*BLU-RAY SET REVIEW* THE FILMS: I'm sure that the majority of you have approached this release with some trepidation just as I have. Universal Studios' track record has shown that it is completely unconcerned with the quality of its home video releases as long as they bring in a few bucks with a minimum of cost to the studio. The 2010 Blu-ray release of the original "Tremors" was a sad victim of this trend, with an appallingly filtered video transfer, decent audio and no new special features. Well, three years later, Universal has reissued the first film along with its first three direct-to-video sequels. How does this release fare, you ask? As a seasoned fan of the "Tremors" franchise since the late nineties, I will attempt to shed some light on this issue. I assume that you have some knowledge as to the nature of the films in question so I'll spare you plot synopses.
1990's "Tremors" is the ultimate cult classic; a film with decent critical repute and a loyal (if limited) fanbase. It's the rare gem of a genre picture that manages to blend horror and comedy elements into one cohesive and effective package. Despite it being one of my all-time favorite movies, you'll get no argument from me if we're dissecting its flaws. The film doesn't have much in the way of character development and frequently violates its own rules regarding the graboids (the not-so-friendly creature antagonists of the franchise). That said, director Ron Underwood's film is still one of the most genuinely likable movies I've ever seen and its merits far outweigh its flaws. The characters, each perfectly cast and well-performed, are all likable. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward are great as Val McKee and Earl Bassett, respectively, and Michael Gross gives it his all in his signature role of Burt Gummer. Notably, none of these characters are stupid and only one of them is a teenager, in stark contrast to your average horror film. The creatures themselves are well-realized with unique designs and convincing special effects, with some genuine scares to be found herein. I'll spare you a more in-depth review given that if you're interested in this release, you've probably long since made your mind up about the original film. As for me, I'll go on record as calling "Tremors" the best horror comedy ever made. - - - - - "Tremors" (1990) Movie Quality: 4.5/5.0 - - - - -
As with most franchises, the sequels are a mixed bag. The original film, while successful at the box office, was not a blockbuster. It found an audience in the home video market, spurring the release a straight-to-video sequel by the name of "Tremors 2: Aftershocks" in 1996. I'm not sure why the filmmakers felt the film needed a subtitle, but I assure any fan of the original film that the end product is far better than such a goofy heading might lead you to believe. In fact, I like "Aftershocks" just as much as the first film and, depending on the day, sometimes more. Despite its bargain bin pedigree, this sequel's production values are almost on par with its predecessor; the special effects are quite good and frequently impressive, with some great action sequences to boot. Fred Ward and Michael Gross return from the first film and give it their all, with Michael Gross going even MORE over the top this time around. Christopher Gartin fills in for Kevin Bacon, who decided not to return for the sequel, and Helen Shaver plays Kate Reilly, Ward's love interest. While the chemistry between Ward and Bacon and the rest of the characters from the original film are missed, it's not detrimental to the film's overall entertainment value.
As silly as the film's premise is, there are plenty of new ideas in play. In fact, "Tremors 2" had an arguably bigger effect on the ultimate franchise than did the original film. The genesis of the graboid lifecycle, the methods used to hunt them and Burt's penchant for ridiculous overkill are all sealed here. Many of the gags are amusing and there is some decent suspense in the middle of the film when the creatures unexpectedly metamorphose, successfully retaining the tone and atmosphere of the first "Tremors." My uncle and I had a "Tremors" double feature one night, starting with the first film and ending with this one. He couldn't believe it when I told him that this one was straight-to-video. I'm not pretending that "Aftershocks" is as good as the first film nor that everyone will like it, but no one can say that the filmmakers didn't try and try hard to live up to the promise of the first film. - - - - - "Tremors 2: Aftershocks" (1996) Movie Quality: 4.0/5.0 - - - - -
"Tremors 3: Back to Perfection" is where the franchise begins to falter, in my humble opinion. Remember how I said that the second film is on par with the first in terms of technical quality? That sentiment no longer applies here. Somehow, this 2001 film feels cheaper and more forced than it's mid-nineties counterpart. Unlike the previous films in the franchise, the effects of this outing are lacking anything "special." The graboids themselves look stiff when practical effects are on the screen and the CGI looks like it was ripped from "Toy Story." These technical shortcomings could be forgiven if the rest of the film was up to snuff, but sadly that is not the case. Whereas "Aftershocks" had some new ideas, "Back to Perfection" hinges on its namesake of returning to the town featured in the first film. Michael Gross returns once again as Burt Gummer, but his role is played more for laughs and the character is more of a parody of the likable survivalist from the previous films than a effective lead. Don't get me wrong: he's always been funny, but he's never been such a buffoon before. I love Burt just as much as the next "Tremors" fan, and as such I don't think he should be portrayed as the butt of all of the jokes nor as an incompetent monster hunter that needlessly destroys his possessions.
A interesting wrinkle concerning this third film is the returning cast members: all of the survivors, save for Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter and Reba McEntire, reappear and are played by their original actors. That's quite an impressive feat for a straight-to-video sequel to a somewhat unsuccessful theatrical film that was released eleven years later, and ultimately more notable than anything else concerning the film itself. In fact, it's quite infuriating that unlike the first film, the characters here frequently make stupid decisions, and it's more disconcerting when one stops to consider the fact that they seemed much smarter just two films ago. The graboids return (obviously) but are no longer threatening due to their constant presence via the "marketing" employed by newcomer Susan Chuang as Jody Chang, niece of store-owner Walter from the first film. Fellow newcomer Shawn Christian plays the equally charming and annoying "Desert" Jack Sawyer, who runs scam graboid tours, one of which results in an all too predictable gag once the real creatures show up.
By extension, predictability is really the film's main drawback. The creatures change into another new form that, like star Michael Gross, is played more for self-parody than horror, and there are precious few surprises in store. There's a distinct lack of tension and almost none of the gags are very funny, with Burt's constant one-liners becoming a bit grating by the film's end. While there are positive elements, they are given a run for their money by the bad, which makes for a mixed experience. It's hard to believe that "Tremors 2" spawned this misfire, much less the original film (or that this misfire spawned a short-lived TV series for the Sci-Fi channel, which is surprisingly much better than "Back to Perfection.") Back in the day, I used to catch the first two "Tremors" film on various primetime slots on various channels such as TNT, USA Network and the like. It should be telling that, to my knowledge, this film has only ever aired on the Sci Fi Channel. "Back to Perfection" is the definite low point of the series, in my not so humble opinion. - - - - - "Tremors 3: Back to Perfection" (2001) Movie Quality: 2.5/5.0 - - - - -
Despite the hit-or-miss response to the previous films, "Tremors 4: The Legend Begins" is where the fans REALLY divide. I personally find this 2004 entry to be much more entertaining than "Back to Perfection", which should be telling as I tend not to care for prequels. The facetious reference to the series as "legend" aside, there is really a lot to like here. First and foremost, the production values once again appear on par with the first film (despite an even lower budget than for the third film), though not without a few shoddy spots. The story, while a cliché western parody, features the most well-rounded characters of the sequels. All of them are distinct and series mainstay Michael Gross turns in a great performance as Hiram Gummer, ancestor of Burt, who is essentially the total opposite of his descendant and even has a nice, if predictable, character arc. Unlike "Tremors 3," many of the gags in this film are funny, with at least one laugh-out-loud moment in the film's midsection.
Even though I have a soft spot for "Tremors 4", I completely understand why some fans resent it and even agree with many of the criticisms. Setting the film in the 1890s, effectively making it a western parody, can be a little grating if all one cares about is seeing Burt blast graboids and destroy his own property. One gets the sense that this film is more of a side story than a continuation, which makes it all the more depressing that it was the final gasp for the franchise for over a decade (and the last to involve the original creators, as of "Tremors 5: Bloodlines."). Director S.S. Wilson mentions in the one of the featurettes for this film that "part of the fun of prequels is seeing how the new characters learn the rules" -- all aspiring filmmakers, please take note: despite my opinion of "The Legend Begins," this sentiment is DEAD WRONG. I normally dislike prequels for this reason, but this one clicked with me when I first saw it in 2004 because of its charm and likable characters. Otherwise, seeing new people that we fans don't care about learning the rules everyone already knows is one of the most tedious filmmaking exercises in existence. Having a returning character to guide new characters is one thing; wiping the slate clean is another. Regardless of my fondness for "The Legend Begins," I'll agree with anyone that this film ended the series with more of a whimper than a bang at the time due to its nature as a novelty. - - - - - "Tremors 4: The Legend Begins" Movie Quality: 3.5/5.0 - - - - -
Unfortunately, even though it would have been a nice bonus, the aforementioned 2003 television spinoff "Tremors: The Series" is not included in this set.
VIDEO QUALITY: The biggest point of contention among "Tremors" fans with the 2010 Blu-ray release was the horrendous video transfer. Rather than spend money restoring or remastering any original film elements, Universal simply repurposed the HD DVD transfer from 2007, which was also less than perfect. Further compounding the problems is the fact that "Tremors" has likely not been remastered since the late 1990s, as evidenced by the shoddy quality of its home video releases and the consistency of their flaws. I've seen the original film quite a few times through various different formats and while the Blu-ray was definitely an upgrade, it was also quite offensive to the eyes. While it should come as no surprise to anyone, Universal has neglected to restore or otherwise clean up the film. This print is the same one that has been used for all of the previous versions I've seen of the film, with a tad bit of the filtering removed (leaving something of a grain structure for once). I'm not a videophile and couldn't tell you the intricate differences between this version and the original Blu-ray, but it DOES look better, if only marginally, with more pronounced textures and less of the excess tampering that plagued the original Blu-ray. Dirt assaults the screen at random points, but color reproduction is quite good. "Tremors" will probably never look as good as it could given that Universal will likely never give it the restoration that it deserves, but it frequently looks decent here. - - - - - "Tremors" (1990) Video Quality: 3.0/5.0 - - - - -
Surprisingly, "Aftershocks" looks quite good on Blu-ray. The opening scene looks better than the entirety of the first film wholesale, and it only improves from there. A few scenes in the middle of the film are almost reference quality, with a splash of colors across the screen, good fine detail reproduction and a nice depth to the images. Again, I'm not a videophile, but as far as I could tell this transfer features no digital tampering and looks quite natural throughout. It's not an amazing transfer and you won't see it playing on any of the TVs at Walmart, but the picture is still impressive when one considers the film's direct-to-video origins, age and the fact that Universal was involved. - - - - - "Tremors 2: Aftershocks" (1996) Video Quality: 3.5/5.0 - - - - -
Similar to the film itself, the transfer for "Back to Perfection" is lacking. With the exception of a few key scenes that pop, the entirety of the film looks soft with a lack of fine detail throughout. There's also little depth to the image and the colors are a bit dull, but this seems to be more representative of the source than the transfer itself. There's a bit of grain and some dirt, which is surprising given that the print has likely been locked away in Universal's vaults since its original release in 2001. Overall, there's not much to say about this one. It's an upgrade, sure, but I wouldn't recommend it if it were a standalone release. - - - - - "Tremors 3: Back to Perfection" (2001) Video Quality: 3.0/5.0 - - - - -
Unsurprisingly, "The Legend Begins" is the best looking of the bunch. In fact, it looks SO good that I'm sure that some fans are going to complain as it's a whole TIER above the first film. I'm not sure whether it was shot with film or digitally but it looks great either way (I assume film as there is dirt and speckles that appear, though it could have been transferred to a print for mastering). Fine detail is consistent and apparent throughout and colors are bold with a nicely saturated hue. Depth is also quite good, with many of the images practically popping off of the screen. Again, I'm not an expert, but "Tremors 4" looked quite good to my eyes. It's not quite reference quality, either, but given the nature of this film and the studio behind the release, it's quite impressive. - - - - - "Tremors 4: The Legend Begins" (2004) Video Quality: 4.0/5.0 - - - - -
AUDIO QUALITY: Whereas the video transfer for "Tremors" is only decent, the audio is quite good. It's not in the same league as "Jurassic Park," but it does the job nicely. The graboid roars and destruction in the film all sounded quite nice when coming out of my speakers. Solid is the key word, and it tells you all you need to know. - - - - - "Tremors" (1990) Audio Quality: 4.0/5.0 - - - - -
"Aftershocks" favors it's predecessor in the sound department, with a solid but not necessarily exceptional soundtrack. I don't have much to say here; it sounds good and clear but won't necessarily knock your socks off. Effectively, it does its job, and it's a testament to the original sound crew and designers that it's as dynamic as it is. - - - - - "Tremors 2: Aftershocks" (1996) Audio Quality: 4.0/5.0 - - - - -
Even though it sounds like I'm hating on "Back to Perfection's" technical presentation just because I'm not particularly fond of the film, I assure you that I'm giving an honest opinion of its technical presentation. Audio for this film is bland, with dialogue having a muffled quality to it and the rest failing to impress. It doesn't help that the sound design has a generic, public domain quality to it, with virtually none of the effects sounding in the least impressive. If you've played a video game or seen a cheap action movie lately, you've heard these effects. That said, this is how the film has always sounded to my ears, so I guess the Blu-ray is simply working with what it has as with the picture. But that doesn't make the results any less unremarkable. - - - - - "Tremors 3: Back to Perfection" (2001) Audio Quality: 3.0/5.0 - - - - -
Like the visual presentation, "The Legend Begins'" soundtrack is also the best of the bunch and just below reference grade. In stark contrast with "Back to Perfection," the dialogue and sound effects of "The Legend Begins" all sound clear and crisp, as if they're happening right in front of you. The sound design is also better than the previous film and helps to bolster the soundtrack's quality. It's quite good. - - - - - "Tremors 4: The Legend Begins" (2004) Audio Quality: 4.5/5.0 - - - - -
SPECIAL FEATURES AND EXTRAS: The Tremors Attack Pack comes in a standard Blu-ray case with an embossed slipcover, with the four films spread over two discs. Despite early reports to the contrary, the films are housed on single-sided Blu-rays, with a simple menu that allows the viewer to choose which film they want to see (in typical Universal Studios style). Special features and technical options are accessed via the pop up menu. Unsurprisingly, the only bonus features that appear here are the ones that graced the DVDs themselves, which leaves the set a bit unevenly weighted. The first film has a decent but limited set of behind-the-scenes material, the second has absolutely nothing, the third film has a lone featurette and the fourth film is absolutely bursting with content. The material that IS present is all good and quite entertaining, but there is nothing new here and nothing that is in HD or that takes advantage of the Blu-ray format. Still, who would expect anything extra when we can't even get the studio to properly restore the actual films? - - - - - "Tremors" (1990) Special Features Rating: 3.0/5.0 - - - - - - - - - - "Tremors 2: Aftershocks" (1996) Special Features Rating: 0.0/5.0 - - - - - - - - - - "Tremors 3: Back to Perfection" (2001) Special Features Rating: 1.5/5.0 - - - - - - - - - - "Tremors 4: The Legend Begins" (2004) Special Features Rating: 4.0/5.0 - - - - -
OVERALL SCORE AND RECOMMENDATION: I obviously like "Tremors" and this set's success or failure rate is dependent upon your own feelings toward the films. If you already have the first film on Blu-ray and don't care for the sequels, I can't say that this is set offers anything resembling an upgrade. However, if you DO like the sequels, you might as well go for this set. It's a bargain bin release and the price reflects this distinction. Given the films and limited exposure of this release at the outset, this set is likely to drop in price quite quickly. For around $20.00 for a consistently entertaining series with varying technical presentations and bonus features, I'd call that a deal. For me as a fan, it was money well spent.