The Tremors 4: The Legend Begins episode of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? was Written by Cody Hamman, Narrated by Travis Hopson, Edited by Ric Solomon, Produced by Andrew Hatfield and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.
The subterranean creatures known as Graboids are prehistoric life-forms. And the first Tremors movie wasn’t the story of humanity’s first encounter with them. In fact, there was a series of Graboid attacks just one hundred years earlier. Four movies into the Tremors franchise, we got a prequel that took us back to the Old West for a tale of cowboys and monsters. It’s Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (watch it HERE) – which turned out to be the least successful installment in the series. We’re going to try to figure out why in this episode of What the F*ck Happened to This Horror Movie!
The production company Stampede Entertainment was formed by S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, Nancy Roberts, and Ron Underwood. The team that was behind the classic 1990 monster movie Tremors. When Universal decided they wanted direct-to-video Tremors sequels, they turned to Stampede to provide them. Underwood had directed the first movie, but Wilson took the helm for the second, and Maddock directed the third. Tremors 3: Back to Perfection premiered on the Universal-owned Sci-Fi Channel in the fall of 2001. And the ratings were so high, Sci-Fi quickly asked Stampede if they would be interested in making a Tremors TV series. They definitely were. They had first put together a pitch for a series in 1995. So Tremors: The Series was put in motion for a 2003 debut. And right when the show was gaining momentum, the home video division of Universal decided they wanted another Tremors movie.
Stampede was surprised to hear Universal was interested in a Tremors 4. When they had hired Stampede to make Part 3, they had told them it would be the end of the film franchise. That’s why they took the story back to the town where the first film took place. The desert town of Perfection, Nevada. And that’s why they completed the life cycle of the Graboids. Tremors 2 had showed that Graboids metamorphose into two-legged creatures called Shriekers if they’re around long enough. Tremors 3 then showed that Shriekers metamorphose into flying creatures called Ass Blasters. Which lay the eggs that hatch Graboids. Stampede didn’t know what they could do with another movie. Especially since they were already expanding the franchise with the TV show. But when Universal said they were going to make Tremors 4 with or without them, they agreed to come up with an idea. And that’s when it occurred to them that they could make a prequel.
Wilson, Maddock, and Roberts crafted a story that takes place in 1889. A makeshift town has been put up near a silver mine – and fans will be able to tell this is the town that will someday be known as Perfection. But at this point it’s called Rejection, and it’s not much of a town yet. The buildings can be taken down quickly if the mine is played out. But that’s not the issue the Rejection residents run into in this film. There’s still plenty of silver in that mine when some of the workers are killed by creatures that move through the ground. Operations shut down. Most of the town residents flee. Then the owner of the mine shows up, wanting to know what’s going on. And discovers that there will be no more mining unless he can figure out how to eradicate the underground monsters. We know them as Graboids, but they weren’t given that name until a hundred years later. The characters in this film call them Dirt Dragons.
An extensive outline was written, but Stampede was so busy with the TV series that they had to hire another writer to flesh out the screenplay. They chose Scott Buck – who is, ironically, best known for his work on TV shows. His credits include Coach, Six Feet Under, Dexter, Inhumans, and Iron Fist. Stampede was pleased with his script and Tremors 4 was ready to go into production. It would be filmed in California at the same time Tremors: The Series was filming in Mexico. So it was decided that Wilson would direct Tremors 4 while Maddock stayed in Mexico to keep an eye on the TV show.
The main issue with making the prequel and the TV series at the same time is the fact that both would star Michael Gross. Gross played the supporting role of survivalist Burt Gummer in the first two Tremors movies. His character was promoted to the lead as of Tremors 3, and remained the lead on the TV show. But even though Tremors 4 was taking place in the Old West, Stampede still wanted Gross in the film. They decided to make the owner of the mine Burt’s great-grandfather, Hiram Gummer. Someone who is as different from Burt as possible. Raised a spoiled rich kid, Hiram is an effete dandy, and not a very nice person. But over the course of the film, we get to watch Hiram evolve. And while watching his evolution, we can also see how Burt ended up the way he did. Hiram has to be taught how to shoot a gun. By the end of the film, he is an enthusiastic fan of firearms. Just like Burt will be. Hiram moves to Perfection Valley, as Burt will do. He learns to care about people and risk his own safety to help them. Which his great-grandson will do a lot. And the fact that Hiram owns a silver mine explains why Burt has never been known to work a regular job. He inherited a silver fortune. Burt said he moved to Perfection because of the geographical isolation… But it probably didn’t hurt that his family already owned property there.
Gross was totally on board with playing Hiram Gummer and making him very different from Burt. He actually wanted to shake things up even more, suggesting he could play a different gender. His idea was revealed in Jonathan Melville’s Tremors guide Seeking Perfection. Gross’s pitch was that “there some milquetoast guy in this little town of Rejection who sends away for a bride from the east. What he gets is this rip-snorting steam locomotive of a woman who happens to be 6’3” and played by me. I wanted to play Burt’s great-grandmother and you could see that Burt’s craziness came from the female side.” But Stampede decided to stick with their Hiram idea. Still, Gross did have a lot of input on the character. And would tweak his dialogue with Wilson throughout production.
Despite the fact that they were both owned by Universal, Sci-Fi and the home video division refused to cooperate. Neither would shift their schedule to allow Gross to work on both the TV show and the movie. That’s why Burt Gummer is barely present, or entirely absent, for the last three episodes of the show’s only season. Gross had to leave to go work on Tremors 4. At least he got to star in ten episodes before he left.
Stampede built a strong supporting cast around Gross. And Hiram isn’t the only one who has a connection to other Tremors characters. Ming Lo, Lydia Look, and Sam Ly play the Chang family. Who have immigrated from China and opened Chang’s Market in Rejection. The same store their descendants Walter and Jodi will eventually run. Sara Botsford plays Christine Lord, who runs a hotel in the town. And gets close to Hiram as the story goes on. Hiram is aided in his Graboid hunting endeavors by miner Juan Padilla, played by Brent Roam. And gunfighter Black Hand Kelly, played by Billy Drago. The man who teaches Hiram how to shoot a gun. Other Rejection residents include August Schellenberg as Tecopa and J.E. Freeman as an odd fellow called Old Fred. There was an Old Fred in the first Tremors movie as well. And both Freds end up the same way.
Tremors 4 didn’t have the smoothest production. Figuring out Gross’s schedule wasn’t the only problem. There were also budgetary issues. Even though this movie’s four million dollar budget was slightly higher than Part 3’s. It couldn’t be filmed in a remote location like the first Tremors had been. Like Part 3, it had stick close to Los Angeles. That way they could save money on hotel rooms and just have cast and crew drive themselves to work from their own homes. They couldn’t afford to fully build the town of Rejection. But luckily, they found out that buildings in temporary mining towns often had canvas walls. So they were able to save money by giving Chang’s Market and Christine’s hotel canvas walls. Rejection was built in a little canyon with a highway and a residential neighborhood nearby. There were construction noises to film around. There were loud frogs in the area. There were complaints from nearby houses that people’s dogs were upset by the sound of gunfire on the set. The set was hit by torrential rain. Some scenes were shot at Bronson Caves. Right below the Hollywood sign. One day during the cave shoot, firefighters were battling a brush fire on the hills above them. Beyond sound and weather problems, there were also moments that had to be simplified to keep the budget down. The production couldn’t even afford to shoot anything with a second unit.
Of course, a good portion of the budget went toward the special effects. And even though there had been CGI creatures in Parts 2 and 3, Wilson decided to go entirely practical on this one. Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis had provided the practical effects on the first three movies. But KNB had taken over Graboid duties for the TV show, and did the same for Tremors 4. Linda Drake and Kevin Kutchaver were brought back from 3 to handle computer effects. But this time they would only be doing compositing work. Dropping practical creature footage shot in front of a green screen into footage shot on set. A lot of the effects were done in miniature by 4-Ward Productions’ Robert and Dennis Skotak. Who had also worked on the first Tremors. The Skotaks created moments with quarter scale Graboids in miniature sets built on a twenty foot by ten foot table with a green screen in the background. And their work looks awesome. One of the best examples of a practical Graboid effect being composited into a shot comes during a chase scene. Hiram, Christine, and Juan are on a wagon that’s being chased by a Graboid. And when their wagon crosses a bridge, we see the Graboid plow through the gap below the bridge. It’s very cool.
We know the entire Graboid life cycle at this point. But Stampede still managed to show us something new about the monsters. Tremors 4 only features the Graboids, there are no Shriekers or Ass Blasters this time around. But for the first time, we get to see Graboids that have just recently hatched. For the first reveal of the creatures, they are just five feet long. And these mini-Graboids attack their prey by launching themselves out of the ground. So the characters think that’s what they’ll be dealing with the whole time. And when the Graboids reach full size about halfway through, it’s quite a shock to the people trying to get rid of them.
Things had been looking bright for the Tremors franchise in 2001 and 2002. With the success of Part 3 leading to the TV show and prequel being greenlit simultaneously. Unfortunately, that brightness started fading in 2003. Sci-Fi chose to air the show’s episodes in a completely random order. Making things awkward and confusing for viewers. Although ratings were good and probably would have kept the show on the air longer these days, the series was cancelled after one season. Then the release of Tremors 4 was delayed several months. Long enough that, if Universal had delayed the production that much, Gross would have been able to do those last episodes of the series. The film had its Sci-Fi premiere in January of 2004, five months after the series ended. Fans tuned in for that airing – but the DVD sales were low. Tremors 4 was not as successful as the previous movies had been. But that’s not necessarily a reflection of the film’s quality.
The DVD market was already starting to crumble at that point. Rental numbers were down. Prices were lowered. Walmart started carrying less titles. And it didn’t help that Universal decided to send Tremors 4 out into the world with almost zero promotion. Less people were interested in renting or buying DVDs. But even if they would have been interested in Tremors 4, they didn’t know it existed. At one point, Universal was feeling positive enough that they asked Stampede to write a script for Tremors 5. Wilson, Maddock, and Roberts put together a story about Burt Gummer hunting Graboids in Australia. A location they had originally wanted to go to for Tremors 2. But then Universal decided not to move forward with the sequel and shelved the script. They wouldn’t dust off that script until ten years later. When they finally decided to make Tremors 5, they told Stampede they could have executive producer credits. But they couldn’t have any creative input. So Stampede walked away from the project. Which ended up being rewritten to take place in South Africa. Gross would return for 5 and two sequels beyond that. But Tremors 4 marks the end of the Stampede era.
It’s a shame the film wasn’t more successful, because it’s actually really good. Some fans are instantly put off by the idea of a prequel set in the Old West. But others find Tremors 4 to be one of the best entries in the franchise. It’s the most similar to the first movie, since it’s the same basic Graboid situation. It’s just set in a different time period. The characters are interesting and well-written. Gross did strong work playing a very different Gummer. The practical creature effects are great. There are some fun attack and chase sequences. And cinematographer Virgil Harper, who also shot the three previous movies, captured a classic Western look for the film. There is a bit too much downtime in the story. It lacks the excitement and intensity of the Graboid encounters in the first movie. But it’s still highly entertaining. And it happens to be Gross’s favorite of all the Tremors follow-ups.
Gross told Jonathan Melville, “To me Tremors 4 was the most complete. We went back to our roots in the best possible way, in that there were women and children who were in jeopardy. As powerful a movie as The Thing is, a wonderful film both the original and the remake, it’s a bunch of guys. Get a few women and children in there and you’re really fighting for something. And people are very much on your side. I think that’s what was so very powerful about the first film.”
Tremors 4 was under-seen at the time of its release. And has been under-loved in the years since. So if you’re in the mood to see people in the Old West fighting subterranean monsters, seek it out. You might have as much fun watching it as Hiram Gummer has firing a Gatling gun.
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Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/tremors-4-wtf/