To casual film viewers, American Pie is a series of comedies about the sexual misadventures of awkward Midwesterner Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) and his buddies, and Tremors is a B-movie creature feature starring Kevin Bacon. Those viewers might be surprised to learn that there are now nine American Pie movies and seven Tremors movies, including the latest releases in both franchises, out this month. All but the first Tremors movie have been released straight to video, while American Pie has managed four theatrical releases focused on Jim and friends, with the concurrent American Pie Presents series headed directly to home viewing.
In that alternate world, American Pie is a sort of clearinghouse of teen sexual escapades in East Great Falls, Michigan, featuring multiple branches of the horndog Stifler family, while Tremors chronicles the ongoing adventures of monster hunter Burt Gummer, played by unlikely action star Michael Gross. They’re both part of the still-thriving world of direct-to-video brand extension, in which largely forgotten films like Sam Mendes’ 2005 war movie Jarhead and the 1993 Tom Berenger/Billy Zane action movie Sniper can spawn multi-decade franchises, often with their own dedicated cult followings completely separate from their original installments.
The new entries in the American Pie Presents and Tremors series both come from Universal’s 1440 division, which has been especially aggressive about exploiting its parent studio’s intellectual property. Featuring an entirely new set of characters, American Pie Presents: Girls’ Rules represents a new start of sorts for the American Pie Presents brand, which went on hiatus after 2009’s American Pie Presents: The Book of Love, so the original cast could return for 2012 theatrical release American Reunion. Tremors: Shrieker Island, however, is a direct extension of the surprisingly involved continuity of the Tremors series, bringing back Burt for another battle against the subterranean graboids (and their various permutations) that have haunted him for three decades.
The one character who appeared in all the previous variations on American Pie was Jim’s dad, Noah Levenstein (Eugene Levy), but even he is nowhere to be found in Girls’ Rules, which once again takes place in East Great Falls and focuses on a group of teenage friends navigating the difficult world of sex. Perhaps in an effort to atone for the truly vile misogyny of the previous four Presents movies, Girls’ Rules for the first time puts female characters in the spotlight, and it tones down the often shockingly graphic content of the previous Presents films, which essentially devolved into softcore porn for teen boys.
Best friends Annie (Madison Pettis), Kayla (Piper Curda), Michelle (Natasha Behnam) and Stephanie (Lizze Broadway) make a pact before their senior year of high school that they’ll all focus on getting what they want out of romance and sex, and it just so happens that each of their goals and desires converges on hunky new student Grant (Darren Barnet). Stephanie is the latest in the series’ long line of Stiflers, although as in The Book of Love, the movie doesn’t even bother to explain how she’s related to Seann William Scott’s original. There are references to band camp, and there are multiple pies, but otherwise Girls’ Rules is a completely standalone teen coming-of-age comedy, without any of the memorably gross set pieces of either the main series or the Presents spin-offs.
The filmmakers (all men, of course, including series veteran David H. Steinberg as co-writer) seem to have no idea what to do with female protagonists, and instead of finding alternative ways to be raunchy, they just cover everything up. There’s plenty of relatively tame sex, but no nudity, and even the main comedic mishap (featuring a pair of vibrating panties) involves the main character completely clothed. The four stars are all enthusiastic and likable, although Barnet, who comes off like an amalgam of both Franco brothers, can’t make Grant into a convincing object of desire for these four diverse ladies. Sara Rue is amusing as the characters’ equally horny (and empowered) school principal, but Danny Trejo’s presence is wasted as a school janitor who doesn’t have a single line until a brief post-credits scene.
Still, merely by not being horrifically disgusting and offensive, Girls’ Rules is a step up from the last few Presents movies, and it’ll be a passable time-filler when it ends up on Netflix in a few months, sandwiched between the service’s other unremarkable teen comedies. Director Mike Elliott uses TV-style onscreen titles to introduce characters and mark the passing of time, and he blatantly rips off the “expectation vs. reality” sequence from (500) Days of Summer to craft the movie’s most striking moment, but mostly he just delivers the basic story as efficiently as possible. There’s none of the emotional core that carries the American Pie movies at their best, but at least no one gets anally raped by a moose.
Somehow Tremors: Shrieker Island evokes a greater sense of pathos, thanks to Gross’ impressive commitment to the character of Burt Gummer, who’s been more of a long-term presence in his career than his beloved role on Family Ties. Now in his 70s, Gross plays Burt as a grizzled veteran whose life has been defined by forces outside of his control, and when the movie introduces him, he’s living alone on an island like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, with a bushy beard and long, stringy hair, nearly feral.
But he’s still Burt Gummer, the man who’s hunted the underground monsters known as graboids on multiple continents, starting in the tiny town of Perfection, Nevada, in the original 1990 movie. While other characters hung on for one or two more installments, Burt was clearly the central figure by the third Tremors movie, with Gross ascending to top billing. Gross even played Burt’s 19th-century ancestor in 2004 prequel Tremors 4: The Legend Begins. Series creators Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson were involved as writers and/or directors through the fourth movie, but when Universal revived Tremors (and Burt) after a decade away for 2015’s Tremors 5: Bloodlines, they handed the reins over to straight-to-video expert Don Michael Paul, who’s directed latter-day entries in franchises including Death Race, Kindergarten Cop and The Scorpion King.
Paul’s Tremors films all follow the same formula, sending Burt to various far-flung locales to fight new graboid infestations, and in Shrieker Island, he’s recruited when a graboid hunting trip goes awry. A billionaire biotech tycoon (Richard Brake) has commissioned genetically engineered graboids to make them even more dangerous, selling off the rights to hunt them on a private island. But he hasn’t counted on the second phase of the graboids’ life cycle, in which they spawn the more ambulatory, heat-seeking shriekers, and when some creatures escape to a nearby research outpost, the scientists call in Burt to help them destroy the monsters.
The pulpy B-movie tone of Maddock and Wilson’s earlier movies has been replaced by painfully overwritten “badass” dialogue and a cartoonish style defined by ugly CGI effects, but Gross is still clearly having fun as Burt, and Jon Heder is a much less annoying sidekick for him than Jamie Kennedy was in the last two movies. Shrieker Island makes better use of its jungle location (shot in Thailand) than 2018’s Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell did with its snow-free “arctic,” and there are plenty of explosions that result in creatures being reduced to flying orange goo. But the graboids and shriekers have undergone overly detailed, spiky redesigns, losing a lot of their old-school charm, and the appealingly goofy supporting characters in Perfection have been largely replaced by anonymous cannon fodder.
Shrieker Island reconnects Burt with a long-lost love and even gives him a sense of emotional closure amid the graboid attacks, and while it isn’t a particularly good movie, it’s a nice showcase for a character who has become an unlikely cinematic institution. The American Pie Presents movies can throw in a different Stifler every time without anyone objecting, but there’s only one Burt Gummer. He’s an endearingly human presence in one of the film industry’s most cynical enterprises.
“American Pie Presents: Girls’ Rules” is out now on VOD and DVD. “Tremors: Shrieker Island” is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD October 20.