In college, I took a business class where our professor taught us about marketing. He described the goal of marketing as “to meet an unmet need.” In that class, we talked about the marketing of things that had a pragmatic purpose, such as energy drinks. These things were easy to understand as products.
However, audiences tend to like movies as experiences rather than as practical everyday items. While practical items can be disposable, movies exist as a product that audiences see as special. Nowadays, movies either tend to revolve around something cutting edge or something nostalgic. Many movie reviews revolve around the idea of seeing something new and emotional rather than more of the same.
When Tremors and Arachnophobia came out in 1990, they both mixed horror (the need to be scared) with comedy (the need to laugh). In both cases, they were met with middling success upon their releases only to spawn greater success later on.
Horror and Comedy
Before 1990, Filmmakers had put comedy and horror together before. In 1960, low budget horror producer Roger Corman had recently finished a movie with Vincent Price. According to Corman, when the studio screened a scary scene in a sneak preview, the audience screamed and then they laughed. Corman wondered what he had done wrong before realizing that this was a natural reaction. With that, he set out to make a horror comedy.
He and his creative team came up with The Little Shop of Horrors, which he shot on a standing set in 2 days and a night. In that film, Seymour (Jonathan Haze) raises a giant man-eating plant and has to get food for it. The film ends with the plant eating Seymour.
The trailer for The Little Shop of Horrors sells both the comedy and the horror. It has a menacing score that underlines horror elements, but the title cards and the scenes emphasize the dark comedy elements.
The Corman film eventually spawned a musical reimagining titled Little Shop of Horrors. The 1986 film version of this reimagining played up the musical and comedy elements. It cast a group of the most popular comedians at the time (Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Bill Murray, John Candy). The filmmakers also changed the original downbeat ending to have Seymour (Moranis) get together with his love interest, Audrey (Ellen Greene).
After deciding to leave town to pursue bigger dreams, bumbling handymen Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) discover an underground creature that will destroy the entire town if they do not reluctantly stay and fight it.
First time director Ron Underwood had made educational films with screenwriters Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson for years before this film. After this film, Underwood became known for comedies such as City Slickers (1991) and Heart and Souls (1993). In recent years, Underwood has worked more in television than in theatrical films.
Besides the Tremors series, writers Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson co-wrote multiple comedy films. Before this, they had a hand in writing the Short Circuit films and Batteries Not Included (1987). Another movie they co-wrote, Ghost Dad, came out the same year as Tremors. After this, they co-wrote Heart and Souls and Wild Wild West (1999).
Wilson came up with the idea when he worked for the Navy in the California desert. When climbing on rocks in the desert, he came up with the idea of what would happen if there was something under the ground and he could not get off this rock. He then filed that idea away.
After selling Short Circuit, agent Nancy Roberts told them to pull out their idea files. This was one of the three ideas that she gravitated towards. The screenwriters originally called the monster a landshark, but because of the popular Saturday Night Live (1975 – ) skit, this was abandoned. The movie would officially label the monster the graboid.
Greenlighting the Film
According to Underwood, this film got rejected from every major studio, not only because of its oddity, but because of its tonal balancing act of mixing laughs and scares. Underwood said that it was hard to describe in a paragraph or two. Roberts told the group to write the screenplay so they would have something to show the group.
The person who finally got it greenlit, executive producer Gale Anne Hurd, had a long history of working on horror movies with special effects artists. Former wife and collaborator of James Cameron, Hurd got many of the same people who worked on Aliens (1986) to work on Tremors.
Dimwitted yet lovable handyman Valentine “Val” McKee wants more out of life. His friend Earl Bassett serves as an older mentor of sorts. At the beginning of the film, he plans to go to Bixby with Earl for prospects of a better future.
Val also has a list of qualities that he wants his perfect woman to conform to. At the beginning, he rejects Seismology student Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter) based on her not conforming to this list.
The emotional stakes of this story have to do with whether Val will stay in the town of Perfection or go to Bixby. In the end, Val decides to stay with Rhonda. However, this was not the original ending. It originally ended with Val driving off to Bixby. However, the test audience wanted Val to kiss Rhonda, so the production went back and shot a new ending.
The audience does not see the monster for much of the movie. The audience often sees the results of the monster’s appetite and strategicness. Underwood described the idea as low budget because the monster is underground most of the time.
The design of the creature was described as being like a flower opening up. The production built mostly parts for the creature, with a few full size versions created for when the full sized creatures die.
Maddock and Wilson did not see a reason to explain the monster because of the limited amount of options they had. In order to solve this problem, they created scenes where the characters discussed how the monster got there before saying that the question did not matter.
Both of these movies take their structure partially from who the monster kills in the first half of the movie. The second half of both stories focuses on characters trying to figure out a solution to this new found creature.
Most of the victims in the film are older characters that the audience gets to know in passing, but they rarely have complex backstories or motivations. In terms of likable characters, the audience gets to know Megan and Jim (Bibi Besch and Conrad Bachmann) the best. They are trying to build their home out in the middle of the desert.
General Store owner Walter Chang (Victor Wong) also becomes a victim of the graboid. Chang looks to exploit the situation with the graboid for all it is worth. He barters with Val and Earl for a piece of the creature and then takes pictures with it.
The creature mostly eats characters that would not make the story seem more tragic. For example, the creature never really eats a family, but families do get put in danger a lot in this story. They provide the stakes of the story, but not the deaths.
How It is a Comedy
Tremors opens on comedy vignettes introducing the audience to the handymen and their world. In a traditional horror movie, the story would open on a cold open that introduced the monster. One originally existed in the film, but it got cut. In that opening, we meet two supporting characters, Edgar Deems (Sunshine Parker) and old Fred (Michael Dan Wagner). get killed off early on in the movie.
Similarly, comedy characters tend to be less sinister than their horror counterparts. In Tremors, most every character is silly and freakish more than sinister. The film also goes to great lengths to establish a colorful supporting cast to surround Val and Earl with. This includes Burt and Heather Gummer (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire), an off the grid couple with their own arsenal.
How It is a Horror Film
In both of these films, the film frames none of the characters as particularly sinister, but frames the killer monster way. The film presents this creature like the stalking shark in Jaws, complete with its own POV cam. The scares come more from what the audience does not see.
The film also presents its early scenes with the monster as a mystery. The main story begins as a bunch of odd events that the characters must figure out. After showing a few victims, the film switches to the characters having to figure out ways of defeating the monster.
Like A Quiet Place (2018), the creature attacks people based on people making noise. In A Quiet Place, the monster focuses on any type of noise, while this movie’s monster focuses on vibrations. In one scene, the characters say not to make a sound, only to hear the sound of a pogo stick from outside. This leads to a sequence where the leads have to save a little girl (Ariana Richards) from the graboid.
The Ad Campaign
The ad campaign for this movie sold the horror aspects more than the comedy aspects. The trailer uses a menacing score that builds up over the course of the trailer. It shows many of the deaths in the movie.
However, the trailer does include many of the comedy bits under the big dramatic score and a narrator that sells some of the jokes (“And they know just what to do: flip for it”). The comedy often comes out of the folksy character interactions, so the trailer includes many of the exchanges of characters bargaining over graboid parts or planning out what to do.
Both of these films have featurettes on their DVDs that act as long ads for the film. In the Tremors featurette, the voiceover narrator describes how the film is like the old 1950s monster movies.
At the time Kevin Bacon signed on the Tremors, he was at a major crossroads in his life and career. Expecting his first child, Bacon took the part partially for money to refill his dwindling bank account and partially because of his interest in the role. Unlike other leading man roles that Bacon read, the character of Val is not particularly smart or heroic. In the featurette for the film, Bacon describes him as an unlikely hero.
Tremors was not the first movie in Kevin Bacon’s career that would be sold differently than what it was and it would not be the last.
According to Bacon, Diner (1982) got sold to the studio as an Animal House–Porky’s type movie in which the characters got into wacky sexual hijinks. While the movie does have scenes like this, it does not serve as the main drive in the story, which focuses more on characters. It became more of an art film that transformed into a classic over time.
With Tremors, Bacon talked about how it is hard to sell a movie that is “funny scary.” For Example, Saw is a scary movie, so it is much less ambiguous about what the movie is. Bacon also says that there are exceptions to this, such as Shaun of the Dead (2004).
After Tremors, Bacon starred in and executively produced Wild Things (1998), a sexually charged thriller. According to Bacon, the movie was meant to be tongue and cheek about its outrageous events, but that the marketing department had a hard time capturing that element of the story.
However, Diner, Tremors, and Wild Things would later become more known to audiences at home. Both Tremors and Wild Things spawned their own direct to video series.
Although Tremors did not do well at the box office at the time of its release, it became a hit on home video, leading to a series of direct to video sequels.
Bacon himself has stated that Valentine McKee is the only character he has an interest in returning too. In 2015, Bacon starred in and executive produced a pilot for Blumhouse that he tried to sell to television, but all the Networks refused to pick up the actual series.
After moving to a sleepy small town from the big city, a arachnophobic doctor (Jeff Daniels) discovers a strain of deadly spiders living close by.
Director Frank Marshall and executive producer Steven Spielberg co-founded Amblin Entertainment together with Marshall’s wife, Kathleen Kennedy. In some ways, the film feels like a predecessor to Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, which would come out three years later. Characters even discuss dinosaurs early on.
Before this movie, Marshall co-produced all of Spielberg’s big hits over the past decade or two. The year after this film came out, Marshall and Kennedy formed their own company, The Kennedy/Marshall Company. Marshall would become the lone principal of the company after Kennedy became president of Lucasfilm when it became a subsidiary of Disney in 2012.
This film marks Marshall’s directorial debut. Marshall had previously produced for over 20 years and knew the challenges of directing. He felt that this was a story he could tell.
Co-writer Don Jakoby had a long career writing horror and science fiction. In this film, Irv Kendall compares spiders to Vampires. Jakoby would go on to co-write John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998).
Similarly, Jakoby also wrote the initial screenplay for the science fiction comedy Evolution (2001), which has a similar creature and began as a science fiction thriller. Comedy director Ivan Reitman liked the screenplay so much that he decided to buy it from Jakoby and turn it into a comedy. However, before he bought it, Reitman made it explicitly clear to Jakoby not to sell him the script if he did not like those changes.
After leaving San Francisco, Dr. Ross Jennings moves to a small town with his wife and kids. He begins the film as neurotic and stressed out. He has an expensive box of wine that he refuses to drink. He and his family represent the audience’s perspective. The film surrounds him with a bunch of weird townspeople.
Jennings moves to the small town of Canaima based on the idea that he will replace the retiring town doctor. However, Dr. Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones) refuses to retire from his practice, making Jennings’ job even harder. Overtime, Jennings goes from town pariah to town doctor.
At the end of the story, Jennings moves back to San Francisco where he and his family experience a new threat: earthquakes (which the film coincidentally calls “tremors”). Jennings decides to open one of the expensive bottles of wine. The earthquake knocks it over.
In this story, the much smaller spiders present a different threat than the graboids in Tremors. The queen spider gets picked up by a bird, which it kills. The spiders’ power comes more from their numbers than their size.
The monster comes to America from Venezuela after hitching a ride in the coffin of its victim. In this story, there is more of a scientific explanation of how the spiders got to be the way they are. The queen spider bred with a common house spider to create this new breed of super spiders.
In the opening sequence, photographer Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor) gets killed. He spends a lot of time complaining and makes a snide comment about the world needing more bugs. The spider gets into the
When the film shifts to the small town, the victims in this story tend to be the characters who most directly affect Ross Jennings’ practice as a small town doctor. Early on, each one of Jennings’ patients dies, making him the town pariah, including lovable tough minded neighbor Margaret Hollins (Mary Carver) and a football player, Todd Miller (Nathaniel Spitzley). The film makes each one of these characters likable.
That changes when the film gets to arrogant blowhard Dr. Sam Metcalfe, who has served as the human antagonist throughout most of this story. According to Margaret Hollins, Metcalfe has recently “given up leeches.” In character with this, Metcalfe opposes autopsies up until the end. When he dies, Jennings gets to perform an autopsy.
Other victims include Irv Kendall and his wife Blaire (Roy Beckwith and Kathy Kinney). The film portrays them as gluttonous. In his opening scenes, Irv eats a sandwich as he walks into the autopsy room. They die from eating a spider out of a bag of popcorn.
The final victim is the callous Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands), the scientist who discovered the spider at the beginning. The film portrays Atherton as apathetic to the needs of others, mainly concerned with the science of it all. When Manly dies, Atherton makes a comment about getting all of his film. Atherton also kills off many of the creatures in a Venezualan rainforest at the beginning of the story.
How it is a Comedy
The original screenplay began as more of a straightforward Horror film. Daniels felt that the original screenplay read as if a computer wrote it. He described the final film as more of a comedy with some thrills rather than a straightforward Horror film.
Arachnophobia features a cast of comical characters. The lead character, Dr. Ross Jennings, claims to have a fear of spiders from when one bit him as a 2 year old in the crib. Since most people start remembering around the age of 3, this fear seems more neurotic than serious.
The supporting cast includes many dimwitted and oddball characters that present Jennings with enemies and allies in the town. Delbert McClintock (John Goodman) plays an eccentric exterminator who collects beer cans. The Jennings’ next door neighbors, The Beechwoods, serve as a foil to the main family in the story. The film portrays them as ignorant, silly, and concerned primarily with athletics. Their younger daughter, Bunny (Theo Schwartz), suggests the Jennings kids go out to “blow up a bullfrog.”
How it is a Horror Film
Like many horror films, Arachnophobia begins with a cold open. This one lasts 17 minutes and introduces the audience to the threat of the spiders. This sequence leads the audience to the first victim of the film.
Similarly, Frank Marshall specifically films the spiders in ways designed to scare the audience. Marshall says in the featurette that he specifically placed the spiders in the same frame as the actors to make the scenes scarier. In many scenes, Marshall will also film the spiders in silhouette, so their being is more obscured. Similarly, the film uses creepy music to underscore the spider and create dread, much like Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) did.
Throughout the film, the menace of spiders hangs over the town for its whole runtime. Dr. Jennings’ child Tommy (Garette Ratliff Henson) picks up a baseball inches away from the spider. The film has multiple scenes where the spiders come close the children of Dr. Jennings and the Beechwoods without touching them. Early on, there is a discussion between Jennings and Henry Beechwood (Peter Jason) about how they have not heard the sound of critics recently.
The Ad Campaign
The Ad campaign of Arachnophobia called it a “thrillomedy” to emphasize the mixing of laughs and scares. The trailer sells a lot more of the small town comedy and the jokes. It begins with a joke about Dr. Jennings smelling the country air and then sneezing.
However, the film also sold itself based on the science of mixing laughs and scares. In the featurette, the filmmakers get Dr. Neil Malamuth of UCLA to describe how both scares work and how laughs release tension.
Although it was well received at the time, it was also not a movie that was immune from criticism. When Eight Legged Freaks came out in 2002, film critic Roger Ebert said that it avoided Arachnophobia’s pitfall of having non threatening little spiders in the story.
With many films, the film means something different to the audience than it does to the studio that initially sells it. Tremors grew on the audience over the years until it became known the way it is today. Arachnophobia was a small box office hit at the time. Recently, the Youtube channel Hats Off Entertainment covered the film in its (Almost) Cult Classics series.
In both cases, the films mixed laughs with scares. Each movie featured comical characters in a deadly situation where they had to save the day.