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 4 (1992)
Body Count: 6
The Story: The film opens with a repeat of Critters 3‘s end credits epilogue, in which Charlie (Don Keith Opper — now returning the “Keith” to his name; what a crazy year it must’ve been) is contacted by a hologram of Ug (Terrence Mann) informing him he can’t destroy the Crite eggs he just located and must place them inside a space capsule for safe keeping. Charlie complies but accidentally gets stuck inside the capsule, which cryogenically freezes him and blasts off into space. Then we jump forward to the year 2045, on board a small human spacecraft. Young Ethan (Paul Whitthorne) is excited to see Earth for the first time, but his dream journey is interrupted when the craft comes across Charlie’s capsule. The crew – tough girl Fran (Angela Bassett), smart guy Al (Brad Dourif), asshole Captain Rick (Anders Hove), and drug-loving Bernie (Eric DaRe) – contacts the owners of the capsule, the Terracorp Council, and once more we see Ug, who sets up a rendezvous where he will reclaim the capsule and give our crew a big reward. The crew docks at a deserted space station and tries to bide their time. After Captain Rick’s sexual advances on Fran are rebuffed, he angrily breaks into the capsule to see what’s inside — freeing both Charlie and the Crites. Once more, Charlie must help some kid save the day.
What Works: What an oddly notable cast the fourth Critters film wound up with. Bassett. Dourif. Twin Peaks‘s Eric DaRe. Not to mention Danish creeper, Anders Hove, who starred as the speaking-challenged vampire Radu in one of my favorite terrible 90’s franchises, Full Moon’s Subspecies.
Critters 4 is an extremely weird entry into this franchise. Whereas Leprechaun 4 launched into space and went batshit silly, Critters 4 is by far the most earnest film in the series. There are a few little gags here and there – such as Angela, the space station’s malfunctioning HAL-like computer that never seems to do what anyone wants – but generally speaking this is just a straight-up serious sci-fi horror movie. And the craziest part is that for a while it actually works, largely helped by the talent of the cast. The unpleasant and off-putting Anders Hove, who oozes a certain Tommy Wiseau-like bizarreness, really anchors the first half of the film, and the scenes of the crew bickering and trying to decide what to do with the capsule they’ve salvaged feel like something out of a legit sci-fi dramatic thriller. As do the initial eerie scenes on the abandoned space station. Dourif is always a delight to watch; one of those actors who just exudes energy and enthusiasm. And though given very little to do other than stand around and intimidate me with her buff arms, Bassett certainly shows that she has the kind of presence that would elevate her to a higher strata in Hollywood. Normally I would bemoan not getting to see the only female member of the cast naked in a heavily body-doubled shower scene, but Bassett frightens me on some base level. So… many… muscles…
Considering its obviously small budget, the film is nicely put together. The transition from the “present” into the future – a somewhat complicated slow-mo pull out from empty space into a shot of Ethan juggling Earth-painted balls in his cabin – is quite technically impressive for a film of this caliber.
This is also the first film since Critters to really address the fact that Charlie is functionally retarded. I’m not just joking around when I call him a “retard.” In the first film he was very clearly mildly mentally challenged. His only friend was a kid. Everyone looked the other way at his alcoholism, trying to be nice to him. Mr. Brown felt obligated to give him simple odd-jobs around the farm. The filmmakers only stopped short of showing us Charlie’s IQ test. But the other sequels had sorta glossed over this detail and portrayed him simply as bumbling. But there is a moment in Critters 4 I quite liked where a Crite gets into our heroes’ spaceship just as they’re about to escape, and Charlie starts shooting his gun off, destroying the ship in the process of killing the Crite. What’s sort of amazing about the moment is that it isn’t really played for laughs. While Ethan, Fran and Al are enraged at Charlie, he truly doesn’t seem to understand what he did wrong. He just keeps saying, “But I got ‘im,” expecting them to stop being angry. It’s actually kind of sad. I was disappointed the filmmakers did away with Charlie’s alcoholism (especially after it saved everyone in the first film!), so I’m happy to see his mental handicap return in form.
What Doesn’t Work: When judging an installment in a franchise, one must always look at the bigger picture. Simply making a solid film will only get you so far. You are a link in a chain, and you have conventions and expectations to think about. I’ve always contended that New Nightmare is one of the better made films in the Nightmare On Elm St. franchise, but its undeniable problem is that it is a lousy Freddy movie. Critters 4 is a perfectly solid early-90’s cheapo sci-fi horror film. Rated on its own merits, it is decent. Rated as a Critter film though, it is a pretty giant failure.
For one thing, the Crites are barely in the film. They don’t appear until the 38 minute mark. And of the six person body count, four are at the hands of the Crites, but only two of them are on screen. The film also has the philosophical problem of teasing us with half-ideas. Captain Rick is assaulted by a baby Crite that jumps head-first into his mouth. Now, where would you expect this kill to go? The baby Crite will chew its way inside Rick, right? Maybe climb down his throat, then pop out the guy’s stomach or chest in a little Alien homage? Or something? What does Critters 4 do? The baby Crite just stays stuck, poking out of Rick’s mouth until Rick dies. Then it leaves. Why even have it go in Rick’s mouth in the first place? Then there is the experimental ray created by the scientists who had previously inhabited the space station. Our heroes watch an old video of the ray genetically increasing the size of some alien bug. Clearly this will come into play later. And it sorta does. A Crite is made somewhat bigger by the ray. Not gigantic (as happened to the Leprechaun in Leprechaun 4). Just slightly bigger. And to no real end. What makes the pointlessness of this extra pointless is that Crites get bigger on their own when they eat! Hey, Critters 4, ever see Critters 1?
The ending of the film is completely bizarre, tonally. Ug shows up, now all corporatized and dickish. He has no love for Charlie anymore (“Things change” he says), and he shoots Al when our heroes refuse to hand over the Crite eggs. Some weird moment is supposed to be playing out between Ug and Charlie, but it doesn’t follow with what we’ve seen in the previous installments. Charlie has a gun to Ug’s head and Ug says something along the lines of, “You won’t do it, Charlie. You never could.” Never could what? What the fuck are we talking about here? Was there another Critters movie I missed? Then Charlie shoots Ug in the forehead, killing one of the best-liked characters in the franchise, who was turned into an evil company man for no particular reason other than presumably to add vague continuity to the film with the character’s inclusion. On top of all this, in the first two films, our glimpses of the galactic government involved awesomely wacky aliens. Here all we get is Terrence Mann and some dudes in riot gear. Zzzzzz.
Speaking of Charlie. Yet again Charlie is sidelined from being the protagonist, forced to be the helpful champion of some teenager. I mean, he is mentally handicapped, but still. Can’t the brutha catch a break?
Best Kill: When Ethan pumps a Crite full of liquid nitrogen, freezing it. Then he says “Chill out.” Then he kicks it and it shatters into a zillion pieces against the wall. I am a fan of freezing and shattering things in cinema. This kill was made extra sweet by the fact that for a moment it seemed like Ethan wasn’t actually going to shatter the Crite — which felt very plausible after the previous cock-teases Critters 4 had performed.
Best Crite Dialogue: “I’ll pack the ship. You get the kids.” Said as the two original Crites plan to escape with their eggs.
How the Crites Are Defeated: Ethan, Charlie and Fran blow up the space station.
Should The Franchise Have Ended Here: Yeah, probably. Charlie destroyed the last of the Crite species, and the filmmakers had clearly run out of steam and FX $.
Franchise Assessment: The Critters franchise is made up of two two-part installments. Critters and Critters 2 tell a complete story, and seem extremely disconnected from Critters 3 and Critters 4, which tell their own complete story. There is nothing wrong with that, but considering that the four films all include Charlie and Ug, the series doesn’t have the same kind of continuity as, say, Tremors. Turning Ug into a villain in 4 could have worked if there had been some kind of (any kind of) lead in to it. As it was, it felt like an afterthought – like a way to shoehorn Terrence Mann into the script’s existing characters – and was a poor conclusion for Ug. What kid had sat through the first two films, loving the bounty hunters, and said to themselves, “Boy, I hope we get to see Ug and Charlie fight to the death eventually.”
I realize that, generally speaking, horror sequels become increasingly half-assed and low-rent as time goes on, but from a creative standpoint, the franchise needed to keep expanding upon both the Crites themselves and upon their playing field. As it is, the series peaked with Critters 2. We never got a bigger playing field than Grover’s Bend and we never got a bigger Crite amplification than the Crite Voltron Ball. In fact, our setting kept getting smaller, and the Crites became less imaginative. We know the Crites become bigger as they eat. Is there a ceiling? Could we have gotten a Godzilla Crite tearing through the city? What does the Crite home-world look like? Wouldn’t that have been a cooler setting for our futuristic space installment? I would have loved to see Charlie (as the protagonist) thrust into some important mission given to him by a room full of crazy looking aliens.
The first two films are great fun, but the series ultimately became a major missed opportunity. And Charlie never gets his fucking due as a character! I don’t love Charlie or Don Keith Opper, but part of the problem I had is that he’s kept at the same level in all four films. He saves the day at the end of each installment, yet always has to play noble sidekick to some dumb kid. So each film is kind of a spiritual retread, with Charlie never gaining any more growth after becoming a bounty hunter between 1 and 2.
Ranking the franchise from best to worst:
Critters / Critters 2: The Main Course (tie!)
Up Next: The Death Wish franchise!