Critters Is The Best ’80s Monster Movie You’ve Never Seen
In 1986, horror fans got a ‘tasty entree’ with Critters; a gleefully vicious creature-feature that deserves more love.
God, weren’t the 80s the best? I’m technically Gen-Z, but much like pop culture itself, I’ve been utterly infatuated with the era’s works since I was a teenager. Synthwave is my go-to genre of music, GTA: Vice City‘s Flash FM is always on rotation, The Goonies is my favourite movie, and I think neon is just the coolest thing.
My longest-held possession is a toy Gizmo (it’s within touching distance as I type). As I look over at my little Mogwai, my mind wanders to the Crites; the nasty, sharp-toothed little pr*cks at the heart of Critters. It’s been 35 years, so let’s champion a cult classic for new generations. ‘When you’ve got Critters… you need all the help you can get.’
With Alien closing out the ’70s, monster movies quickly became the in-thing: The Thing; The Fly; An American Werewolf in London; Hellraiser; Predator; The Evil Dead; and even Aliens. Then there’s Gremlins, Joe Dante and Steven Spielberg’s beloved Christmas horror.
While iconic in its own stature, the seminal movie inspired a wave of ‘Gremsploitation,’ as put by Boston Hassle‘s Oscar Goff, with the likes of Ghoulies, Munchies, Troll 2 – ‘They’re eating her, then they’re gonna eat me… oh my goooooood’ – and best of all, Stephen Herek’s Critters. It hinges on a simple concept: small, grotesque beings terrorising small-town America.
Unlike the Chinatown warmth of its ancestor, Critters opens out in the cosmos with eerie synthesizers blaring in your eardrums, with a ship approaching Prison Asteroid Sector-17, a maximum security base with hokey aliens and incoming furry prisoners with one hell of an appetite. The title card even flashes like John Carpenter’s opening credits.
Alas, they escape in an aircraft of their own and crash-land in a rural Kansas farm belonging to the Brown family. It’s peaceful, tranquil and thoroughly mundane, with a pale sun shining and blissfully naive small-town residents (like M. Emmet Walsh’s sceptical sheriff) – the only thing missing is Thomas the Tank Engine whirring by.
The US countryside is emblematic American dream and great horror. Stephen King knew it, hence the haunting power of Derry – hell, one of the author’s dastardly creations wouldn’t be out of place here. The setting of James Gunn’s Slither also plays into this; it’s an ordinary world, and with wicked storytelling, people must learn to survive. Field of Nightmares.
While the Gremlins make their first appearance terrorising a mum in a kitchen, a poor cow gets piranha’d by the Crites. Later, a young Billy Zane gets chomped to death in a barn. It becomes immediately clear they’re here to play – but it’s going to be foul.
Two things to note: design-wise, these bitey buggers are a nightmare, armed with rows of dozens of teeth, red eyes and paralysis darts on their heads. Their craft comes from the handiwork of the Chiodo Brothers, most famous for their work on Killer Klowns from Outer Space. They also worked on Team America (f*ck yeah).
Storytime: my first experience with Critters wasn’t on-screen at all. It was in a random book on movie aliens I’d repeatedly borrow from my local library, just to look at the pictures; specifically, Xenomorphs, the Predator and the Crites. As soon as you catch one glimpse of them, some morbid curiosity within you sets alight.
Which brings me to my second point: they are truly unfazed in their pursuit of death and destruction. Crites are perpetually hangry and don’t stop for a breath; and the worst bit, they get bigger the more they chow down. ‘They eat so fast, you don’t have time to scream,’ the tagline read.
Penned by Herek, Domonic Muir and Don Keith Opper, the film has no qualms in letting its titular villains be as nasty as possible. Gremlins enjoyed being agents of mayhem, but at least they had fun we could relate to (binge-drinking, playing with guns, going to the cinema).
Crites just roll around, tease their prey, devour and repeat, with a fair dose of sweary gibberish. And, amazingly, it’s hilarious! I dare you not to cackle when a Crite screams, ‘F*ck!’ when his brethren is blasted to bloody bits with a shotgun.
That’s not to say it’s a triumph, nor should it be. Trashy B-movies are what they are, and executing its own pizza-munching, beer-guzzling, chuckling modus operandi should be the one and only priority. There’s the requisite terribly-written teenagers, shallow parents, albeit the mean spirit only extends to its alien foes.
The performances are… fine. A young Scott Grimes as the plucky hero child leaves the biggest impression; a pre-Bart Simpson, if you will. The direction isn’t all that inspired, bar its inherent maliciousness and a few POV shots in a post-Jaws and Halloween world.
There’s no real human antagonists here, nor are the bounty hunters shown to be feared. After hideously transforming into the form of a rock ‘n’ roll star – via some SFX wizardry reminiscent of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor – they wander roads, farms and bowling alleys like punk-rock Terminators, talking in monosyllabic taunts and letting rip with their plasma cannons.
Licks of Gremlins, The Terminator and E.T. are obvious. In one moment, a Crite stares down a toy E.T. and eventually eats it. Dee Wallace, who played Elliott’s mum in E.T., also plays the mother here. But as Roger Ebert noted, ‘What makes Critters more than a rip-off are its humor and its sense of style. This is a movie made by people who must have had fun making it.’
In a breezy 86 minutes – huzzah! – it’s hard not to crave more from the Critters. The good news: there’s six follow-ups, from movies to shorts to shows. The bad news: they’re woeful, even by the genre’s standards.
Nevertheless, it’s a little sad. This film, while derivative, had the joyous audacity to go for gore, laughs and nonsense with genuinely memorable monsters. Critters has almost no cultural prowess outside its fans; it’s not been caught up in the Stranger Things love, and there’s certainly no hashtag for #RestoreTheCrittersVerse. Maybe there should be.
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