Written by: John Whelpley
Directed by: Don Michael Paul
Starring: Michael Gross, Jamie Kennedy, and Jamie-Lee Money
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"How do you not die? You never die!"
It’s fitting that the latest Tremors movie is subtitled A Cold Day in Hell because I’m guessing most reasonable folks would assume that hell would freeze over before this franchise reached six entries (and this is not to mention a television series that scratched out 13 episodes before cancellation). For whatever reason, Universal decided to dust this property off after a decade-long layoff a few years ago, so here we are with Michael Gross in tow to boot, ready to do battle once again with his Graboid arch-nemeses. Maybe the only thing more surprising than its very existence is the fact that it’s still very much a sequel, though we’re certainly not upset about that around these parts.
In fact, A Cold Day in Hell is often concerned with honoring the franchise’s legacy: it opens in Perfection, now home to a grand population of two. There’s Burt himself, now the proprietor of Chang’s market (and sporting a Chicago Cubs hat instead of his old Atlanta Hawks gear), though it’s not clear exactly who he sells anything to. Just about the only visitors he receives lately are tax collectors threatening to confiscate his small armory to pay his outstanding debt to the federal government, a nuisance that’s predictably made Burt surly as hell. Well, even surlier than usual, I guess. An opportunity to climb out of depth arises, however, when Burt’s son Travis (Jamie Kennedy) arrives bearing news: an arctic expedition has apparently run afoul of Graboids in a remote area of Canada, and old man Gummer is naturally the only person who can do anything about it.
You might look at A Cold Day in Hell and decide, “hey, this is pretty much like the last movie, only it’s set in Canada,” and you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. For the most part, this one swaps out the previous film’s South African locales in favor of the chillier, Canadian ones here, a trek that doesn’t exactly amount to a whole lot. The arctic factor is hardly ever, well, a factor, meaning it could pretty much set anywhere—though I suppose not every place leaves an opportunity for a subtitle like A Cold Day in Hell. At any rate, yes, this one is pretty much more of the same, which is disappointing considering this franchise wasn’t content to stand pat, as the earlier sequels would introduce new Graboid evolutions or take place in the Old West.
If anything, A Cold Day in Hell is concerned with dialing things down and recapturing the simplicity of the original: after a couple of encounters with an Ass-Blaster, Burt and company are largely concerned with fending off a trio of Graboids within the confines of the research facility and its surrounding areas. On the one hand, it’s a smart decision given the film’s low budget, and you could do worse than try to recapture the magic of the original film’s four-quadrant appeal—after all, money can’t always buy the charm and infectious love for monster movies that guides Tremors. But on the other hand, A Cold Day in Hell also proves that you can’t always recapture lightning in a bottle either, especially when there’s no real commitment to crafting a new set of magnetic personalities.
Rather, the exact opposite is on display, as Burt is surrounded by broadly-sketched caricatures that give the impression that you shouldn’t take any of this seriously. Granted, the original Tremors thrived on humor, but it was grounded in genuine, natural wit and flowed naturally through a charismatic cast whose chemistry was off the charts. A Cold Day in Hell is just a try-hard cartoon by comparison, full of sophomoric nonsense and overwrought performances that coax more eye-rolls than laughs. I’d say its brand of humor is best exemplified in the decision to return Jamie Kennedy’s mangy, hyperactive horndog, but I can do one better: you know the scene in the original where the characters spill water onto the ground to distract the Graboids? It’s echoed here, only instead of water it’s a guy pissing into the wind, which just about sums it up in more ways than one.
Not only does it reflect the low-brow aim here, but it also reveals the film’s preoccupation with call-backs. John Whelpley litters his script with various references to the first film, sometimes in the form of repeated dialogue (“broke into the wrong goddamn hangar didn’t you, you bastard?!” Burt screams at one point, reminding us of better days) but more often in the form of direct references to previous entries. Burt’s ex Heather is invoked on a couple of occasions to lend a bit more gravitas, while one newcomer (Jamie-Lynn Money) is revealed to be Valerie McKee, daughter to Val and Rhonda. It turns out to be a mostly empty bit of fan-service though, as this Val just recedes to the background amongst the horde of other forgettable faces, which also includes some shady DARPA agents that mostly exist so Burt can bounce around more maniacal conspiracy theories. There’s a lot going on, yet none of this stuff really seems to stick as A Cold Day in Hell burrows through one ear before exiting the other without incident: just about the only thing I could muster as the credits rolled was a mild shrug.
Which is a bummer, of course: no, Tremors 6 doesn’t embarrass the franchise any more than the previous entry did, but it also doesn’t make much of a case for its continued existence. It’s especially disappointing considering Gross—who is spry as hell at 70-years-old—is still around and clearly so invested in the series. All these years later, his energy is infectious, and A Cold Day in Hell’s most compelling subplot involves a Graboid parasite that apparently infected Burt when he was swallowed whole by the best in part 3. Nevermind that it’s taken over a decade to manifest itself, but it will slowly but surely kill Burt unless Travis and company can somehow extract an antidote from a live Graboid. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t grab me: after 28 years and six movies, this old curmudgeon has grown on me, and the thought of seeing him put down in this outing was depressing.
Thankfully, everyone involved knows better and recognize that most of this franchise’s appeal rests in watching Michael Gross blow away Graboids. Even if the lackluster effects keep even that from being as spectacularly visceral as it should be, there’s some satisfaction to be gleaned from the film’s wry, knowing climax that sees Burt reclaiming his rightful place as the alpha Graboid hunter. Perhaps the scariest thing about A Cold Day in Hell is its insinuation that Jamie Kennedy might take over the mantle from his on-screen pops, so it’s nice to see the film itself slam the door shut on that possibility towards the end. Remember the scene in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull where Harrison Ford swipes his fedora away from Shia LaBeouf? It’s sort of like that, only it involves heavy weaponry.
That being said, I’m not sure exactly what counts as a viable future for this franchise. Just a couple of weeks ago, we Tremors fans were on top of the world: not only was this sixth movie imminent, but Kevin Bacon’s television series—which shot a pilot last fall—was also in the works. Unfortunately, A Cold Day in Hell is a dud, and SyFy passed on the series, leaving Tremors dangling with an uncertain future. Gross has recently stated that a seventh film is already being discussed and might feature the underwater Graboids that have been long-rumored since the third film.
If this is the direction Universal takes, I can only hope they finally turn back to Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson, the franchise creators whose presence has been sorely missed in these most recent films. Given the success Universal has had with Don Mancini shepherding Chucky back to glory, it’s baffling that they would just turn Tremors into such a mercenary endeavor. While I’m sure everyone involved with these past two has meant well, I have to believe a seventh film would have a fighting chance to be decent with Maddock and Wilson involved. A bigger budget, a theatrical release, and a side of Bacon would also be nice, if you catch my drift.
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