Greetings, readers, Bill here again. Now, today’s film is one I’ve had on my plate for a while now; my friend and webmaster Jordan (aka the Vault Master) gifted me with the complete CRITTERS franchise on DVD a couple years back, and I’ve been meaning to revisit the series; I’m not sure I ever saw this first one in the series, and I know I saw CRITTERS 2, 3 and 4 back around 1996-1997. So I decided today that I’d put what I would review up for a vote on the RSR Facebook page, and CRITTERS won out, And so, without any further ado, let’s take a good long look at this mid-1980s horror comedy classic, shall we?
On a prison-asteroid somewhere far out in space, a jailbreak occurs, and a group of prisoners, all belonging to a species known as “Crites,” manage to steal a ship and escape out into space. The warden, a grotesque little half-man-blob in a hover-chair, commissions a pair of shape-shifting bounty hunters to retrieve the Crites.
The Crites’ ship lands on Earth in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas, on land owned by the Brown family; the first intimation they have that they’re in the middle of a nightmare is when the patriarch of the family, Jay Brown (Billy Green Bush, of THE HITCHER and JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY) discovers a cow that the Crites have eaten most of. Before long, the entire Brown family – father Jay; mother Helen (Dee Wallace, last seen around these parts in ABOMINABLE), and kids Helen and Brad – find themselves besieged in their lonely farm house, surrounded by hungry alien monsters. With the aid of Charlie (Don Opper, of…the CRITTERS franchise fame…), an alcoholic handyman and the bounty hunters, the Browns fight back against the Crites; but can they survive the night or will they become an interplanetary buffet?
A lot of people seem convinced that CRITTERS was made to cash in on the popularity of GREMLINS (you know, the way MUNCHIES, HOBGOBLINS, GHOULIES, and who knows how many others were), but the director has always denied this, claiming the script was written before GREMLINS was released and then edited to minimize the similarities between the two films. And really, beyond “a group of pint-sized monsters terrorize a family” the similarities between this film and GREMLINS are pretty much nil. The overall story structure, in which a midwestern family is in trouble and mysterious strangers ride into town to resolve the trouble, is far more reminiscent of the classic western formula, here laid over top of the “Hopkinsville Goblin” case in UFO lore, in which a Kentucky family spent a harrowing night “defending” their homestead from curious, silvery, big-eyed and big-eared creatures. This same incident was also one of the inspirations that led to Spielberg’s E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, for what it’s worth, a film in which Dee Wallace also played the mom.
While the human cast is pretty solid, nobody really stands out as remarkable here with the possible exception of Don Opper’s Charlie; I did like his character arc from being the town drunk, being condescended to by the sheriff, to helping save the day and leaving with the aliens for further adventures in space.
The real stars of the show were the titular Critters; the Crites are some of the most fun, bad-to-the-bone aliens in recent viewing memory. They have all the personality and wicked charm of Dante’s Gremlins, and end up with the best lines in the film – yes, the Crites aren’t just mindless eating machines, they’re smart enough to hot-wire a ship and have a language of their own, translated for the viewing audience through the courtesy of subtitles whenever they’re conversing. I’m particularly fond of a sequence in which a Crite finds a stuffed doll of E.T. and tries to have a conversation with it, mistaking it for a fellow alien stranded on Earth; eventually he grows frustrated with the doll’s silence and chews its head off.
Final Analysis: A great little horror-comedy with a solid, if unremarkable cast and fun, gruesome little monsters. Was it inspired by GREMLINS? Maybe, maybe not. Does it seem to fit into the lineage of films inspired by GREMLINS? It does. Does it matter? Not in the slightest. With a promised sequel materializing two years later, with two more coming down the pipe in the early ’90s, CRITTERS proved to be more lucrative a franchise then any of the (other?) GREMLINS follow-ups were, and it makes for a damn good afternoon’s viewing.
Overall, I give CRITTERS (1986)…
FOUR BARRELS OF TOXIC WASTE.