Monster Mixtape: Graboids

It’s that time of the year again. There’s a slight chill to the late summer evenings. Leaves are starting to bring out their fall colors. Each day is just a bit shorter than the last. We can all feel what these changes signify. No, not going back to school, but that it’s the season for monster movies! Between now and Halloween I’ll be highlighting ten of the best toothy, sharp-clawed, and mutated aberrations to shred the silver screen. Some are old classics, others are newcomers, but all are awesome.

“That’s how they git you. They’re under the goddamned ground!” Let’s talk about the graboids from Tremors.

Let me just clear something up at the outset. I’m only talking about the big demon worms from the original 1990 film. Not the raptorish “shriekers” from part 2, the “ass blasters” from part 3, or Jamie Kennedy from part 5. They’re all fine as creatures go, but we wouldn’t have any of ‘em without the original Paleozoic invertebrates that tore through the Nevada soil.

Plenty of monsters get a backstory. A toxic spill. A genetic experiment gone wrong. Something disturbed from an ancient slumber. An “Aha!” revelation that comes in the third act to give our heroes something to work with. But not so with the graboids. In the alternate universe Tremors transpires in, the enormous subterranean predators may as well have existed since the dawn of animal life on Earth. And solving such quandaries isn’t really much help when there’s a gigantic invertebrate trying to suck you down beneath the ground.

Not that the poor residents of Perfection, Nevada really know what they’re dealing with up front. On the day the graboids decide to have their picnic, local handymen Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) seem to zip from one feeding site to the next, each a little bit more gruesome than the last. They almost wind up as the next casualty before unknowingly ripping off one of the monster’s feeding tentacles and dragging it all the way back to town beneath their truck, making the monster seem like a blind, toothy land eel.

Tremors02

The slow, “don’t show the monster until the last moment” technique is pretty standard for creature features, but it’s never worked better than in Tremors. The snake thing is menacing enough, and the thought of a swarm of them scouring the desert is sufficiently creepy. But can anyone forget the first time they watched this movie and the entire graboid – a grey mass with a black, multi-pronged mouth writhing with orange tentacles – popped out of the ground? It has to be one of the greatest reveals in monsterdom, only amplified through the use of practical effects. There’s really no substitute for a puppet of a giant monster worm.

Design aside, though, the graboids rank so high on this list because they’re a different sort of monster. They’re not something wallowing in the water or hiding in the woods. They’ve been burrowing through the ground for who knows how long, and their mode of life is both their protection and their cover. Even the most powerful weaponry is relatively useless against a foe blanketed by sediment, as franchise banner-holder Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) demonstrates in a futile attempt to blast through the soil, and the wide-open-spaces of the desert provide almost nowhere for its prey to hide. In short, Tremors depicts the most epic game of “the floor is lava” ever played.

Brian Switek is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus (out in paperback from Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Written in Stone. He also writes the National Geographic blog Laelaps.

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