role works well for this movie and I honestly cannot complain.  The only real problem I had with Fishbourne’s character resided in the script.  If you can’t figure out who he very obviously is thirty seconds after he first appears, then I can’t help you.

     Additionally, two of the students are in a troubled, but well-established relationship.  Through use of flashbacks, these two fleshed out from what would have otherwise been a stereotypical two-dimensional couple.  By the end, I came to care about the survival of their relationship even though I hadn’t considered myself attached to either of them up until that point.

     Then there are the technical designs.  This is a science fiction film that works without the use of shiny, bleeping gadgets or legions of laser-spewing space vessels.  What little there is in the way of design is concentrated into a handful of impressive visuals that left me saying, “I want one of those!”  I’m sure similar has been created by hundreds of people for a cosplay convention, but it’s still cool!  And they’re used properly, too.  You don’t even understand their purpose until the final scene.

     Finally, there’s the cinematography.  The beginning of the film is shot almost as though it was a college project and the use of first-person handicams emphasizes the crudeness of the action until it breaks out into a full-blown horror story.  All of this happens just in time to switch gears.  Suddenly the pace slows and the camera becomes stationary.  You find yourself just as confused as Nic and your brain has to adjust as though you’re watching an entirely different movie.  But this isn’t the only change.  No, sir.  The final length of the film is full of considerably more action, where the cameraman comes back to life and things start to blow up.  So your brain switches gears again, but due to the director of photography being a gracious human being we are given chaotic sequences where the action is slowed, allowing you to actually understand what you’re seeing.  Why is this important?  Because I hate jump cuts!  If you’re going to do a stunt, just commit to it.

Thank you, David Lanzenberg.
Thank you, David Lanzenberg.

     As I said, this is a great movie… right up until the end.  It was such a let down.  Unfortunately, the slew of independent films being released is continuously on the rise.  It’s not to say that they’re all bad, but… but I was always taught that there need to be elements in a story to make it complete.  Just as this story passes the upper scale of rising action, right as the climax is about to appear (or perhaps is just birthed), it ends.  I…  I just…  Where is the resolution?  The falling action?  I mean, it just ENDS?  This movie puts you through all of this conflict and gets you attached to just to say, “Haha—eff you, you film geek.  Go watch the next Sundance poopfest while I wipe myself off.”

     You know what this film really is?  It’s three episodes—broken by the change in pacing and camera work.  And the ending?  It’s a season cliff-hanger.  I can legitimately see this being filmed as a TV mini-series.  Give it five episodes, ease up on the cursing, and BAM: you’ve got a Tuesday night event for weeks to come.  And the best thing about this idea: You’d have a freaking ending!  Watch this if you will, but know that this is the kind of movie that gives birth to rage statuses.

Rating: I’d buy it if it were cheap.

tl;dr
Watch: If you like sci-fi, action, and Larry.  Also because Olivia Cooke is adorbs.
Don’t watch: If you need a freaking conclusion.