Creature Features in Review: Critters (1986)
Watch the skies! Keep your family close. A new terror is invading our world. They are…KRITES…no wait, sorry, CRITTERS…yeah, definitely that! If you’re a nerd, such as myself, then you are probably aware of such a movie called “Critters,” and the three other sequels that followed. Critters is not the first horror-comedy to grace this Creature Features series, but at the same time, it is something quite unique. When you think “monster movies” you kinda assume something like gigantic lizards that breath fire, or mutant genetically altered insects, or maybe even meteor shit that turns out to be some sort of alien slug that turns people into a mess of zombified conglomerated flesh. But when we get catch phrases like, “They bite,” and “When you got Critters, you need all the help you can get,” we sort of don’t know what to think. Is this movie serious? Or is it pure spoof comedy? Is it even horror? On one spectrum, you’ve got Roger Ebert giving this flick a thumbs up back in 1986 while on the other hand sporting a meager 43% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Some critics have called Critters “Gremlins on acid,” (MovieHole) while others have said that “Critters [is] a franchise [that] has nothing on the Nightmare on Elm Street films, but it’s proven popular enough with Gen X-ers who forward ‘You know you’re a child of the ’80s if…’ emails to all their office mates” (Slate Magazine.) So what is it about Critters that appeals to some while turns away others?
Let’s take this one step at a time.
To get us started, here is a wonderful synopsis by our friends over at IMDb:
“A race of small, furry aliens make lunch out of the locals in a farming town.”
BRAVO!!!! Okay, well, my work here is done, folks. Furry aliens make lunch…oh, you can’t get any better than that people, that is pure gold. Well, as pure usual, they aren’t wrong. Here’s what I got while watching the movie for the…jeez…I don’t know, maybe twentieth time maybe? Somewhere around there. As our heroes over at IMDb pointed out, yes, furry aliens do make lunch, but as the New Line Cinema bold red screen appears, one Nightmare on Elm Street fans should recognize with a sense of glee, the screen opens on a giant space rock that so happens to also be a prison. We don’t really get to see much here, just a bunch of dialogue going on off screen. Supposedly, a violent criminal species known as Krites are being transported to the facility. Right away we’re told they “eat everything.” Just as my Magic 8-Ball predicted, the Krites escape the facility by stealing a space vessel and take off toward planet Earth. Here we get little (get it?) glimpses of the Krites, their claws and hear their language which has been thankfully translated for us via closed captioning.
The warden on this highly secured prison, who looks like the Caterpiller from Alice in Wonderland, hires “the bounty hunters” to track down these fiendish hungry villains and dispatch them. And it’s around here when the screen opens on a quaint small farm in a quiet small town. Nothing much to hate about this place. We’ve got our A typical American breed family. Pa and Ma and big sister and little mischevious bro Brown. A stark difference to the science fiction space opera going on in the beginning. Here we’ve got one of the most overused and iconic of horror and sci-fi backdrops, the American farming town. But given the opening, there’s already a feeling of helter skelter. What are we watching? Horror or sci-fi? Is this ET or “Gremlins on acid?” I have no idea, but I do know one thing, we’ve got Dee Wallace, ET’s Henry Thomas’s mother in nearly the same dubious role as the harried Ma Brown of young Brad Brown (played by Scott Grimes who I believed was actually a younger Judd Nelson), our plucky kid hero who goes to battle against these Krites; Critter invaders.
Several scenes play out as we patiently wait for what we really came here to see. Aliens eating people and GORE. Spoiler: the latter you’re not going to get much of, sorry. My biggest concern watching this film was regarding young Brad. Now, yes, we all adore the stereotypical young boy who loves fireworks and plays with M-80s, whistlin’ bungholes, spleen splitters, whisker biscuits, honkey lighters, hoosker doos, hoosker don’ts, cherry bombs, nipsy daisers, scooter stick, and whistlin’ kitty chasers. But good God man, this kid is packing more than your typical firecracker. This thing is a bomb. His father reprimands him, also looking a bit weary about his son’s interest in explosives. Later, we see Brad sent to his room where he has a workbench of destruction and assembles what looks a lot like a stick of dynamite. Seriously, where are this kid’s parents?
Two highlights soon follow. Billy Zane and Bill Zane’s death. More on that to follow. Zane must have been just starting out acting when Critters came along. He looks quite young and only has a few lines. I did like that they made the big sister and girlfriend of Zane’s (played by Canada’s sweetheart Nadine Van der Velde) as the promiscuous one. She’d practically dragging young Zane up into the loft where she has prepared a sort of love nest, complete with 80s jams. Earlier, when Pa learns of his daughter’s new New York city boyfriend, he quickly asks his wife if they’ve had the talk on “how things are.” Jeez, I can only imagine what that talk as about consider sister Brown’s later behavior. But hey, who am I to judge the phenomenal romance of teenage love?
As far as horror movies go. I do not think this is such. This wasn’t horrifying. Even the going into the basement scary scene wasn’t really scary. It’s hard to be scared with Gremlin sized furballs cracking jokes in some strange intergalactic language. That’s not to say Critters wasn’t good. Critters is actually a fun movie to watch. The characters are not deep or complex, but their motivations are easy to understand and thus we do not have to invest a lot of brain power with them. Just as with the plot, though seemingly complex with the beforementioned space opera, it’s actually an oversimplification of several movies that came out in the space of 1986. Critters is without a doubt “Gremlins on acid,” it’s also got a touch of The Terminator with the machine-like bounty hunters and the garb they wear. And director Stephen Herek (director of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) is not shy poking fun at ET. There’s a great scene with one of the Krites talking with a stuffed ET doll, yelling “Who are you!” And then ripping the doll’s head off. Looking back at Herek’s resume, it’s easy to see that he is mostly a fan of light hearted-humored movies. He wants to have fun and that mood is clearly carried throughout the film.
One of my favorite scenes involves Dee Wallace versus one the Critters that attack the family while they are retreating back into their house from the porch. The family gets back inside, and out on the porch one Critter turns to the other and warns that they “have weapons.” His Critter buddy replies, “So what?” Dee Wallace sticks out the barrel of her shotgun through the door and blows the “so what” Critter into goo. his buddy turns to his dispatched friend and screams “Fuck!” in his own intergalactic language, shown to use again by that marvelous closed captioning. It’s little moments like this sprinkled throughout the movie that makes Critters fun and funny to watch.
Oh, I also forgot. This town, as the sheriff (played by the fantastic M. Emmet Walsh) was quick to say, is a circus, and just like any good or decent circus, it comes complete with its very own town drunk/alien conspiracy nut/minor-leaguye baseball washout by the name of Charlie (played by Don Keith Opper). Charlie is quick to predict the arrival of the aliens, either by the feelings in his fillings or by dumb luck, the latter more like, and fumbles his way throughout the entire movie, stepping up at the very end by lofting a molotov cocktail into the alien spacecraft, destroying it and the creatures inside, thus saving the day. What I liked more about the end was the utter “fuck you” given by the Krites as they attempt to flee, firing a laser on the American Dream, portrayed in this movie with the Brown’s farm house, blowing brick and wood and shingles to smithereens. It’s usually in moments like this when I begin to formulate any possible meanings or questions the movie and or director are trying to convey. Seeing the destruction of the “American Dream” begs the question of what’s most important to us, was the “Dream” a lie all along? Was keeping the family together the most important part and that even when you’ve done everything right you will not necessarily get to ride off into the sunset?
Well…as I was pondering these questions I had believed the movie was asking, the preverbal reset button was pushed and the house rebuilt itself via a device given to Brad as a “thank you” from the aliens. In seconds, the house is restored to its original glory. Watching this and then seeing the credits roll I was left somewhat dumb stuck. Did the director just punk me, as I image he punked countless over movie reviewers before me? Maybe.
Regardless, Critters is certainly a classic film, one that kids of the 80’s without a doubt share in email and threads on social media as one of those flicks that defined an era. The mood was lighthearted, and despite certain scenes with F-bombs being dropped, I’d say Critters is family friendly. Could they have upped the gore and blood and violence and made this sucker even more of a satire than what it turned out to be? I think I would have loved it even more! But the lack of blood and guts doesn’t deter me from enjoying some 1980s nostalgia.
My rating: 4/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmo, and his latest release, THE HOBBSBURG HORROR. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging (coming soon) are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a Bachelor’s in History. He blogs here at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
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