The Critters Project #1 Critters (1986)
Welcome, friends, to the very first installment in The Critters Project. What is the Critters Project? It’s essentially a flimsy excuse for me to write about all four Critters motion pictures despite them not really falling into any preexisting categories on the site.
Ah, but the Critters Project is so much more than that. It’s also a celebration of the fact that now that I’m barely in the professional pop culture media business anymore I can do just about anything I want with this site and my career. If I want to turn Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place into an online Critters fanzine, I can do so. Heck, if I want to change my pen name to Critters McGee, the site’s name to Critters McGee’s Creature Corner and Moonshine Emporium and gallivant about in public in a homemade Critters costume my wife would probably divorce me and I’d lose what few friends I currently possess, but I can do that as well.
It’s like Uncle Ben always said: with very little professional power comes an equivalently minute amount of responsibility. So I’ve decided that I will write about the Critters quartet for this here site because there’s nothing and no one to stop me. Oh, and also they’re all coming out on Blu-Ray in a new box set from my friends over at Scream Factory.
Critters has a reputation as the best, most successful and legitimate of the many nasty little creature features that followed in the zeitgeist-capturing success of Gremlins. Yet the movie’s screenplay pre-dates Gremlins and the filmmakers actually worked diligently to make their horror-comedy about an invasion of evil little fuckers as distinct from Gremlins as possible.
Critters is, in fact, a decidedly different motion picture than Gremlins. Instead of taking place in Spielberg’s suburbia, where the mundane interacts with the fantastical, supernatural and alien in manners both heartwarming and utterly terrifying it’s an extended riff on the space invasion movies of the 1950s, which similarly juxtaposed the Norman Rockwell innocence of common folks in small towns with monsters from beyond our world and beyond our imagination.
Gremlins would be a much different, much darker and much less family and mainstream-friendly movie without the central presence of lovable fur ball Gizmo. It’d also be much less successful. Gizmo is what made Joe Dante’s Reagan-era masterpiece a blockbuster. He’s what made it cuddly and ostensibly family friendly despite its many nightmarish and trauma-inducing elements. Gizmo is what made Gremlins feel like a bona fide Steven Spielberg movie (which it of course was) as well as a hilarious and incisive parody of Spielberg’s world.
Without Gizmo, Gremlins is a horror movie. Without Gizmo, Gremlins is bleak. Without Gizmo, Gremlins is most assuredly not for the kiddies. In other words, without Gizmo, Gremlins would feel a whole lot more like Critters.
There is no good monster in Critters, no teddy bear-like creature children will want to cuddle at night in doll form. There is no moral ambiguity to future Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Mr. Holland’s Opus director Stephen Herek’s wonderfully nasty little b-movie. The evil minions of Critters just want to kill and breed. That’s it. That’s all there is to them. That’s enough.
Director and co-writer Herek takes his sweet time showing us the Critters, which were designed by cult geniuses The Chiodo Brothers of Killer Klowns from Outer Space fame as sinister, condensed versions of Tasmanian devils with rows of sharp, knife-like teeth, glowing red eyes, spikes that they can shoot at their victims and the ability to roll up into a ball and fling themselves at their prey like versions of Sonic the Hedgehog designed by David Cronenberg.
Imagine if Tribbles mated with piranhas and you have a sense of the compact, condensed yet very potent evil posed by the Critters, or Crites as they are more accurately known. As the movie begins, they are being held in a space prison for their various space crimes by space captors.
Then the evil bastards break out of space jail and are pursued by a pair of space bounty hunters, real Boba Fett types, but with the ability to change their appearance for the sake of blending into their environments. In this case one of the bounty hunters decides to look exactly like a hair metal singer named Johnny Steele we hear and see earlier in the film.
That means the movie’s primary badass looks like a second-rate Sebastian Bach wannabe and behaves with the dead-eyed, unblinking robotic single-mindedness of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator series.
Weird details like that give Critters a funky, dark sense of humor all its own that further serves to separate the movie from Gremlins while simultaneously giving the proceedings a science fiction element that further distinguishes it from Joe Dante’s blockbuster. This isn’t just another creature feature about diminutive fur balls with a bottomless appetite for destruction. No, Critters is very specifically about monsters from outer space deciding to descend upon our planet in search of a nosh. It’s science fiction as much as it is horror.
Like Gremlins, Critters takes its time establishing its world before its titular monsters turn it upside down. Our heroes are the Brown family, an All-American farm family led by rock-ribbed patriarch Jay (Billy “Green” Bush) and mother Helen (Dee Wallace Brown, who has the distinction of having starred in both E.T, which inspired Gremlins in myriad ways, and The Howling, Gremlins’ director Joe Dante’s breakthrough film). The kids are equally archetypal. There’s bratty boy Brad (Scott Grimes), a red-headed Dennis the Menace type with a juvenile delinquent’s enduring fondness for slingshots and setting off fireworks and April (Nadine van der Velde), a boy-crazy teen who cannot wait to take ponytail-sporting boyfriend Steve Elliot (Billy Zane) to the Bone Zone so that they can make sweet love.
I love Billy Zane’s performance here. He spends the first half of the movie fending off his girlfriend’s very aggressive sexual advances and then when they get to the barn and nature starts to take its course he’s of course murdered by a Critter for his amorousness. I grew up in a world where death was inveterately linked to casual sex. I was taught that if I had sex I would then die of AIDS as a result. In Critters if you try to get laid you’ll get killed by a monster from outer space as punishment. AND probably get an STD to boot.
Critters is a creature feature, it’s a science fiction movie about monsters from outer space and it’s also a story about survival, not unlike Signs or Assault on Precinct 13 or Dawn of the Dead with this quintessentially American family protecting their home from malevolent invaders who will stop at nothing to consume them.
Herek throws in a number of meta-textual gags and winking references to other creature features, most notably when a Critter encounters an E.T doll and makes an elaborate show of biting off its head in a sequence with all manner of symbolic and metaphorical significance.
Critters knows exactly what kind of movie it is. It’s the kind of movie where the town drunk (movies like these aren’t fancy enough to have alcoholics) jabbers about an imminent invasion from outer space even before baddies from the stars start turning a sleepy town into their own private hunting grounds and is rewarded for his insanity and paranoid with a chance to be a hero. But for the most part Herek and his collaborators are content to go for scares instead of laughs.
Despite their size the Crites are skilled hunters, predators in the cuddly, furry bodies of psychotic teddy bears with an insatiable interplanetary bloodlust. They’re legitimately scary even if they prove fairly easy to kill. They are a grubby masterpiece of b-movie creature effects that go a long way towards making Critters something special.
Critters succeeds smashingly in part because its ambitions are so modest along with its scope and budget. Herek knows that he cannot compete with Spielberg or Joe Dante on the level of production values or spectacle so he finds inspired ways to suggest much while showing little.
Herek’s directorial debut was ultimately less a Gremlins knock off than a fat-free drive-in movie for a post-drive-in era that doesn’t give audiences an opportunity to get bored.
Excluding the end credits, Critters barely passes the eighty minute mark. Critters never comes close to wearing out its welcome. It remains to be seen whether that will hold true of the three subsequent Critters movies I’m cautiously optimistic about exploring with all of y’all because I can and I hold out hope that they will be, if not necessarily “good” then at least interesting enough to make this project something other than a colossal waste of my time as well as yours.
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