A group of small alien creatures escape a prison transport ship and are pursed by two shape-shifting bounty hunters to Earth.
We need to talk Gremlins. Having made one of the more notable pint-sized creature features of the 1980s, writer-director Stephen Herek keeps having to answer if he ripped off Joe Dante’s 1984 classic. As with Ghoulies (1985), it was much the same case of Domonic Muir writing the initial screenplay some years before Gremlins beat them to the punch. But we shouldn’t bemoan healthy competition, as these lower-budget knock-offs may have never been made without a bigger success paving the way. This was especially fruitful as Herek and Muir rewrote most of their script to ensure some creative distance and the sci-fi horror-comedy Critters succeeded in distinguishing itself.
Similar to how Gremlins harkens back to the Chinese mysticism of old adventure serials, Critters is a 1950s outer space B Movie throwback. Whereas The Thing (1982), The Blob (1988), and Predator (1987) all featured a mysterious alien visitor, here we start at Prison Asteroid-Sector-17; a place we never actually revisit but which establishes the campy tone. These furballs with teeth, known as ‘Krites’, hatch a jail break, hijack a spaceship, and set a course for Earth. They’re more than nasty by nature, they’re convicts with a bad attitude. We also have the biggest departure from the Gremlins formula: bazooka-toting alien bounty hunters hot on their trail. Only named in the sequel, Ug (Terrence Mann) and Lee (Ethan Phillips/Jeremy Lawrence/Don Opper) morph their gummy green heads to fit in amongst Earthlings, despite dressing like they’re at a Star Trek convention, with Ug picking glam rocker Johnny Steele, while Lee whines “nothing likes me” and switches between several comical choices throughout.
One might remember Lee taking the buxom Playboy centrefold form of Roxanne Kernohan, compete with the magazine staple on her stomach! The thing is you’re recalling some of the best moments from Critters 2: The Main Course (1988), which certainly blends with the original in my memory. The two make a wonderful double-bill, and the sequel is close to as enjoyable as Gremlins! Indeed, watching Critters today, it really only serves as an appetiser for its more fully-realised follow-up.
Critters feels cramped. It’s set around the Brown family household, and we venture out to see the bounty hunters in town now and again, but all the critter action takes place entirely inside one dimly-lit house. I can understand how a lot of people overlook this because the Brown family are so likeable. From the first scene, the morning routine for our protagonists feels like a Conservative breakfast advertisement; there’s precocious young Brad (Scott Grimes) running his thermometer under hot water, his teenage sister April (Nadine Van Der Velde) on the phone to her latest boyfriend, their dad Jay (Billy Green Bush) toiling away in the basement, all while mom Helen (Dee Wallace) prepares their meals. These archetypes are nothing new, and for the first act we’re having fun largely because the cast is genuinely affectionate toward each other, but as we spend an entire evening with them before the aliens even arrive on Earth, nothing clever or interesting ever develops.
Dee Wallace was coming off E.T – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Cujo (1983), again playing the ordinary mom in extraordinary circumstances. She gives it her all in this performance, which is certainly commendable, but even when blasting away critters with a shotgun her role is one-note hysterical. Scott Grimes does well in his big-screen debut as the plucky hero who has a fun friendship with resident crazy-drunk Charlie (Don Opper), who bizarrely goes onto becoming the staple character in four Critters films. I guess being the brother of the producer helped! Horror legend Lin Shaye (Insidious) also has a delightful bit-part here, and her cashing in with Robert Shaye, founder of New Line, paid off big time.
Sadly, we spend an awful lot of time we these folks and not nearly enough with the Critters. Just when things start to get fun (like a creepy scene of the dad getting chewed out in the basement), things slow down and we watch him get patched up. For a gang of perpetually hungry monsters, the Critters let their meals sit around far too long between actual attacks! In one of the longer suspenseful sequences, the family have locked themselves outside, the dad passed out, the mom trying to load the shotgun, all while Brad has to scale the house to unlock it. And after we’ve seen just how nimble these beasties can be, rolling around in balls like Sonic the Hedgehog, they take their sweet time inching toward the porch like it’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) all of a sudden.
It’s a shame this movie is more fun when we’re instead following the bounty hunters, foreshadowing the bar scene from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) over and over again. Crashing police cars into churches, throwing bowling balls so hard they disintegrate the pins, and generally blasting every location to smithereens with their huge laser cannons, these two ‘professionals’ are hilariously terrible at their job. While the budget seems oddly spread, the Chiodo Brothers deliver another wonderful job with their work on both the shape-shifting VFX and in bringing the Krites to life. I love how charmingly low-fi the trick of just throwing a furball around works, but they also look believable when walking and talking.
The root problem connecting all my issues is that Critters doesn’t deliver on either the comedy or horror, like Gremlins or Critters 2. It has some memorable moments, (like a Krite being splattered and another yelling “FUCK!”) but a lot of the writing comes across as mildly amusing rather than genuinely funny. The bumbling Sheriff (M. Emmett Walsh) trying to piece together the trail of destruction with Shaye is simply rehashing exactly what we’ve seen already, and we have plenty of opportunity with the casting of Billy Zane as the typical douchebag boyfriend over for dinner, but he’s far too nice and wasted early on. Herek and Muir are too enamoured with the ‘50s throwback townsfolk, so almost nobody dies! Tremors (1990) went for a similar tone, but at least they knew to kill off some characters to add a sense of threat.
This flaw might also be due to Critters being Herek’s debut, as he went on to direct better films like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead (1991), and The Mighty Ducks (1992). It’s telling of a man’s creativity that three out of four of these franchises are still alive today! There’s nothing specifically wrong in his directing, but the cinematography is thoroughly drab once the Krites cut the power, which throws most of the film into a murky blue darkness that is too flat. Perhaps the auspicious scene of the Krites tearing up Brad’s room (shredding pillows, eating the goldfish, beheading an E.T. plushie), has been exaggerated in people’s memories, because it felt like the entire film promised that kind of zany fun.
Maybe I’m being too down on Critters, as even famous critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert enjoyed this silly movie! Ebert said “this is a movie made by people who must have had fun making it” and that carries through to a lot of the fanbase. Not only did we eventually get a soft-reboot in Critters Attack! (2019), complete with Dee Wallace, but a web-series called Critters: The New Binge (2019). And yes, the title evokes Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), but maybe I’m still making those unfair comparisons. Critters isn’t as stupid as Ghoulies, or as flat-out awful as Hobgoblins (1988), and there’s room for all the movies inspired by Gremlins to be enjoyed on their own level.
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USA | 1986 | 86 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Stephen Herek.
writers: Stephen Herek, Domonic Muir & Don Keith Opper (story by Domonic Muir).
starring: Dee Wallace Stone, M. Emmet Walsh, Billy Green Bush, Scott Grimes, Nadine van der Velde, Don Opper & Terrence Mann.