Critters (1986)

The battle began in another galaxy. It’s about to end in the Brown’s backyard.

After the enormous worldwide success of the Steven Spielberg-produced, Joe Dante-directed Gremlins (1984), it was only a matter of time before others studios tried to cash in on the film’s success. Originally marketed as New Line Cinema’s answer to Gremlins, Critters is totally original in concept, execution and tone and has become somewhat of a Home Video cult classic, the flick blending horror, science fiction and comedy into one ball of spine-tingling fun.

These bounty hunter's are clearly ready to join Boba Fett's crew!
These bounty hunter’s are clearly ready to join Boba Fett’s crew!

The picture opens in deep space, on a floating maximum-security asteroid prison, where a group of unseen alien detainees, known as the Krites, are to be transported to another station. When the seemingly intelligent creatures cause an explosion, hijack a ship and then escape, the leader of the prison, desperate to recapture or destroy the Krites, hires two shape-shifting intergalactic bounty hunters to pursue the creatures at all costs. Surveying the ship’s damage and desperate for food, the Krites (also known as critters) eventually touchdown on Earth, in a small rural Kansas farming town, their arrival appearing as a comet streaking the sky before docking somewhere near a local farm. Their landing ground is home to the Brown’s, a simple family consisting of two loving parents, their popular teenage daughter, heart-throb April (Nadine Van der Velde), and Brad (Scott Grimes), their trouble-making son who often hangs out with Charlie McFadden (Don Opper), a mechanic who works for the Brown’s and is notorious for being somewhat of a local drunk. The farmstead is soon attacked by the hoard of hungry roly-poly flesh-eating visitors from outer space, and the Brown’s must seek the aid of Charlie and the deadly bounty hunters, who are opposed by militant townspeople for destroying everything that stands in their path of eliminating the Krites.

Being a low budget creature-feature from the 1980s, Critters winds up looking rather top-notch as creature design and effects are fairly decent and believable, allowing the film to still stand strong in today’s cluttered horror/ cult market. The Critter’s themselves have quite a witty attitude, which we see through their comical subtitled dialogue, and are very unique in design, with menacing grins, a mouthful of razor sharp teeth and the ability to shoot poison spikes, which dart out from their spines and paralyze unsuspecting victims; these alien invaders were created by the talented Chiodo-brothers, best known for their work on the Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988). Being made in the age before widespread digital technology, the spaceships, make-up effects, monsters and set pieces are all very much practical and still come off looking plausible, which really gives viewers the ability to sink themselves into the film’s zany plot.

It's time to meet the Muppets on the Muppet Show tonight.
It’s time to meet the Muppets on the Muppet Show tonight.

The performances, mostly by relatively unknown actors — apart from a young mullet-sporting Billy Zane, Titanic (1997) — do a credible job in expressing believability in the sometimes-screwy happenings. April, played by Nadine Van der Velde, is a real bombshell; it’s disappointing that her career didn’t flourish after her excellent work on Critters. M. Emmet Walsh, Blade Runner (1982), is great as the town’s sheriff but is somewhat underused, the guy having very little screen time and not much to do. Don Opper, who plays Charlie — and did some additional writing on the film’s script — comes across very convincingly as a UFO obsessed loveable drunk, as does Terrence Mann, All My Children (1970), who plays the dual role of bounty hunter Ug and television rock star Johnny Steele, who Ug eventually ‘transforms’ into. Critters also features a very retro-rock soundtrack with original songs written and produced for the movie, with ‘Power of the Night’ performed by Terrence Mann (as Johnny Steele) being a real highlight.

So as a horror, is Critters any scary? The simple answer is no, not really; there’s nothing remotely frightening about a bunch of wisecracking Muppet-style fur balls rolling around trying to find something to snack on. The film’s measly body count — which consists of a cow, a couple of humans and several chickens — isn’t particularly graphic or violent, having only two on-screen deaths with most characters simply just being harmed or injured. So, gore hounds shouldn’t expect to see much blood or carnage here. What the film does do, though, is a deliver fairly fresh and inventive take on this sort of storyline, with an amusing script, plenty of memorable lines, solid effects and a nice seamless blend of science fiction and loony comic-book-y horror reminiscent of B-grade features from the ’50s and ’60s. The film looks nice, too, with beautiful cinematography and a striking color palette of pinks and blues, and, mostly taking place during the night, the titular nasties are presented in a way that makes them look more menacing than they really ought to be. The flick, which itself is a throwback to propaganda UFO films from yesteryear, has a real late-night movie feel — with parts resembling an ’80s rock music video — making it quite easy to get lost in all the silliness.

Anyone up for a private screaming?

Directed by Stephen Herek, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) — and penned by Herek and Domonic Muir — Critters was widely believed to have been inspired by the success of Gremlins but Herek, in interviews, refuted this and pointed out that the screenplay was written long before Gremlins went into production and subsequently underwent rewrites to reduce the apparent similarities between the two. Critters, however, doesn’t come across feeling like a bunch of stolen ideas, as it’s difficult to find a film with this much energy, life and creativity from this era. While holding strong sentimental nostalgic value, Critters comes recommended, and if you’re after a fun, mindless, light-hearted sci-fi horror combo with humor, then don’t let this sometimes overlooked gem pass you by.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

Critters is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia