The first CRITTERS hit at arguably the height of PG-13 horror aimed at adolescents who were too old for kids films but not quite ready for bloodier adult horror that was ushered in by GREMLINS. Not surprisingly, CRITTERS borrowed (ahem) quite a bit from Joe Dante’s subversive horror-comedy to give itself a leg up at the box office. What is surprising (even to the producers of the film) is how financially well it did (especially on home video) even when Charles Band beat it to the knockoff punch with both GHOULIES and TROLL. But CRITTERS had the secret weapon of a witty script and sketching out likable enough characters to get audiences on board. It also had to help that it was a New Line Cinema production. The company had just begun to flex their genre muscles with the first two A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films and were able to give their low-budget GREMLINS riff a better release than it probably would have received even a year earlier.
Released in 1986, CRITTERS is a surprisingly ambitious sci-fi/horror tale that details what happens when a race of intergalactic criminals/eating machines known as “Crites” land on Earth and make life hell over the course of one night for a Kansas farm family. Meanwhile, two shape-shifting bounty hunters arrive on the scene and cause nearly as much destruction as the Crites as they shoot up the small town of Grover’s Bend in their efforts to kill the creatures before they eat so much that they grow too big to stop.
Co-writer/director Stephen Herek does a good job of rapidly bouncing back and forth between the more straight forward horror siege tale happening on the farm and the comedic action beats of the bounty hunters’ destructive path before converging the two stories in the third act. Even more impressively than the energy the film has it races through its plot is how the screenplay and the performances by Dee Wallace Stone, Billy Green Bush, Scott Grimes, and Don Opper make us care about the family being attacked and Charlie, the alcoholic hired hand whose paranoid fantasies about alien invaders have come true.
The creature design of the Critters by the Chiodo Brothers are a little rough around the edges at times, but they have tons of personality in the way that they simultaneously are vicious in their desire to eat our heroes and comically mischievous with their destructive tendencies. The little touches like their glowing red eyes, poisonous quill-like darts that they shoot out of their heads, and tucking themselves into a ball and rolling as a way to move around are all clever and add to the weird menace and chaotic comedy of the creatures.
If not for an unnecessarily corny resolution, CRITTERS would be a flat out classic of this type of ’80s PG-13 horror/comedy/creature feature subgenre instead of a cult favorite. But even with that slight letdown at the end, it holds up as a slightly bloody, funny, and weirdly heartwarming good time.
In what would become a trend in the sequels, CRITTERS 2 takes the titular aliens and applies them to an entirely different subgenre than the previous film. Despite keeping the action set in the town of Grover’s Bend, Kansas and returning Brad (Grimes), Charlie (Opper), the bounty hunters Ug (Terrence Mann) and Lee, Sal (Lin Shaye), and Sheriff Harve (Barry Corbin, taking over for M. Emmett Walsh), the film might as well be starting over from scratch. The supposed connection of friendship between Charlie and Brad is barely given any weight despite an attempt to do so when they are reunited after so much time apart. Corbin’s take on Harve is far livelier and funnier than Walsh’s, making him feel like a completely different character. And the tone established by co-writer/director Mick Garris is much more cartoonish than the relatively grounded feel that Herek strove for and mostly achieved.
But despite feeling more like a sequel to GREMLINS than CRITTERS, CRITTERS 2 is largely a fun exercise as Garris moves the characters and the Crites into a low-key satirical western. It may lean a little too far into cornball territory at times, but several ambitious set-pieces (the giant “Critter ball” sequence and the Easter Bunny gag are still killer moments), some truly fun bits that take advantage of Lee’s transformations (including a Playboy Playmate and Eddie Deezen), and a real thumbing of the nose at the MPAA over what filmmakers can get away with under the constraints of the PG-13 rating help CRITTERS 2 smooth over the rough moments.
While every bit of money spent on CRITTERS 2 is on the screen in Garris’ go-for-broke vision of hundreds of Crites tearing apart an entire town, New Line spent twice as much on the film as it did for the first one, requiring it to be an unqualified hit and not just the modest success of the first film. When it commercially bombed, it appeared that the franchise was dead before it really ever had a chance to get its feet under it. So it is a bit of a surprise that producers Barry Opper and Rupert Harvey managed to convince New Line to finance two more movies that would be filmed back-to-back. Not surprisingly, the trade off was a greatly reduced budget. CRITTERS 3 suffers from the decreased budget and marks the creative low-point for the films.
Carrying over only Charlie (and he is mostly kept on the sidelines until the third act) and Ug (reduced to a cameo as a hologram), CRITTERS 3 definitely acts as a reboot of the franchise as the Crites leave Grover’s Bend for the big city (it’s never clarified which one). While that promise of the alien menaces running rampant in an urban area sounds great on paper, they are confined to one rundown apartment building where the landlord is forcing the tenants out so he can build a shopping center on the site. Yes, CRITTERS 3 takes the films into yet another subgenre: the kitchen sink melodrama.
David J. Schow’s screenplay includes massive tonal shifts between storylines that include a teenager (Aimee Brooks) trying to hold her family together after the death of her mother, the attempts by the cartoonishly corrupt landlord (William Dennis Hunt) and building super (Geoffrey Blake) to run the residents from the building, and the usual Crite mayhem/bloodshed. Director Kristine Peterson is unable to wrangle so many disparate elements into a cohesive whole. The film feels simultaneously overstuffed with plot lines while strangely anemic in actual story or character building, resulting in long stretches of the film devoted to the Crites wrecking a kitchen and a character hanging upside down from a cable trying to swing herself to a phone booth that go on for so long that they feel like padding to get the film to a feature length running time. And that is before Charlie is awkwardly shoehorned into the proceedings.
CRITTERS 3 has the dubious distinction of being the first sequel in the franchise to go straight-to-video. Sadly, it is a fate that the finished film deserved. Much of the film is muddy looking. The Crites (created once again by the Chiodo brothers) actually look better than the first two films, but there are even less of the creatures than in the first film (to say nothing of the crazy amount in CRITTERS 2). The film is awkwardly edited, owing in part to Peterson’s clear attempts to hide some of the seams that came with the lowered budget and a story that requires a cliffhanger ending as Charlie is ordered by his old pal Ug to return, unharmed, the only two Crite eggs left in the universe.
CRITTERS 4 manages to right the ship by taking the franchise into the ALIEN knockoff genre. Considering the opening of the first CRITTERS started in space with the Crites being transferred to a prison facility on an asteroid, it makes sense that it ends in space. What I did not expect was such a logical move would result in the most grounded (or as grounded as a film about destructive, bloodthirsty alien hairballs can get) film in the series as the focus is narrowed down to a small group of characters that—gasp!—display recognizable human emotions, foibles, heroism, cowardice, and intelligence.
Charlie is accidentally trapped inside the vessel sent for the Crite eggs at the end of the third film and shot into space. The film then jumps forward fifty years as a salvage team in deep space finds the vessel and brings it on board. When they realize it belongs to a massive corporation that will pay handsomely for its return, they follow the instructions of the corporation’s president (who turns out to be Ug!) and head to a research station that is strangely abandoned. When one of the salvage crew opens the vessel, not only is Charlie released from cryogenic sleep, but so are the two Crites who hatched from the eggs.
Not only does CRITTERS 4 go in a brand new genre direction, it takes on a much more serious tone than any other film in the franchise. Surprisingly, this darker, more horror-centric mood leads to some honestly sincere drama, scares, and the grisliest Critter kills in the franchise.
The script by Schow and Joseph Lyle and direction by longtime franchise producer Rupert Harvey gives Charlie a real tragic arc that feels earned. Not only does the news that he has been asleep fifty years shake him to his core as he realizes that everyone he knows on Earth is probably long dead, but he is hopelessly behind on how things have changed when it comes to fighting Crites. All the rules have flipped on him and if he is to survive he will have to unlearn almost everything he knows about not only the Crites, but also the council that used to be dedicated to their destruction. Given the opportunity to play Charlie as a tragic hero, Opper rises to the best material he has been given in the films, proving himself to be the heart of this entertainingly random franchise.
Bolstered by a ridiculously over-qualified supporting cast that includes Brad Dourif and Angela Bassett, CRITTERS 4 manages to stick the landing with a third act that is tense, exciting, and ultimately heartbreaking. Who saw that coming?
Given that it was shot over thirty years ago in mostly night exteriors, the new 2K scan of CRITTERS looks great. The same goes for the 2K scan of CRITTERS 2 that really allows the candy-colored, comic book look of the film to pop. While CRITTERS 3 and CRITTERS 4 did not get the same kind of meticulous restoration, they are at least presented in their proper 1.85:1 ratio and look better than the old DVD releases. That the cleaned up image does not negatively impact the look of the Critter puppets by giving a better look at them says a lot about how good the work of the Chiodo brothers was in bringing the creatures to life.
Each film is given an extensive making of documentary with interviews with most of the major players (the notable exceptions being Herek, Grimes, Peterson, and Part 3’s Leonardo DiCaprio—of course) involved with each film. Among the rest of the bonus documentaries, the best is a tribute to original CRITTERS screenwriter Domonic Muir who passed away of cancer in 2010 that reveals a man both proud of what he initially created and frustrated by the fact that he never financially benefited from it as much as other people eventually did. It is an admirably honest look at how sometimes the creative people with the most to offer end up with the least reward.
The commentaries are a real mixed bag. The first two films feature entertaining and informative commentaries from the Chiodo brothers. Just as in depth and interesting is Garris’ commentary (with moderator Buz Wallick) for the second film. Wallick joins Don Opper and producer Barry Opper for commentaries on the first and third films. Unfortunately, both Opper brothers seem hesitant to talk too much about the making of the films, either because they cannot remember specifics or because they seem very aware that some stories may rub people who worked on the films the wrong way. The results are rough as Wallick gives his all, prompting with questions that get halting answers that are short on specifics. Michael Felsher moderates a commentary on CRITTERS 4 with producer/director Rupert Harvey that, weirdly, barely focuses on the specific film, instead going over Harvey’s career as a producer on not just the CRITTERS franchise, but also his time working for Roger Corman to his long run with New Line Cinema on the A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequels.
Aside from the brief hiccup of the third film, the CRITTERS films hold up extremely well. The way each filmmaker takes the series into different subgenres and tones feels surprisingly organic and gives the films more staying power than would be expected. This Blu-ray set from Scream Factory does a great job of giving the series its due and reminding fans who enjoyed the films upon their initial releases that they are just as entertaining now as they were when the Crites first escaped from that space prison.
If you are chomping at the bit for even more in-depth thoughts on the CRITTERS franchise, check out Nathan Smith’s excellent retrospective of the franchise that was just posted yesterday!
The CRITTERS Blu-ray box set from Scream Factory is available today.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)
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Tags: Aimee Brooks, Angela Bassett, Barry Corbin, Barry Opper, Billy "Green" Bush, blu-ray review, Brad Dourif, Buz Wallick, Critters, David J. Schow, Dee Wallace Stone, Domonic Muir, Don Opper, Eddie Deezen, Geoffrey Blake, Horror Movies, Kristine Peterson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lin Shaye, M. Emmet Walsh, Michael Felsher, Mick Garris, new line cinema, Rupert Harvey, Scott Grimes, scream factory, Stephen Herek, Terrence Mann, The Chiodo Brothers, William Dennis Hunt