This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch a horror movie every day. Today’s pick is a fun Gremlins rip-off, just minus out-of-nowhere soul-crushing speeches about dads in Santa outfits dying in chimneys.
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.
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 on, 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.
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, then there is the inevitable Gremlins of it all, which is to say 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