Dir: Don Michael Paul. Starring: Michael Gross, Jon Heder, Jackie Cruz, Richard Brake, Caroline Langrishe, Cassie Clare. 15, 103 mins.
Beyond the blockbusters and the awards bait, Universal Pictures has been quietly pursuing that hallowed tradition of the direct-to-video franchise. Few may have realised, but there have been nine American Pies, eight Chuckys, five Dragonhearts, and six Death Races – many of them produced under the Universal 1440 banner, an offshoot of the studio’s home-entertainment division. Over time, they’ve become their own secret worlds, with adoring fan bases and epic, cross-sequel narratives.
Tremors: Shrieker Island, the seventh film in a now 30-year-old franchise, is the latest from Universal 1440’s stable. It may speak eloquently to its fanbase, but it’s guaranteed to baffle any outsider. There’s no trace of Kevin Bacon – he never returned for any of the sequels – and little continuation from the original Tremors, released in 1990 to box office failure and subsequent cult revival.
What does remain are the Graboids, the flabby, oversized sandworms that occasionally erupt out of the ground to chomp on human flesh. Their bipedal spawn, the Shriekers, were first introduced in the second film, but return here for the first time since the third – they’re a little like velociraptors without the book smarts. Lastly, there’s Michael Gross’s Burt Gummer, a ratchety but affable survivalist-type who was treated as a jokey side note in the original but has since grown into the franchise’s improbable action hero.
Don Michael Paul, the direct-to-video veteran behind Shrieker Island and two of its predecessors, Bloodlines and A Cold Day in Hell, has done his best to change up the locales – we’ve gone from the South African savanna to the Arctic, and now to the Solomon Islands. But the only purpose here is to liberally borrow from Jurassic Park; Shrieker Island sees a billionaire tycoon (Richard Brake’s Bill) breed genetically engineered superpredators (the Graboids) so that he can turn a private island into a holiday hotspot. Here, Bill has invited a pack of wealthy, Silicon Valley dweebs so they can play-act at being big-game hunters.
In time, the bad rich people get their comeuppance. Someone even gets eaten on a toilet – or to be more precise, in a toilet. A group of kind, well-meaning scientists band together to save the day. Jas (Caroline Langrishe), their leader, is a Jane Goodall-type, with her green khakis and open white shirt. She also happens to be an old flame of Gummer’s, and knows to call him when the Earth starts to tremble. Jon Heder, as Jimmy, plays up the same guilelessness he brought to Napoleon Dynamite, though Paul and Brian Brightly’s script is smart enough never to make him a complete buffoon.
Shrieker Island is only ever truly interested in raining down wet chunks of worm meat and funnelling macho one-liners to Gross – “destiny’s a bitch” is uttered without irony or meaning. The CGI is charmless compared to the original’s practical effects. The actors are all charismatic, but always seem to be delivering their lines into the ether as opposed to each other. But if there’s anything in Shrieker Island’s favour, it’s that it knows it has a guaranteed audience to play to. There’s genuine warmth here and, at times, an unexpected sense of sincerity. The film ends with the subtitle “Celebrate Burt Gummer Day on April 14th” – it’s an odd request, but this film is perfectly crafted for those who would heed it.