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 3 (1991)
Body Count: 2
The Story: Our young teenage hero, Annie (Aimee Brooks), is enjoying some vacation time with her little brother Johnny and her frustrated widower father, when they pop a flat-tire. While their father fixes the tire, Annie and Johnny go frolic at the rest stop where they meet Josh (some loser with the ridiculous name Leonardo DiCaprio), the step-son of some rich asshole. Now frolicking together, they discover reformed alcoholic retard Charlie (Don Keith Opper, now too cool for the “Keith”) living inside a tiger trap — he’s a reformed alcoholic, he’s still functionally retarded. Charlie tells them about Crites, and gives Johnny a magic Crite-detecting crystal. The family returns to the big city, with some Crite eggs stuck under their truck and soon the little monsters are running amok inside Annie’s apartment complex. Also turns out that Josh’s asshole step-father owns said apartment complex, eventually leading to Josh being trapped inside the building too. In the end, Johnny must go on a quest to the far reaches of the apartment complex, so he can jam the Crite-detecting crystal shard back into the… oh wait, I’m thinking of The Dark Crystal. No eventually Charlie shows up and helps them fight the Crites.
What Works: The franchise keeps expanding its setting. This is a good thing. The first film was on a farm. The second film expanded to the entirety of Grover’s Bend. Now we move to the big city.
I am a big fan of horror movies from the perspective of kids. The Gate. Troll. Monster House. Etc. We had Brad in Critters, but really the entire Brown family was our collective hero. Here Annie is the legit focus, as her father is kept as a peripheral character. My favorite portion of the film is definitely the Act I section at the rest stop, where the kids are off away from the adults. There is a shot in this section that is right out of a Joe Dante movie, where a whole gaggle of kids peer over the edge of a spooky hillside looking for a lost frisbee. Even more so than Gremlins, I think Critters was a kids’ horror franchise (as far as its main demo), so this section really clicked into place. It felt right. There isn’t quite enough of this feeling during the rest of the film, but it is still there. Things feel off until Leo re-enters the picture, not because he’s so great in the film (he really isn’t, actually) but because we get to resume the romantic subplot he is part of. There are many reasons why I love movies from the perspective of kids, but one of them is that I find kid romance hilarious (in a good way). There is also a romantic subplot between Annie’s father and a tomboyish woman neighbor, but it is so much less interesting than the tweener love story between Annie and Josh. My favorite part of this romance is the “meet cute” in which Annie sees Josh talking to Johnny and runs over, freaking out that some creepy stranger is talking to her little brother. She accuses Josh of being a potential child molester. Keep in mind this is Leo at 16, looking veeeery 13. I love it.
I also love how brazenly negligent the father is. There is a whole scene in which Annie is trying to get the father to spend time with her and Johnny, and he refuses saying he wants to watch TV. Then the power goes out. Instead of taking this as an omen to spendi time with his kids, he demands Annie give him her battery powered TV so he can return to ignoring them.
The Crites have a new move in this film, in which they spin in place to get a speed boost. What’s amazing is that the film came out the same year as Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, because I would otherwise assume this was a rip-off/homage to the video game character.
There is also a fun bit where the tomboy woman tries to scale down the side of the apartment complex to reach a pay phone, and winds up hanging upside-down just slightly out of comfortable reach of her destination. It certainly isn’t high physical comedy, but its a solid bit, and I’m a sucker for such farce. I’m also trying to think of some nice things to say, because…
What Doesn’t Work: …this film mostly blows.
The nice kid-centric rest stop section quickly goes off the rails when we meet Charlie and he launches into a flashback recap montage that’s pointlessness is only outdone by its incompetent construction. For one thing, Charlie says the events of the first film take place in 1984 instead of 1986. And this isn’t just fanboy complaining here. About twenty minutes later an old man living in Annie’s apartment building also gives background info about the Grover’s Bend disaster, and he gives the correct 1986 date. Didn’t anyone watch this film after they finished editing it? That sort of error doesn’t speak well of how much care went into the film. The recap is pretty jumbled and hard to follow, weaving Critters and Critters 2 confusingly into one super-movie. I really don’t get why this recap was here in the first place. The first three Friday the 13th sequels all comically begin with lengthy recaps, but in the days before home video it at least made some sense to give the audience a memory refresher (though I think they were just doing it to pad the films’ lengths). Given that Critters was a franchise made popular by VHS, it is a bizarre waste of time in Critters 3.
While I respect Critters 3 for upgrading from the country to the big city, the poster for the film is the biggest horror sequel lie since Jason Takes Manhattan (which takes place largely on a boat). You probably can’t read the text on the poster pic above, featuring that downtown night-scape, but it says: “First they destroyed a farm. Then they terrorized a town. Now they’re ready to do some REAL damage!” Yes, they’re technically in the big city, but Critters 3 is actually the most contained film yet, significantly smaller in Crite-damage scale than even Critters. There isn’t a single Crite attack outside the apartment complex, which makes the film very claustrophobic and yields a boringly small body count. You can’t fault a film for its small budget, but after the city-wide assault and the Crite Voltron Ball in Critters 2, this just doesn’t cut it. If nothing else they should have upped the body count. Something. Anything.
An even bigger issue than scale is that the Crites scenes suck now. One sequence in particular seems to really acknowledge the idea that this was a kid-favorite franchise, as the Crites feast upon baked beans and we’re treated to a series of fart jokes. And a pie fight. The idiocy of this scene is only topped by a moment when Annie tosses a garbage can down a flight of stairs into a group of Crites, and the scene is cross-cut with footage of a bowling tournament — when the can hits the Crites we get a loud bowling sound effect and a slow mo shot of the Crites flying through the air. I could have forgiven the dumb excess of these two scenes if the film had also contained some great Crite scenes. But it doesn’t. It seems like nothing much even happens in the film.
It’s nice that the franchise decided to keep some continuity with Charlie (and there is even a brief cameo in the film’s epilogue by Ug), but the problem here is twofold. One, Charlie just isn’t a great character. Or at least Don Keith Opper isn’t a great actor. Either way I never find myself wanting more of him. But he isn’t terrible or anything either, which makes Problem Two more relevant — why is he still a supporting character? Burt Gummer was eventually upgrade to hero status in the Tremors series, just as Reggie Bannister was upgrade in the Phantasm series. It felt awkward keeping Charlie on the sidelines here once more. The film would have been stronger if he had either been the hero, or had been in even less.
Best Kill: Within the context of the film it is nothing special, but there is something very interesting about seeing a young Leo bludgeon a Critter wrapped in a blanket to death with a pipe.
Best Crite Dialogue: Nothing worth mentioning! This film fails big time on the Crite dialogue.
How the Crites Are Defeated: In a sense they aren’t. In the film’s epilogue Charlie receives a transmission from Ug informing him he can’t destroy the last of the Crites because that is all that remains of the species. We get a “To Be Continued.”
Should There Have Been A Sequel: Well, when you put “To Be Continued” at the end of the film over a freeze frame of some action happening, I guess you kind of have to.
Up Next: Critters 4