It’s hard to remember a time when New Line Cinema wasn’t the gargantuan, award-winning studio it became in the wake of LORD OF THE RINGS. While it was still finding its identity as The House Freddy Built, New Line was pumping out films like ALONE IN THE DARK and John Waters’ POLYESTER. Then, in 1986, a short while after Freddy was helping a teenage boy figure out his sexual identity; a filmmaker dropped his country-fried monster movie onto theatrical audiences. This was Stephen Herek’s CRITTERS, hatched from his brain, based on a nightmare he’d had as a child. Though initially seen as New Line’s call-and-response to Joe Dante’s GREMLINS, the script was penned and purchased long before the cartoonish Gremlin antics were even announced to the world. And if we really want to talk about GREMLINS knockoffs, let’s leave that discussion for a day where we can digest MUNCHIES or GHOULIES (and fuck it, HOBGOBLINS).That will frankly be a cold day in hell. Personally, the realities of CRITTERS and GREMLINS are so far apart, with one being overtly cartoonish and the other hewing closer to ours that it’s easy to delineate between the two and see they’re each doing their own thing. The only real commonality is that the Crites act a little cartoonish, especially in their sequels as they become more and more Flanderized.For me, the CRITTERS franchise was a home video and television staple. I started out seeing the second film first either on videotape or through my local network affiliate. I vividly remember renting CRITTERS 3 as a new title at Video Express, my hometown, home video depository. The first CRITTERS was a box-office hit going on to spawn three more Crite-riddled sequels, a fan film and a new film/series from ZOMBEAVERS director, Jordan Rubin. It’s never been a better time to be a CRITTERS fan. Since we’ve recently passed by the 30th anniversary of CRITTERS 2: THE MAIN COURSE and since I’ve bent your ear this long, I might as well go on and talk about the entire franchise, movie by movie and bite by bite.
I think the reason why the original CRITTERS appealed so much to me as a horror-obsessed youngster was that I grew up out in the boonies. We lived on a barn-adjacent property and some of the creepy insects, like deluges of spiders, wasps, june bugs, chiggers, grasshoppers and crickets that would come crawling out of the woodwork were worse things than even the most inventive filmmaker could concoct. So, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to assume that even worse creatures were hiding in the vast, tall fields that grew and grew beyond my property. This is most likely what director/screenwriter Stephen Herek was thinking as he grew up in San Antonio, Texas.
CRITTERS is a perfectly paced film at eighty-six minutes right up to its explosive finale. But more so, beyond the excellent effects by the Chiodo Brothers (particularly in the transformation of the bounty hunters), the plot and characters make this film stand out tall in a massive crowd of creature features. With the homespun vibe the writers have cultivated, you feel like you’re watching a lost episode of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, except that there’s a deluge of fur balls with razor sharp teeth, and maybe Otis rides off with aliens to be a bounty hunter. But that’s it!
More importantly, I love that Grover’s Bend feels like a real town (the film was lensed and takes place in Kansas). The townspeople are farmers, real blue-collar folks. They have romantic aspirations! They have bowling leagues (I love the dad’s GHOSTBUSTERS-homaging bowling shirt)! There’s also some genuine atmosphere and suspense while we wait for the Crites to show up, particularly in the scene where Brad and his dad discover the cow carcass and when Billy Green Bush investigates the power outage in the cellar. The film gets a little gruesome when they start attacking, particularly in the way heartthrob Billy Zane (sporting a rattail and I presume his own hair) is dispatched, first with getting his fingers bitten off and then with how the Crite bores through his stomach. The film is a little like character-actor bingo, with Dee Wallace (though at the time she was hot off of ET: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL, and therefore a lead actor), M. Emmett Walsh (the human equivalent of being slumped over), Billy Green Bush, and Lin Shaye. I love the humor present in the film, from the Crites being so petty as to blow up the family’s farmhouse all while giggling madly, or their reaction to seeing the human having weapons (“They have weapons! So what? BLAM! Fuck!”) And the comedy scenes involving the humans, just based on down-home bemusement reacting to the bounty hunters’ resemblances to their reverend, their town’s deputy and the famous rock star or their shenanigans like destroying the church, the bowling alley (which thankfully avoids the obvious punchline of having someone accidentally pick up a Crite, mistaking it for their bowling ball), and the Brown family home in their single-minded purpose of destroying these creatures. It’s as Roger Ebert points out in his positive review of the film, they’re good old boys out on the town hunting monsters, though at least they repair the family’s home in the theatrical ending, whereas in the alternate ending, the home stays destroyed and the Crite eggs rest in the wreckage.
My favorite comedy bit in the film, one in which I chuckled like a maniac at, is the end, where the bounty hunters and M. Emmett Walsh (okay, his line “I swallowed my chewing tobacco!” is pretty doggone funny, too) are in adjacent cop cars. The hunters’ car won’t start, and the resigned way Walsh looks at the two hunters like he knows what’s coming is solid gold. The resigned defeat he has when he simply slides over and lets them take his car is pure physical comedy.
I re-watched CRITTERS, I found several highlights of common occurrences that cropped up in ’80s movies, like starting with the typical “monsters escape and head to Earth sequence,” that sort of kick-off that NIGHT OF THE CREEPS did so well. Hell, those two features would make a perfect double bill. Or the family sitting around the dinner table and drinking milk with their supper. Was this a thing that happened? I don’t remember doing that with my family – it was always sweet tea. It also shows up in LITTLE MONSTERS and STRANGER THINGS, though with the latter, I presume that has more to do with influence than anything. Also, a lot of movies in the 80’s seemed to have music video sequences, and with a song as badass as “Power of the Night,” you want to let that song get its due. And this film continues the trend of preteen boys handling guns and manufacturing explosions. Hey, did you know the scene of the family eating dinner would show up in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS when Freddy kills Jennifer? Lastly, why the fuck is Adolf Hitler credited on iMdB for this movie? Oh, bonus – Nadine Van Der Velde, who plays the teen daughter later starred in the sub-level rip-off of (GREMLINS, CRITTERS, GHOULIES)MUNCHIES. This is not to be confused with the in-name only sequels in Roger Corman’s Munchie Cinematic Universe TM where we followed the adventures of a rejected Showbiz Pizza mascot named by duh, Munchie, voiced by Dom DeLuise and Howard Hesseman respectively. Goddamn it, Jim Wynorski.
CRITTERS 2: THE MAIN COURSE (1988)
Nothing says ‘Merica like blowing up a burger warehouse filled with monster and shooting your guns in the air while cheering.
Since CRITTERS was a hit for New Line Cinema and the closing moments of the first film hinted that the interstellar Crite menace was not quite exterminated, it was clear that a sequel would be on its way. Two years later, the horror genre’s nicest gentleman, Mick Garris gave us CRITTERS 2: THE MAIN COURSE courtesy of a script he wrote with journeyman screenwriter David Twohy. This sequel is regarded higher upon the franchise’s ranking for most fans, simply because it’s a bigger and better sequel.
I love sequels that pick up the story a few years down the road, where the first film’s events become legends that haunt their towns and people are affected by what happened. Like Brad’s reticence to talk to reporters or disbelief in the events even happening in the first film. That’s a sense of continuity that’s rare in most genre efforts, and even rarer is the sequel that brings characters back and shows that they were changed by the events of the prior entry. It’s the little touches like Lin Shaye’s characters no longer being a sheriff’s receptionist, but a local reporter for the town newspaper. Or Harv, a character that prominently gets the short shrift in the first film, in this sequel he’s got a clearer arc instead of being off-screen for the majority of the film as in the first film, though awkwardly he’s replaced by Barry Corbin here. The only aspect that I don’t buy is Brad and Charlie’s reunion, the actors, dialogue and music sell the scene and emotionality of it, but we didn’t get a true sense of their relationship in Part One.
Speaking of Charlie, I love that the bounty hunters have adopted Charlie as one of their own, and before the events of this sequel have been going on blue-collar bounty hunting gigs before they’re sent back to Earth to wipe out the Crites. I also never noticed that the guns that Ug and lee (our bounty hunters) wield are so phallic in nature; notice the barrels extending at the sight and thought of killing the Crites. Additionally, don’t you miss the days where a PG-13 on your film meant you might get to see nudity? Or grandmothers cursing? This film delivers on that promise, and I liked the character of Lee, continuing the continuity thread of the hunter not being able to find a face of their own. Thankfully, they don’t morph into Eddie Deezen, nor do they morph into Freddy Krueger (another loving nod to the character that built their studio).
It’s also clever on Garris and Twohy’s part to set the events of the film during Easter, so that the dissemination of the Critter eggs is believable and not something they have to stretch to get the plot rolling. Garris directs the film excellently, throwing out homages to horror movies (see the Freddy shout out), and giving cameos to his horror buddies, that’s Tom McLaughlin as the gun-toting guard outside the church that gets eaten by the Crites. His use of Crite cam is visually neat, either with the camera rolling over to simulate the Crites rolling around, or the high shot to simulate the POV of the Big Ball O’Crites, which is an undeniably iconic franchise moment.
The mayhem starts a lot sooner here and is given time to breathe, whereas in the first film, felt back loaded into the second and third acts and restricted to the farm. Here the Crites torment the entire town (which humorously reminds me of a studio backlot furthering the GREMLINS vibe the first film avoided), by attacking a restaurant (can’t beat that Hungry Heifer meat!), an antique shop and eventually just run amuck in the middle of the town square. It’s just spread out more evenly, thus propelling the action forward better. The scene where the Crites load up into a giant rolling ball and run over one of the townspeople is so funny and so gruesome. Ditto for the Easter Bunny murder, this has provided me tons of enjoyment over the years as I inappropriately post the scene to my social media accounts on Easter Sunday. I also discovered that the Sheriff aka the Dead Meat Easter Bunny is one of the bozo deputies from HALLOWEEN 5: THE REVENGE OF MICHAEL MYERS.
CRITTERS 2: THE MAIN COURSE does everything that a proper sequel should do – it ups the carnage quotient, pushing the PG-13 rating to the brim, fattening up and fleshing out the characters, and giving the audience a hell of a ride. I wish that CRITTERS 2: THE MAIN COURSE was a bigger hit for Mick Garris. The guy’s clearly got a love and affinity for the genre like John Landis and Joe Dante, but never got the same amount of attention that they did outside of the horror community, other than with MASTERS OF HORROR.
CRITTERS 3 (1991)
There’s an unwritten rule, or perhaps it’s written and buried somewhere underneath an old stack of Fangorias, that all horror franchise monsters must go through cycles as their sequels progress. The Crites first started as the rural creatures laying siege to hayseed bumpkins, before going bigger and better by hitting the metropolitan cities. This is something that the LEPRECHAUN franchise did as well as FRIDAY THE 13TH – in this case, almost in that order (countryside, city, space), and the third entry of CRITTERS found itself in the city with a bunch of folks to munch on, or at least try to – including the star of DJANGO UNCHAINED (no, not Christoph Waltz).
CRITTERS 3 was penned by David J. Schow – the enfant terrible of the splatterpunk literary world, who in addition to penning an immensely enjoyable column for Fangoria, was the wordsmith behind LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III and provided unused story ideas for the earliest conception of what would soon be A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD. Despite Schow’s past in splatterpunk, CRITTERS 3 isn’t all too gory (though the deaths are nicely bloody), nor does it have a huge body count – two by my count (though plenty of Crites get blown to shit). It’s kind of an old-fashioned film in that sense, where the bad guys get creamed and the good guys go on to live happy lives. Also, it’s directed by a female filmmaker, Kristine Peterson, in what is a sad rarity then, but is becoming less and less rare these days (although not enough, folks). Her direction is admirable throughout and keeps the film moving along nicely through its short eighty-four minute run time.
Ostensibly, CRITTERS 3 is a siege movie, with the newly hatched Crites trying to chow on the residents of a non-descript apartment building that’s headed towards demolition by its crooked slumlord who incidentally calls his stepson – the actor from THE DEPARTED (no, not Ray Winstone) “Sport” more times than Dr. Kelso ever called anyone “Sport.” This rich dick (whose actor portrayed Emperor Wang in FLESH GORDON) is trying to shuttle his residents out to build a min-mall, and is doing so by making the living conditions in the building terrible.Fun fact: his wife, who appears briefly in the film’s beginning is played by Nina Axelrod, the film’s casting director, who also appeared in MOTEL HELL as Farmer Vincent’s girlfriend. The landlord’s a little like Joe Pesci in THE SUPER before the redemption. The residents are your clichéd types – the stereotypically Italian maintenance man, the tough lady, the old couple (the wife is played by the late, wonderful Frances Bay – giving the franchise a roster of TWIN PEAKS actors, the other of who, will appear in the spaced-out sequel), the heavy-set woman, the guy that talks like Tommy Wiseau – but by sheer virtue of the performances, the actors make the characters ingratiating, and you find yourself hoping for their survival, rather than their untimely mastication.
The villains, the aforementioned slumlord and maintenance man, are your typical baddies: perverts and potentially abusive types, and it’s kind of a waste that they’re killed off so early and so closely together, because there’s really no sense of danger that runs through the last third – because the Crites seem less concerned with eating people than goofing off (which falls in line with their previous antics) – but they’re still enough of a menace throughout, sticking people with their quills and taking bites of people. Also, there’s a cute-as-hell scene where the lead actress bowls with a trash can and knocks the cuddly Crite puppets over in slow motion, a scene that’s timed perfectly with a televised bowling match. It’s capital–A adorable. Unfortunately we’re left with too many survivors as we shuffle towards the inevitable happy ending –Daughter and dad reconcile, daughter sets up a date with the cute boy – the actor from THE BEACH (no, not Ewan McGregor) – leaving things open for the cliffhanger ending.
About that cliffhanger ending …
Charlie shows up (well, explodes out of the ground like Beetlejuice) towards the beginning of the filmwhen the main characters are stranded at a rest stop to give us exposition, while dressed like a character out of Jean Pierre Jeunet film, and okay, so the film can pick up the Crites to take along to the big city. I can respect that the film attempts to keep the continuity going by having Charlie tell these kids about the menace that’s plagued Grover’s Bend as a means of catching the audience up perhaps, and potentially warn the kids. Heck, I can even buy that Charlie’s not the sheriff seeing as it’s been three years since the previous sequel – and his brain wasn’t exactly unscrambled, but it just feels like clunky way to bring Charlie into the movie. I could even buy him working/living at the apartment complex in the film because it would feel like less of a story stretch! It’s just how these movie coincidences work – like the landlord and his stepson Josh being at the same rest stop – it just so happens that the old couple who watch our young leads knows exactly what happened in Grover’s Bend, and have Charlie’s phone number for whatever reason,thus we can tie the threads together and Charlie can save the day at the end of the film. It’s hinky, but it’s the nature of storytelling sometimes.
It really feels like Charlie’s role (other than saving the day) is to set up the next film, because the last minutes of the film (oddly running in tandem with freeze-frame credits – at first I thought the movie was just ending without rhyme or reason) involves him finding more Crite eggs in the basement of the apartment complex and being told by fellow bounty Ug that he’s not to destroy the eggs – just as a capsule plummets from space to collect the specimens.
To Be Continued …
CRITTERS 4 (1992)
Out of all the franchises that did in fact go to space: HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE, LEPRECHAUN 4, JASON X – CRITTERS was the only one that felt natural in going into the big, black infinite, because that’s where the story began and that’s where the story would end … for now with 1992’s CRITTERS 4, shot back-to-back with the previous entry. The film picks up right where part three leaves off, with Charlie finding the last two Crite eggs and being told by his fellow bounty hunter, Ug, that the Crites, though aggressive are not to be terminated as they’re a now potentially extinct species. Charlie gets trapped in a pod sent to pick up the eggs and we roll our opening credits. The story of CRITTERS 4, written again in part by David Schow, alongside Joseph Lyle, is relatively simple – a space crew stumbles upon the pod with Charlie and the eggs inside, nab it thinking they’re going to get an easy payday by returning the pod and its contents to an evil corporation, TerraCor, but upon landing on an abandoned space station, the Crites get loose and get to devouring our hapless crew (but I will admit that the Chiodo’s work on the Crites is the best the critters have EVER looked).
CRITTERS 4 is the longest entry in the series, but it doesn’t feel like a drag overall. Low-budget sci-fi/horror junkies will be right at home with this entry, which feels like a New Concorde – Roger Corman film akin to THE TERROR WITHIN or DEAD SPACE, but one with a major studio backing. What sets it apart from countless other low-budget space films is the fact that here we have absolutely likable characters, from Brad Dourif’s Al Bert, Angela Bassett’s Fran, young rookie Ethan (Paul Whitthorne), and the cargo jockey Bernie (a non-villainous turn from Eric DaRe). They’re all friendly with each other throughout the run-time, never turning on each other and working together to survive. It’s refreshing when ninety-eight percent of all horror films think that by turning the characters on each other and making them dickheads, they’re creating conflict. Really, the only villain besides the Weyland-Yutani lite TerraCor, is the captain of the ship that discovers the Cryo-frozen Crites, who playing by the perpetually snarling Anders Hove (Full Moon fans will recognize him as the vampire Radu from the SUBSPECIES films) and his death pushes the limits of the PG-13 rating (and is also one of the more memorable scenes from when I watched this film on VHS as a kid.
Schow’s writing really shines through in the film, from the buzzy intergalactic lingo that our space cowboys spit out at a breathless pace, but the real key to the script is how goddamn funny it is. Every single interaction with the abandoned ship’s computer, Angela, is gold. She’s a snarky, shithead AI that flagrantly disregards everyone’s orders, unless they pull reverse psychology on her, and continually calls the cast waste material. Oh, and hilariously blows the ship up at the film’s end before the countdown even finishes. It feels a lot like a precursor to GLADOS from PORTAL. It’s also, like CRITTERS 3, a film where the good guys will triumph and the bad guys will perish, but that doesn’t mean that the filmmakers don’t get bloodthirsty, as at least two of the characters that fill out the body count are the good guys -likable and ingratiating (despite one of them rummaging through the pharmacy for pills to steal – trust me, it makes sense). The film’s biggest downside is that the Crites feel like they’re an afterthought, disappearing for large chunks at a time and that’s not including the fact that it takes a little too long for them to even make their grand entrance.
There’s quite a bit of emotional resonance to this final film (for now, anyways). Charlie’s growth over the four films – going from fried out town loony to gun-toting badass (though it still stays true to character and makes him bungle things at almost every turn) – is quite the satisfying character arc. Similarly, there’s the heel-face turn of Ug (now being called Counselor Tetra), once Charlie’s friend and partner, now turned evil (we know this because of his slicked-back hair). This change in Ug allows Charlie find his purpose, the unfortunate thing being that it’s put him fifty-three years away from everything he knew, but gives him the chance to become a leader instead of someone that meekly follows orders, or is the subject of ridicule behind his back.The fact that Charlie is able to coolly dispatch Evil Ug, putting behind all their history to stop someone that’s icy and calculating, is growth. It’s a four-film arc (which is nice considering how much of a short shrift he got in Part Three).
CRITTERS 4 was a nice course-correction from the slums of CRITTERS 3 and deserves a little more recognition that being considered the bottom of the barrel simply because it’s the third sequel (a DTV one at that) and one that took its pint-sized villains to space. The homemade aesthetic charms the audiences (I’ll never not love low-budget space ships) even as people get horrendously killed. That’s a good Friday night, folks. It’s a lot better that LEPRECHAUN 4: IN SPACE at least (though that film has exploding breasts, Heidi from Tool Time, and the Leprechaun’s giant, disembodied hand flipping the bird at a space ship. Okay, maybe I’m a little wrong).
Overall, my ranking of the series would be CRITTERS 2: THE MAIN COURSE, CRITTERS, CRITTERS 4 and then CRITTERS 3. I swapped the middle two because I have more of a nostalgic heart towards that first country-fried Critters jamboree. It’s a consistent series overall, and one that has decent continuity, but real hand-wavy continuity. If you marathoned this series over one booze-filled weekend, you’d have one hell of a time. And with new Critters on the horizon, there’s never a better time that to buy that new Blu-ray box-set (out today!) and have an intergalactic blast.
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