Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Critters

This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch a horror movie every day. Today’s pick comes from the mid-to-late 80s rush of PG-13 Gremlins imitators.

As a kid, this scared the bejeezus out of me. As an adult, it delights me.

Upon its release in 1986, Stephen Herek’s sci-fi/horror comedy Critters was met with a mild response from critics. Some didn’t care for it. Others thought it was a perfectly fine little B-movie. Few seemed to outright love it or hate it. Roger Ebert, in his thumbs up review, kindly stated, “This is a movie made by people who must have had fun making it.”

It was a completely different story for me. As I’ve previously explained, my older brothers had a thing for showing me scary movies I was way too young for and I had a thing for letting them, nightmares be damned. They unleashed Critters on me before I’d even attended my first kindergarten class, and my little mind simply couldn’t handle the sight of something so small with so many rows of teeth:

Plus, those little monsters have porcupine-like quills they shoot out of their bodies, instantly paralyzing their targets. Once I saw them use that and chow down on their first victim, I was forever scarred. Never before had I realized something small, furry and almost pet-like could be so dangerous. It certainly didn’t help that I lived in the same state, Kansas, the film’s small, fictional town (Grover’s Bend) and nearby farm is said to be set in. Every time I visited my uncle’s farm after that, I made sure to scan the distance for critters. Don’t tell me the critters aren’t real and I’m wasting my time, I’d say. I’m protecting my family!

Until last night, that was my lasting memory of Critters. Well, that and the face-shifting bounty hunters and their big ass guns.

For some reason, I was convinced the one on the right was played by Bon Jovi. Nope, that’s Terrence Mann, then of various Broadway musicals, lately of Sense8.

As per usual with revisiting films which scared us as kids, watching Critters now is a revelation in just how tame it actually is. There’s blood, but not much. Kills, but not too many. The whole thing is legitimately PG-13, which was a new rating at the time, and positively Spielbergian in its impulses. Domonic Muir and Herek’s script focuses on a young boy’s (Scott Grimes) fight against an outer space menace terrorizing his family’s farm and the nearby small town. It’s a family-under-siege story, and similar to fellow mid-80s cult classic The Gate the secret to defeating the monsters comes down to a kid’s totally bitchin’ firecracker collection.

Maybe it’s partially the nostalgia speaking, but I kind of love this movie now. I can’t wait to show it to my nephew.

We open on a spaceship which has been overrun by creatures known as the Krites, who are essentially carnivorous Tribbles – they’re small, furry, and they repopulate like jackrabbits. The rest of the universe regards them as an absolute menace, and what we are witnessing is their jailbreak, the Krites overtaking a visiting ship and piloting it to Earth. A pair of blank-faced bounty hunters are in hot pursuit. They can physically change their appearance to be able to fit in on any planet they visit. One settles on using the face of a Bon Jovi-like rock star. The other never really settles on any one face – the town idiot one second, the local preacher the next.

Grover’s Bend, with its small police force (led by M. Emmet Walsh and Ethan Phillips), popular bowling alley, and Reagan-voting countryfolk, clearly doesn’t stand a chance. On one side, the critters and their unending thirst for meat; on the other, leather-clad bounty hunters casually walking around with practical bazookas. Everyone in Grover’s Bend is stuck in-between.

Ground zero in that fight is the Brown family farm since its closest to where the Krites initially land. They’re a simple, very Americana family with a mom, Helen, who never seems to leave the kitchen, (E.T.’s Dee Wallace), protective, but kind-hearted dad Jay (character actor Billy Green), boy-crazy teenage daughter April (Nadine van der Velde, who cozies up to a boyfriend played by a young Billy Zane), and plucky, slingshot-sporting younger son Brad (Grimes).

Very early on, Brad’s friend Charlie (Don Keith Opper), a local drunk and mechanic, accidentally shoots April’s butt with the slingshot, leading her to mistakenly chase Brad around the farm while playful, Capra-esque music swells in the background. Later, when the family’s livestock is decimated by mysterious creatures and the dad descends into the basement to investigate strange noises you’re aware he’s wearing his bowling shirt the entire time. It becomes kind of an unspoken joke. This poor guy, all he wanted to do is go bowling. Instead, he’s fighting off fur balls with razor-sharp teeth. Pretty soon, his son has to lead that fight.

Notice his bowling team repurposed the Ghostbusters logo, replacing the ghost with a bowling pin.

That’s the kind of movie this is. As Cinefantastique argued at the time of its release, Critters is an “heir to the unassuming B-films of the 50s.” Others have called it an obvious Gremlins rip-off, just part of the mid-80s rush to capitalize on the popularity of Joe Dante’s classic. But, I prefer to simply think of it as a only slightly harder-edged gateway horror movie, an immensely enjoyable creature feature that masterfully straddles the narrow line between taking itself too seriously and not seriously enough.

The delayed reveal of what the critters actually look like is perfectly suspenseful – it’s almost halfway in before we see those teeth. The practical creature work from the Chiodo brothers, who would later become famous for Killer Klowns from Outer Space, is pure nightmare fuel for little kids. I can speak to that. Unless the bounty hunters are around, the critters seem damn unstoppable, and the script nicely introduces a third act twist which makes the critters even scarier (it’s a twist the sequels completely dropped, btw). So, there’s plenty of quality horror work on display.

But, a one-liner is never far away. The town is populated with lovable eccentrics, most notably Lin Shaye in a small role. The Sheriff never can quite square what’s his eyes are telling him. The townspeople have no idea how to react to the bounty hunters. The critters, mostly voiced by Corey Burton, seem to get all the best lines, such as when one of them encounters and eventually bites the head off an E.T. doll.

As Ebert said, “This is a movie made by people who must have had fun making it.” Clearly. 100% yes. It’s also a movie I had so much fun watching. What about you?

All 4 Critters movies are currently available to stream for free – with ads – on Vudu. For those who want a physical copy with a bunch of extras, Scream Factory is putting out a special Critters Blu-Ray box set next month.

Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:

Tomorrow: The splatter classic Evil Dead II


    1. I’ve already re-watched the second one and will write more about it tomorrow, but I agree – it holds up pretty well. I actually might like it more than the first, but I’m also a sucker for horror-comedies and it leans far more into that than the first one. 3 and 4 I’ve never actually re-watched since renting them on VHS back in the day. In fact, I don’t know that I ever even finished the fourth one.

      As for reboot, Mick Garris did a Critters 2 reunion special on his podcast recently, and at the end they all talked about something called Critters: The New Binge. The Chiodi Brothers tried to work on it, but since it’s filming in Vancouver the studio went with local, cheaper talent. Garris hasn’t been approached by anyone. Ditto for Lin Shaye. All they knew is that the people who did Zombeavers are attached to it, giving them the impression the tone will be similar to the original films, not gritty. Who knows if that will ever come together, though. They announced a web-series 4 years ago. Still hasn’t happened.

  1. Lol this is a funny review with your story as a kid. I remember critters a bit as like you i was a kid. I seem to remember in the end one of the bounty hinters morphs into the loveable drunk who dies nobly in the end. So the shap shiftinf iis to juatify the tribite. But i think in the sequel he changes again to a hot woman and im sure they sexualise that. Bon jovi is hapoy as bon jovie. I dont know what that actor did other than this film but you seem to know the name. You said about the man famous for killer clowns from outer space. That is a terrible movie. Not one to sell this movie. Cheap production and weak script and daft concept. Hey wasnt di caprio in the third movie? Hazy. No i wont rewatch these again. Perfectly happy with them stored in past memories like magnum, littlest hobo and quantum leap and knightrider.

    1. ” I seem to remember in the end one of the bounty hinters morphs into the loveable drunk who dies nobly in the end. So the shap shiftinf iis to juatify the tribite. But i think in the sequel he changes again to a hot woman and im sure they sexualise that.”

      You’re kind of right, but you’re mixing the two. Ug, the lead bounty hunter, morphs into Charlie after his apparent death at the end of Critters 2. Then, weirdly, when Charlie shows back up alive Ug doesn’t change back. Kind of like “I thought you did that to honor me? But I’m back. Totally not dead. So, you don’t have to do that.”/”Dude. Do you know how much it hurts everytime we change our entire body? Torture. Pure and absolute torture. I’m keeping your face for just a bit longer, thank you very much.” Not that they say any of that, of course.

      In Critters 1, the other bounty hunter does morph into Charlie, mostly because that’s the bounty hunter who constantly changes its face…for no real reason other than good, old-fashioned indecision? That film ends with Charlie leaving the planet with them to become a bounty hunter apprentice (insert Trump joke).

      At the start of the sequel, Ug still looks like the rock star, his partner has gone back to the blank, green face thing, and Charlie is their assistant. Once on Earth, Charlie’s so freaked out that the other bounty hunter will turn back into him that he holds up a Playboy magazine in front of his face, and next thing you know the bounty hunter looks just like the Playboy Bunny, whose breasts are so big they rip through the bounty hunter’s clothes. There’s even a quick joke where in modeling the body on the Playboy centerfold the bounty hunter even mimicked the staple in the middle of the page, forcing Charlie to pull this big-ass staple out from under the now-naked bounty hunter’s new breasts.

      According to Mick Garris’ podcast, the actress they cast really was a former Playboy model. They filmed that nude scene on what turned into the coldest day of the year in California, but she never complained. And, sadly, she died some years later in a car wreck. By that point, she was a regular B-Movie presence.

      “Bon jovi is hapoy as bon jovie”

      Agreed. Watching Critters again, I see the resemblance is minimal. It’s more that they both have the big 80s rock star hair, and the music video Ug watches before switching is very much so like an extremely low budget version of Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” video. That’s probably what caused the confusion for me.

      “You said about the man famous for killer clowns from outer space. That is a terrible movie. Not one to sell this movie.”

      Similar to Critters, Killer Klowns is one I saw around the same time and had a similar reaction to. In fact, I was young enough the lamp next to my bed had clowns on it, like a kiddie thing where the part connection the base to the actual lightbulb was shaped like a clown standing up. After I watched Killer Klowns, I threw that lamp in the trash immediately. My mom was so confused. But it has a serious cult following now. Lots of people love that movie. I haven’t re-watched it yet. I was afraid it would just be a repeat of my Critters story.

      “Hey wasnt di caprio in the third movie?”

      Yes. They tried to cast Cary Elwes, but when he passed they re-wrote the part and went with DiCaprio, either right before or concurrent to him joining Growing Pains.

      “. Perfectly happy with them stored in past memories like magnum, littlest hobo and quantum leap and knightrider.”

      If you ever do re-watch, you might be surprised. The first two hold up pretty well.

      1. Yet they had to remake magnum didnt they and without selleck. Thanks for filling in the critters blur for me. Yes that all feels right now you mention it. The playboy magazine especially. So 80s and so b movie. Shame to hear about the actress being in a car accident. Thanks for sharing. Loved the dialogue bout the bounty hinter changing his face. Re killer clowns. Come on man. They turned their victims to candy floss and the only way to kill them is shoot their red noses. I told a friend about that and he nearly chocked on his drink. It is cheap cheap story telling and acting. Im sure some ice cream men drivers had key hero role too. Ridiculous with a capital R.

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