Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Critters (1986) - FilmReview

Brad (Scott Grimes) hiding from the terror

Gremlins From Outer Space

You could easily accuse screenplay writer Domonic Muir of copying the success of another creature feature movie released in 1984: Gremlins! However, a screenplay for an early version of Critters had already been around a few years earlier than Joe Dante's own masterpiece. If anything, because Gremlins reached audiences first, the script for Critters had to undergo some changes to reduce similarities between the two movies. They are different enough to enjoy.

What I really liked about Critters is that it sets the scene perfectly by introducing an asteroid prison in deep space where the last eight of a vicious carnivorous species called Crites are waiting to be transferred. Unfortunately the mischievous monsters escape from the facility in a hijacked spacecraft and flee. Two shape-shifting bounty hunters are assigned to track them down. The destination: Earth!

I had watched this as a teenager, so decided a new viewing was needed. It made for a fantastic trip down memory lane. Firstly, I realised that actress Dee Wallace (Mary in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial) was playing the role of Helen Brown; wife to Jay (Billy "Green" Bush), and mother to Brad (Scott Grimes) and April (Nadine van der Velde). They're a normal family living on a Kansas farm. That is, until something lands nearby and Critters begin eating cattle and attacking local residents. For the rest of the time this becomes a siege movie, as the Brown family tries to keep the alien beings outside of the farmhouse. The father is badly bitten at the beginning but manages to stay alive. In addition to this, a second extraterrestrial ship arrives and two strangers search for the escaped Crites.

...one of my absolute favourite movie memories...

It's certainly a fun movie, with excellent practical effects and a team of puppeteers to bring the Critters to life. They also look different enough from Gremlins to work well. One critic at the time said of the film, "Critters isn't a memorable or even very slick movie, but it is good fun. What it lacks in substance it makes up for with a perverse kind of charm". I disagree. Critters remained one of my absolute favourite movie memories from years past, a delightful low-budget sci-fi and horror flick that shouldn't be taken too seriously but will leave a smile.

Another face that I recognised during my fresh viewing was that of actor Ethan Phillips, known to many as Neelix in Star Trek: Voyager, playing a police officer. His role in this was a short one, but still a very nice surprise.


Out of the two bounty hunters, actor Terrence Mann played the lead as Ug, the one who takes on the appearance of a rock star called Johnny Steele. During the space flight, Ug had studied television signals, latched onto a rock concert and copied the eighties singer to make mingling in with Human society a lot less suspicious. Too bad, then, that his companion, Lee, blew up everything in sight and caused panic in the town of Grover's Bend. After reading Critters Wiki I've learned that these bounty hunters are known as Nothing-Face until selecting a "species facial identification". While Ug had no problem in assimilating an appearance, fellow hunter Lee didn't seem to find anything suitable, thus copying three different Humans during the story.

"They eat so fast, you don't have time to scream"

The Critters themselves have a Porcupines look about them, with the ability to shoot poison barbs as projectile weapons that can stun a victim. They also have razor-sharp teeth, and enjoy munching into an arm or two - or worse! Like the Gremlins, they are intelligent, though the level of that intellect varies from creature to creature.

There are some lovely nods to other movies: in one scene a Critter encounters an E.T. vinyl plush toy (in acknowledgement of leading lady Dee Wallace's 1982 role), the logo on the back of bowling uniforms will clearly be noticed by fans of Ghostbusters, and a toilet scene is reminiscent of Ghoulies (1985).

Charlie McFadden, portrayed perfectly by Don Keith Opper, is the local joke, a mechanic and drunk who receives information of alien abductions through his fillings; he will eventually become a familiar character within the franchise. Critters also features an early appearance by Billy Zane as Steve Elliot, April's boyfriend, who will regret wanting to have sex with her in the barn.

Critters spawned a number of sequels, and a web television series called Critters: A New Binge. The latest movie, Critters Attacks! (2019) sees Dee Wallace return in a different role to the one she plays in the first chapter. We do have to wonder why they keep churning out new versions/sequels/reboots, but... if something can be milked dry...

Thankfully, this first one is an absolute dream.