Written by: Brian Brightly, Don Michael Paul
Directed by: Don Michael Paul
Starring: Michael Gross, John Heder, and Richard Brake
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Destiny's a bitch."
Few horror franchises are defined by their protagonists. More often than not, audiences return to see whatever the villains are up to be it, a mad slasher, a monster, or some other type of creature. Sure, every now and then a franchise will find a worthy adversary in a Tommy Jarvis, Sam Loomis, Laurie Strode, or Nancy Thompson, but thereís a reason those series have produced just as many entries without those characters. Thereís no mistaking who the stars of those franchises are. Tremors, however, has always been an anomaly: while the Graboids are indelible creatures and anyone who saw the original at an impressionable age will admit to treading lightly upon the ground after watching it, theyíre not the reason you keep coming back. Rather, itís the citizens of Perfection, Nevadaóbrought to life by an imminently charming castóthat made the film endure. Over time, one of themóMichael Grossís roughneck survivalist Burt Gummeróhas practically become the franchiseís mascot, if not its entire raison raison d'Ítre: yes, you can introduce Graboid variations and put them in new, increasingly exotic locations, but Burt has become the anchor of this unlikely, long-running series, now celebrating its 30th anniversary with Shrieker Island, the seventh entry.
Itís also the third in the past five years, as Universal has recently turned to the familiar titles in its library in an effort to exploit them on the direct-to-video market. Credit is due to them, though: with both Tremors and the Chucky franchise, theyíve acknowledged the long-running continuity and have at least made an effort to honor their respective legacies. Maybe itís worked out better for the latter, but the former has at least been somewhat respectable. Far from absolute triumphs, they at least show a lot of affection for Burt, and itís obvious that Gross loves playing this character: itís easier to imagine a much grimmer fate for the Tremors franchise*, thatís for sure. So it goes with Shrieker Island, another entry that doesnít seek to do much beyond unleash the Graboids in another new location but at least has the good sense to keep Gross around to build upon the legend of Burt Gummer.
In this case, Burtís actually being pulled out of retirement: now content to live out his life as a hermit in Papua New Guinea, he looks like a gaunt Santa Claus, sporting a scraggly white beard and a shaggy mane that can no longer be tamed by his Chicago Cubs ball cap. However, when his former lover, scientist Jas Welker (Caroline Langrishe), learns that a big game hunter (Richard Brake) has genetically engineered Graboids for sport, she dispatches assistant Jimmy (Jon Heder) to bring Burt in to consult as only he can: with survivalist instincts and heavy weaponry. Facing a ticking clock (if the Shriekers mutate into Ass-Blasters, theyíll escape the island to wreak havoc on civilization), Burt assembles a ragtag crew to combat both the creatures and the misguided hunters who insist that their game must continue.
Iíll say this about Shrieker Island: itís probably the best of the recent trilogy of films, if only because it doesnít try to stretch too far beyond its means. This is still a modestly budgeted affair, and, unlike the previous two entries, itís not trying to lean too heavily on dodgy effects work. Director Don Michael Paul genuinely attempts to make the Graboids and Shriekers effective and scary again, and the ďMost Dangerous GameĒ riff gives this one a little bit more of a suspenseful feel, at least for a while. Adding Brake to the cast works wonders, too: heís emerged as one of the genreís best character actors in recent years, and he brings his signature scummy, fox-in-the-henhouse energy, giving Shrieker Island a much-needed edge. Heís a natural foil for Burt as he tries to establish himself as the islandís alpha male, so thereís a little bit more to this one than Burt sauntering in and blowing the hell out of Graboids again.
To a point, anyway: unfortunately, Shrieker Island doesnít commit hard enough to this bit, meaning it eventually does become another round of Burt Gummer whipping Graboid ass. There are worse ways to spend oneís time, of course, and he has a pretty affable ragtag surrounding him once again, highlighted by Cassie Clare and Jackie Cruz as a couple of badasses who quickly earn his respect. Heder fills the random, offbeat comedian void left behind by Jamie Kennedy (whose character is locked up in a Mexican jail) and does so well enoughóheís not playing things as broadly as his predecessor did, and he forges a nice rapport with Burt that pays off about as well as can be expected during the climax. The same is true of Grossís chemistry with Langrishe, whose character appears for the first time despite her long history with Burt. Shrieker Island really leans on Burtís significance to this franchise, so much so that the only real tension left here is whether or not this will be the one where ends up on the wrong end of a Graboid encounter.
And even though Gross is clearly invested (I kind of love that this dude could be retired but keeps coming back for more), itís unfortunate that none of this quite hits like it should. Placing Burt at the center of this franchise has been in a boon in many ways: itís nice that Tremors didnít just become a series of random entries, connected only by its monsters. Burtís presence has been something long-time fans can latch onto, and Shrieker Island recognizes this more than any of its predecessors. Itís ultimately a love letter to this unlikely hero, who has somehow become a genre icon. However, itís also true that his presence hasnít quite been enough to really recapture the magic of the earlier entries. When original creators S.S. Braddock and Brent Wilson left, they took a lot of the franchiseís charm and wit with them, so these last few movies have all felt just a bit off, and this one is no exception. Shrieker Island knows the song, but doesnít quite know the beat because itís more silly and obvious than it is funny. (For reference, itís a Tremors movie thatís obviously influenced by Predator, so of course they go out of their way to have Heder directly reference that movie a couple of times.)
But, to its credit, it tries harder than its immediate predecessors. Shrieker Island feels like a sturdier production, with stronger effects work and photography. Completely outrunning the direct-to-video feel of it all might not be in the cards, but itís a decent enough effort that takes advantage of some nice locations and features some cool action beats. A sequence where Gross and Heder ward off Shriekers in an underground cavern is among the more memorable bits of this recent trilogy of movies, mostly because Paul shows some restraint with the creature effects, confining them to crevices and shadows instead of drawing attention to the low budget with more showy, outlandish shots. Itís just too bad the overall tone doesnít quite match up all the time: this is still a pretty glib affair, marked by a juvenile streak thatís at odds with its overwrought, sentimental climax. Obviously, nobody wants a deadly serious Tremors movie but this particular type of humoróbroad, farcical cartoon stuffóonly undermines what should be a rousing, affecting climax.
Instead, the monumental ending here lands with a bit of a thud. Shrieker Island technically represents a stirring conclusion to the entire Tremors saga, yet it somehow only feels like the end of this particular cycle. Thereís such a disconnect between this new trilogy and the previous films thatís created this nagging feeling that these movies just donít quite feel right: despite Grossís continued participation and other attempts at establishing continuity, itís never felt like these films were even set in the same universe as the old ones. Theyíre trifles, in that sense, admittedly fun diversions that donít ever really feel like they mean anything. Does that sound silly when weíre talking about a series of movies about underground goddamn monsters? Maybe. But itís hard to believe that the finale here wouldnít have been much more effective if it had unfolded within the more familiar, cozy confines of Perfection, with the cast and crew that made the first film a genuine classic. These past few movies have been kind of like going on a family vacation with one of your parents and a bunch of strangers. You feel like you should be having a good time if you could just settle in and get comfortable. Shrieker Island tries its best to be more hospitable, but thereís really nothing better than perfection.
*Of course, we are living in the timeline where the SyFy channel passed on producing a new Tremors series with Kevin Bacon returning as Val, so maybe this really is the grim fate.
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