It seems that after the success of the Steven Spielberg/Joe Dante project Gremlins in 1984, mischievous little creatures were the order of the day. Several copycat films were released over the preceding years, such as Ghoulies and Hobgoblins, but probably the most obvious and popular was Critters, a loving homage to 50s sci-fi and monster B-movies that spawned three sequels and became a sizeable hit on VHS. So join us as we look back at this series of alien creature features.
Critters (Stephen Herek, USA, 1986)
Although director/co-writer Stephen Herek has claimed that the original script for Critters was around long before Gremlins, that doesn’t stop most people claiming the film to be a rip-off. Whether Herek’s claims are true or not doesn’t really matter as Critters is still a fun ride and despite the plot similarities there are enough stylistic differences to make the film stand on its own merit.
During a supposedly routine transportation between two spaceships of a race of creatures known as Krites – spiky little fur balls with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth – something goes wrong and the Krites escape and head for Earth. On their tail are two alien bounty hunters to try and kill them all before they spread.
The Krites space ship crash lands on the huge Brown family farm in rural Kansas, and is discovered by farmer Jay (Billy Green Bush) and his wayward son Bradley (Scott Grimes). Soon enough, the carnivorous creatures are making their way through the cattle fields, devouring everything in their way, and are heading towards the family home – via the barn where Jay’s daughter April (Nadine Van der Velde) is making out with her boyfriend Steve (Billy Zane) – where mum Helen (Dee Wallace-Stone, as she was then) is waiting. Cue the arrival of the shape-shifting bounty hunters – one of whom has bizarrely taken on the appearance of fictional rock star Johnny Steele (Terrence Mann) – and the town drunk Charlie (Don Keith Opper), who has been seeing aliens on a nightly basis for most of his adult life, and the scene is set for a war against the miniature fuzz balls who are very hungry and looking for their next meal.
Taking the aesthetic of the 1950s sci-fi B-movie and adding some low-budget 1980s special effects, Critters is a whole host of fun from start to finish. It knows exactly what it is and never tries to be anything else, giving its action with a sly and knowing wink. The presence of Dee Wallace is always a good thing in a genre film and this is probably the peak of her all-American cookie-cutter mom act that she did do well during the 80s. The other cast are all adequate – including the young Billy Zane as your typical 80s teenage boyfriend – except for the very annoying Billy Green Bush as Jay, who just doesn’t seem to fit as he stumbles around trying to be the harsh-but-fair dad but really just gets in the way and has about as much screen charisma as a boiled egg. Terrence Mann is suitably Mick Jagger-esque as Johnny Steele, the rock star whose identity is stolen by the bounty hunter – a weird story quirk but it somehow seems to work – and Don Keith Opper plays the alien-spotting drunk like he was plucked straight out of some hick-town bar and placed on a film set.
Critters has a little more B-movie charm and a harder edge than Gremlins that all works in its favour artistically, although without that magic 80s Spielberg family-friendly touch its quite obvious that this film would be relegated to video rental genre hit than mainstream mass-acceptance. No matter, though, as the film made more than enough money to warrant a sequel and has become a bit of a cult favourite amongst horror fans, so if small-town America B-movies like Tremors and Eight Legged Freaks are your thing and you’ve yet to check out Critters then what are you waiting for?
Critters 2: The Main Course (Mick Garris, USA, 1988)
Given that Critters made nearly seven times its budget – and also that by the mid-1980s New Line Cinema were on something of a roll with the success of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise – it was inevitable a sequel would appear. And in 1988 the job was given to director Mick Garris (Psycho IV: The Beginning) to bring the killer hairballs back for another feeding session.
Set two years after the events of the first film, the intergalactic bounty hunters Ug (Terrence Mann) and Lee return to Earth, along with Charlie (Don Keith Opper) who has been travelling through space with them, after getting word from the intergalactic council that Krites have been found again. At around the same time Bradley Brown (Scott Grimes) is on his way to visit his grandmother in the small town of Grover’s Bend, but unfortunately his reputation preceeds him as the townsfolk of Grover’s Bend don’t want to know about creatures from outer space.
A couple of locals discover some Krite eggs in a barn and, not knowing what they are, sell them to Bradley’s grandmother as easter eggs for her kindergarten class. Soon enough they hatch and Bradley, local newspaper reporter Megan Morgan (Liane Curtis), Nana (Herta Ware) and the three bounty hunters are engaged in a battle with the furry meat eaters, as well as the local townsfolk who are holing themselves up in the local church.
With a bigger budget to work with and a director with a bit of style Critters 2 is certainly a better looking film than its predecessor. There are some genuinely beautiful shots of the rural landscape as well as some pretty decent special effects that certainly add a little more of a serious edge to things. And that is really where this film differs from the first; the overall feel is a little more serious, a little straighter and not quite as schlocky. There are plenty of visual gags – a critter biting into a truck tyre and inflating before being run over and another toothy fur ball falling into a deep fat fryer being just two of them – that are amusing, and occasionally a little disgusting, but somehow lacking the campy B-movie aura of the first film.
But apart from that the film serves as a perfectly adequate sequel to the original. The main cast are all as good as you would expect for this kind of film – in fact, they’re probably better than you would expect for this kind of film – and it was great to see Barry Corbin – Warden Beatty in Stir Crazy – turn up as Sheriff Harv, replacing M. Emmet Walsh. The critters themselves get a little more screen time and when the plan for their destruction is put into place there’s an amusing turn of events for how they conduct themselves (hint – the DVD menu gives it away).
So as a sequel it’s solid enough, the running time is kept to a trim 82 minutes – and it does fill that running time up – and a good time was had by all. It even references Cujo and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 in an amusing way and prefaces the modern trend for mentioning other horror films. Unfortunately by the late 80s the tide was turning on low-budget creature features and the film failed to make any money at the box office, recouping less than its $4.5 million budget. Which is a shame as it is certainly a lot better than some of the other tat that was being produced at the time, but New Line weren’t done with their fluffy alien beasts just yet…
Critters 3 (Kristine Peterson, USA, 1991)
Despite the fact that Critters 2 was a commercial flop New Line Cinema pressed on and made Critters 3 during the same year they made Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Which is ironic as it could be said that this film killed the Critters franchise – Critters Are Dead: But They Carried On Anyway would have been a more apt title.
Picking up a couple of years after part two, we’re now following Clifford (John Calvin), his teenage daughter Annie (Aimee Brooks) and his young son Johnny (played by twins Christian and Joseph Cousins) who are on their way back home from visiting the Grand Canyon. After getting a puncture they pull over at a camping area to repair the damage and Annie and Johnny meet a young boy named Josh (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is there with his mother and pompous stepfather (William Dennis Hunt). The kids run off into the nearby woods and come across Charlie (Don Keith Opper), who warns them of an impending alien invasion.
Good job he was there because before long those damned Krites have layed eggs under Clifford’s car and those eggs are heading towards the apartment block in Kansas where Clifford and his family live, with several other tenants acting as potential victims. As fate would have it the apartment block is owned by Josh’s greedy stepfather, who is trying to evict all of the tenants using dastardly methods so he can keep their rehousing money and build his own shopping mall, but the critters have other plans as everybody we’ve met so far is trapped inside with the hungry hair balls.
As you may be able to tell, Critters 3 is a bit rubbish. It tries to be good, it really wants to be your friend and be as charming as its two predecessors but it really isn’t. The main problem is that the film doesn’t have the sense of fun that parts one and two had. Moving the action from the rural setting to a city apartment block means you lose that classic B-movie setting that made films like Critters, Tremors and Eight Legged Freaks so irresistable, the film being as drab and grey as the location it’s set in. Also, the characters are all pretty unlikeable; Clifford is selfish and can’t see that he’s alienating his kids, Mr. Briggs – the landlord – is a snob and one step away from twirling his moustache like a pantomime villain, the kids are like all movie kids i.e. just plain horrible and the only real chuckle comes from a recurring joke where one of the characters is trying to reach a telephone box whilst suspended upside down.
The critters themselves provide a few giggles with their sub-Gremlins antics – basically being stupid by throwing food and flour at each other – but even they look cheap and nasty compared to before, and the whole thing looks like a made-for-TV horror/comedy that forgot to put in either.
There are worse ways to kill 82 minutes – see the next film in the series for more details – and the film obviously has good intentions but somebody should have seen sense and kept it in a vault far away from public view, leaving us with the rib-tickling good time that parts one and two gave us and drawing a line under it.
Critters 4 (Rupert Harvey, USA, 1992)
But they didn’t. Instead they carried on the promise made at the end of part three – a foreboding ‘To Be Continued…’ (the films were made back-to-back) – and did the usual thing that low-budget horror films do when they run out of ideas – they set it in space.
Plot summary – Charlie (Don Keith Opper) and the two remaining Krite eggs are sent into space where they are picked up by a salvage ship whose crew – including Al Bert (Brad Dourif) and Fran (Angela Bassett) – report their find to the Terracorp Council, who tell the crew to go to an abandoned space station to await further instructions. Naturally the pod containing Charlie and the Krites gets opened and it all leads to a dull climax with a tedious inevitability.
Ironically, out of all the horror film franchises that do go into space – Hellraiser, Leprechaun, Friday the 13th, etc – you would have thought that Critters would work out the best, seeing as the Krites come from there. So how come it ends up as a total pile of poo? Because nothing happens, quite frankly. Once aboard the salvage ship we get scene after scene of bickering, power struggles and some painful-to-watch pulling techniques from the ship’s captain – but where’s the chuffing critters? You don’t see the first one until about half an hour in and they’re not even the same as the ones from before, these being smaller and facially different. They do eventually grow into the familiar Krites but for the brief time they’re on screen they don’t really do very much.
Quite why Brad Dourif is here is a bit of a mystery – perhaps the Child’s Play films weren’t quite limp enough (we’ll get to those) so he decided to cash some more cheques. Anyway, he’s the best one here, as you would expect, but he isn’t given much to work with. Angela Bassett doesn’t seem to know what sort of film she’s in and is taking it all way too seriously; a bit like Corey Feldman in The Lost Boys only less endearing. The rest of the unknown cast are all pretty bad, even Don Keith Opper and Terrence Mann (returning as Ug the alien) don’t add anything, perhaps realising that this sort of stuff was only good when it was back on the farm and upsetting hillbillies rather than skulking around in space like a second-rate Star Trek rip-off. So overall the Critters films run like this – fun first film, solid second, third for Leonardo DiCaprio completists only and the fourth film makes an adequate coaster.