Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Critters — following the on-going interstellar menace of the Crites, a species of tiny, malevolent and carnivorous aliens, and of their stalwart adversary, Charlie, a well-meaning alcoholic retard. The series stretched over four films from 1986 to 1992.
The Installment: Critters (1986)
Body Count: 2
The Story: The film opens on an alien space station during a prisoner transport fuck-up, in which the deadly Crites manage to escape in a stolen spaceship. Two faceless bounty hunters are then charged with finding and destroying the Crites. Meanwhile, on Earth, we join the Brown family, who live in a quiet rural Midwestern town. The family unit consists of the adolescent Brad (Scott Grimes), his father (Billy Green Bush), his mother (Dee Wallace), his hot sister April (Nadine Van der Velde), and his father’s employee, Charlie McFadden (Don Keith Opper) a scruffy manchild and town joke with a pretty serious alcohol abuse problem. The Crites crash land on Earth, and begin looking for food. Charlie sees them arrive, but of course no one believes him, what with the one-two punch of him being semi-retarded and a notorious drunk. Fortunately the two bounty hunters arrive, and are revealed to have face-morphing abilities, transforming their amorphous blank faces into whatever they want. Ug takes the visage of Johnny Steele (Terrence Mann), a rock and roll singer he sees on TV. The other bounty hunter first takes the visage of a dead sheriff, and then proceeds to change his look every few scenes. Eventually the Browns and the bounty hunters cross paths and join forces to stop the Crites.
What Works: Most of this movie works swimmingly. It has a definite “Executive Produced by Steven Spielberg” feeling to it, which garnered it a lot of undeserved Gremlins rip-off accusations when it first hit theaters. Obviously the Gremlins comparison is inevitable, given the small size and ravenous nature of the Crites – or “critters” as Charlie ends up calling them – but the two films have few similarities beyond that and the overall fun-spirited tone. Gremlins had a dark fairytale quality to it, what with the unique mythology and “rules” regarding the creatures. Critters falls most snugly into the long bygone era of Western-infused sci-fi horror, where remote desert or farm towns are besieged by aliens or atomic beasties — an era before the suburbs became the de facto location for non-secluded horror movies.
The basic premise of the film is good old-fashioned fun. Aliens attacking a small town. Gotcha. What makes this a sign of the times (those times being the insane 80’s), is the inclusion of the alien bounty hunters. The opening of this film is pure post-Star Wars silliness, full of bizarre looking alien prison guards and an alien warden who looks a bit like Bib Fortuna, Jabba the Hutt’s doorman (or whatever the fuck that dude’s job description was). I can’t even imagine trying to pitch that opening now. Any sane studio exec would read this script and say, “Can we lose all the other aliens? Wouldn’t the movie be simpler if it was just about the Crites landing on the farm and the townsfolk fighting them?” But this was 1986. And more importantly, this was New Line Cinema in 1986. Sadly, New Line honcho Bob Shaye kind of went off the rails a few years ago, but we can never forget that for two solid decades he was probably the bravest production head in Hollywood. Critters with just the Crites no doubt could have been a fun movie. Frankly, it may have even been a stronger movie, narratively. But it certainly wouldn’t have been as interesting or memorable. The batshit opening and the two face-shifting bounty hunters may serve no real purpose in the greater story of the Brown family, but 25 years later, they are what I remembered most about the film.
The Crites are a very solid, multi-faceted concept for a movie monster. They roll into balls, like hedgehogs, which is just intrinsically amusing. They shoot poisonous quills out of their spine, like a super porcupine, which is actually very unpleasant and creepy. And they grow larger the more they eat, which is a great and simple ticking-clock of tension for our heroes. Their design, by the Chiodo Brothers – with their glowing red eyes and grotesque maw of tiny fangs – is a perfect blend of scary and silly (a Chiodo specialty). It was also a novel choice to make the Crites an intelligent race with their own language. Their subtitles contain some of the bigger laughs in the film. Ain’t nothing like a tiny fury ball making a loud squealing noise, then seeing – “Fuck!” – appear in text on the bottom of the screen. I also love what dicks the Crites are — notably, when they are escaping, semi-victorious at the end of the film, they blow up the Brown’s house just to be assholes. That’s my kind of villain.
The humans aren’t too shabby either. Dee Wallace really racked up a lot of notable horror movies by 1986 (Hills Have Eyes, Howling, Cujo), and I have to imagine appearing in Critters was pretty fun after her career-high role in E.T.. This film even contains a moment when one of the Crites is trying to communicate with an E.T. plush toy, before becoming frustrated with their poor conversation and eating the thing. You can never go wrong with putting M. Emmet Walsh in a film, or killing Billy Zane (who appears briefly as April’s hot shit new boyfriend). Speaking of April, boy o’ boy did I have a crush on Nadine Van der Velde when I was a kid; probably because she looked exactly like one of my friend’s hot older sisters. Apparently she is now an Emmy-award winning children’s show writer. What a world.
Casting Broadway superstar Terrance Mann as Ug must’ve been pretty fun in 1986 (OMG! It’s Rum Tum Tugger from Cats!), and he definitely seems to be enjoying himself in the role. The two bounty hunters are essentially starring in their own movie, as they bull-in-a-china-shop their way through town looking for the Crites and destroying everything in their path. The gimmick of the other bounty hunter constantly changing identities – including taking Charlie’s face – was my favorite aspect of the film when I was younger, and it is still a good time.
What Doesn’t Work: Critters is one of those double-bladed sword movies. A lot of its strengths are also its weaknesses. The bounty hunters and other goofy aliens are what set this film apart, but looking at the movie from a writing perspective, they over-complicate an otherwise straight-forward idea. Very little actually happens with the Crites in the film. They eat two people, and menace the Browns a bit, but stay completely localized to the Brown farm. A lot of the run-time is spent following the bounty hunters on a fruitless search around town. Again, this is all fun, and I’m not saying the film shouldn’t have had this, but it nonetheless detracts from our villains.
The Crites are more interesting as ideas in this film than as realities. While there are a few great bits, they never get kicked up a notch after the film finally gives them a full reveal. Not to keep comparing the film to Gremlins, but after the gremlins are finally revealed, we get those two huge set pieces of them fucking around (the bar scene and the movie theater scene). Critters attempts something like this, when the Crites are trashing a feather bed and trying to talk to the E.T. toy, but that’s about where it ends. The Crites remain a bit of a background menace.
Don Keith Opper as Charlie is almost too convincing. I always found him disquieting as a kid, and I still do. It’s sort of creepy that Mr. Brown allows his son to pal around with a semi-retarded boozehound, and Opper truly pulls the combo off. What’s kind of awesome – in a terrible way – is that not only is Charlie’s alcoholism never addressed as a true problem in the film, if he wasn’t a drunk the heroes wouldn’t have been victorious at the end of the film (more on that below).
This isn’t really a critique, but I found it ridiculous that Billy Zane’s character was trying to resist the sexual advances of Nadine Van der Velde. Implausible.
Best Kill: None of the human deaths are worth mentioning, so I’ll say the Crite who swallows one of Brad’s firecrackers. You think he’ll blow up, but instead it is a Looney Tunes moment where the little bugger inflates, then smoke seeps out its mouth as it slumps over dead. Comedy.
Best Crite Dialogue:
Crite 1: They have weapons.
Crite 2: So what?
[Crite 2 is shot off the porch by a shotgun]
Crite 1: Fuck!
Best Bounty Hunter Bit: I liked the attention to detail demonstrated when the second bounty takes on the identity of the dead sheriff, including all the cuts and bruises on the corpse’s face.
How the Crites Are Defeated: Brad has made a “firecracker” big enough to blow up the Crites’ spaceship, but it winds up in the ship, unlit. All is lost! Then drunk retard Charlie saves the day by making a Molotov cocktail out of a rag and the bottle of whiskey he had in his pocket (cause he’s a drunk), which he tosses into the Crite ship as it is taking off, starting the firecracker on fire and blowing some shit up. To think, if Charlie’s alcoholism had been addressed by the town even just a few days earlier, the Crites would’ve escaped! Suck on that AA.
Should There Have Been A Sequel: Of course! Great villains. Weird heroes. An entire universe to play with.
Up Next: Critters 2: The Main Course