Gremlins in disguise or an unfortunate coincidence? VHS Revival gets down and dirty with a deliciously dark homage to 80s monster movies
Critters is one of those movies that had a special place in my childhood. I remember seeing the poster as a kid and being immediately drawn to it, or, more specifically, the razor-toothed eyesore hogging the majority of the composition. I’m not referring to the bright orange poster featured above, which is probably the one most of you recall, and, if I’m being honest, probably a tad more creative and on the money. The above poster captures the theme of the movie much more fittingly, presenting us with a kind of ‘Griswolds go to space’ sci-fi/horror calamity with 50s pulp novel aesthetics, and the mildly dysfunctional Brown family certainly pinch a leaf off the Griswold family tree. But as well cast as this movie is, the critters (or Krites) are the real stars of the show, posing the kind of unbridled menace that threatens to swallow a laid-back, salt of the earth community whole. The poster below understands that. It may be crudely drawn and lacking the same level of detail and imagination, but it puts our villain front-and-centre at a time when practical effects were at their most prominent, when movie monsters of all kinds were creeping out of the woodwork to nestle in the dark corners of our collective imagination.
One thing the below poster is lacking is the movie’s tagline. ‘Critters: They Bite!’ may not seem up to much, but it is deliciously simple and effective, much like the movie it represents. Puppeteer Charles Chiodo modelled the Krites on Looney Tunes character Taz; a super-charged, helplessly destructive Tasmanian devil who has nothing on the Krites for sheer chaos. Not only do the Krites hurtle forth like tumbleweeds caught in 100mph winds, they… well… bite. In fact, they’re the bitiest little bastards this side of Nosferatu, attacking like rabid terriers with a severe case of Napoleon complex. Come to think of it, they don’t bite as much as they do devour, and what an appetite! They’ll gobble you up faster than a pack of piranhas in amphetamine-laced waters. They also shoot poison-tipped darts from their spiky manes, and they’re a hell of a shot, usually aiming straight for the jugular. They’re dirty little fighters too, adept at identifying weakness and wearing down their prey; they’re pack hunters, like hyenas or jackals, only their pursuit is more opulent than instinctive. They love the thrill of the chase, the smell of fear and the taste of flesh. Sometimes they aim for the foot or the kneecap, plaguing victims like an annoying itch or a stubbed toe, and once you’re incapacitated it’s an open buffet. Put succinctly, you don’t want these fuckers anywhere near your friends and family.
Now that I’ve given you a little glimpse into the nature of the movie’s titular cretins, I may as well broach the elephant in the room: Gremlins. In 1984, Joe Dante’s Spielberg-backed horror-comedy changed the way audiences looked at kids movies, and was also one of the first true alternative Christmas movies that went against tradition and caused quite the stir among parents. Gremlins isn’t exclusively for kids. It’s for everyone the way The Simpsons is for everyone, though from a cultural marketing perspective it certainly aimed for the tween demographic, thanks in large part to a cute little protagonist named Gizmo, a childlike and ultimately heroic little creature who isn’t averse to classic movie marathons or indulging in daredevil joyrides in a little red Corvette. The problem was, parents found those other, less cuddly gremlins just a little too much for their Santa-worshipping offspring, which isn’t surprising for a movie which hangs the Peltzer family dog from some Christmas lights and plunges matriarch Lynn into what is essentially a slasher scenario, with brutal, wild-eyed stabbings and impromptu microwave massacres. Such content was deemed so inappropriate for a festive-themed movie that, along with Spielberg’s similarly dark Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins contributed to the founding of the PG-13 certificate in the US.
Brad Brown: Did you see that meteor?
Jay Brown: I saw something.
Brad Brown: Maybe it’s a Russian spy probe on some sort of secret mission.
Jay Brown: I think you watch too much TV.
Though Critters shares an abundance of similarities with the more universally renown Gremlins, according to director Stephen Herek the screenplay was actually written long before Gremlins went into production, and was even subjected to various rewrites designed to lessen those similarities. It would be easy to doubt the validity of such claims, but practical effects monsters were everywhere during the mid-1980s, so it wasn’t completely beyond the realms of possibility for two screenwriters to come up with almost identical concepts at approximately the same time. There will always be doubts because the similarities, even with the purported rewrites, are so blatant, and when the wildly successful, bigger budget film is the first to be released, you have to wonder. Whether Herek is telling the truth I’ll leave for you to decide.
Due in no small part to John Llandis’ wildly popular Micheal Jackson pop video Thriller, as well as behind the scenes horror mags such as Fangoria, practical effects artists were becoming stars in their own right as the home video boom continued to swell. Rick Baker, who also worked with Llandis on Thriller, became the inaugural recipient of the Oscar for Best Makeup for the director’s 1981 horror smash An American Werewolf in London. The award was introduced after the Academy received complaints regarding David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, which many believed should have been honoured a year prior. Tom Savini led the slasher revolution with a variety of creative kills that at the time blurred the boundaries between fiction and reality, movies like The Burning and The Prowler basically just platforms for SFX magic. Practical effects prodigy Rob Bottin wowed in movies such as The Howling, The Thing and Robocop, particularly John Carpenter’s visually astonishing remake, which gave us a creature capable of assimilating living organisms, and every multi-tentacled, flesh-dripping monstrosity in-between. There was Stan Winston (The Terminator, Aliens), King Kong veteran Carlo Rambaldi (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Cat’s Eye) and numerous other upstarts working on all kinds of budgets at a time when movie monsters were once again the in-thing.
Critters can’t compete with some of those movies in a budgetary sense, but it does an exceptional job with minimal funds. The opening scenes in space, which provide the movie’s elementary set-up, jump between cheapjack and rather impressive. The model work is indicative of the film’s minuscule budget, but a scene in which two faceless bounty hunters assume the guise of Earthlings is Hellraiser‘s ‘Frank the Monster’ at his finest. The assassins in question are sent to Earth after the Krites hijack a ship and escape an asteroid prison (the thought of them cackling the whole journey through while manning a complex space vessel never fails to bring a smile to my face). The Krites themselves are marvels of low-budget artistry. For all their nastiness and zest for human flesh, they’re also borderline adorable, like that hedgehog at the side of the road that you know better than to pet, only pure evil. While they’re chewing limbs and shooting spikes you just want to pick them up and give them a big cuddle. I’d take one as a pet no bother ― as long as they’re confined to a cast-iron cage, wrapped in barbed wire and sealed inside a bulletproof tank. Preferably in a deep, dark bunker buried miles underground. Perhaps then we could begin to establish some kind of relationship.
Part of the Krites’ appeal is their incessant sense of mischief. Corey Burton, who voices the Critters, devised their language by combining elements of French and Japanese, and the results are so charming, an exquisite mix of vile terror and bellyaching impudence. The movie’s true stroke of genius comes in its decision to translate that language into English subtitles. Remember the wise-ass “lips and assholes” raccoons from 1988‘s The Great Outdoors? Well, they have absolutely nothing on the F-bomb-slinging Critters. There’s a priceless moment where two Krites sit conferring in front of the Brown residence. The two are contemplating going inside when the more cautious of the two refuses. “They have weapons,” it points out. “So what!” says his slightly more ravenous ally. Seconds later the cautious Critter is blasted into oblivion with a double-barrel shotgun. “Fuck!” the surviving Crite exclaims, before rolling off into the darkness to reassess the situation. It’s the kind of moment that has you reaching for the rewind button (the modern equivalent anyway), and it’s just as side-splitting second time around.
This moment of hilarity isn’t an isolated incident. One overly gluttonous Crite foolishly swallows a cherry bomb, and his demise endears you to the little blighter so much that you almost feel sorry for it, even if it did maul a young Billy Zane to death only seconds earlier, and perhaps because of that fact. Later, a smoking critter rolls a retreat and leaps up into the toilet bowl with an exaggerated “ahhhhh!” Again, you almost feel relieved for him, but when our lead bounty hunter, here taking the guise of the planet’s most successful rock star, hears it scratching around and blows the potty and its inhabitant to smithereens, you know it’s exactly what the creature deserved. That’s what’s so great about the Critters. They’re true antiheroes, the kind you retain a soft spot for, regardless of how many reasons they give you to change your mind. They’re absolutely vile beyond forgiveness, but they’re such a bundle of fun you can’t help but root for them just a smidgen. They’re unruly, mischievous and utterly anarchic, buoyed by so many comic flourishes that you can’t help but feel some degree of affection for them. They’re horror movie violent too, tearing off scalps the way mere mortals peel Spanish peanuts. They’re slavering, tooth-ridden eyesores with just enough comic bite to bring a smile to your face.
The toilet scene was a homage to the cover of 1985‘s Ghoulies, a similarly low-end monster movie out of Charles Band’s now defunct Empire Pictures, and in some ways Critters breathes the same air. It also has something of a Spielbergian ‘kids in peril’ vibe, partly because it casts E.T.’s Dee Wallace as the family’s American-as-apple-pie matriarch. Critters may not have aped Gremlins as many, including myself, had suspected, but it sure makes up for it by imitating and referencing countless other films, and does so beautifully. The whole thing is one big homage to the monster movie boom of the era, referencing everything from War of the Worlds (the town is named Grovers Bend) to Ghostbusters. There’s even a moment when one of the Krites absolutely savages an E.T. doll. It’s audaciously hyper-referential for the time, irreverent through and through, and as a result really quite special. For movie buffs, spotting all the cute genre nods becomes a pleasure within itself.
The fact that our intergalactic vermin descend upon a quiet, Midwestern town who are wholly unprepared for such an onslaught only adds to the film’s anarchic tone. The Browns are a little dysfunctional. Siblings Brad and April are at each other’s throats whenever the chance arises, and father Jay, an old-fashioned mechanic who threatens to skin his young son and hang his bones out to dry at the dinner table, doesn’t exactly fit the nuclear family template, but name a family that does. Wallace’s Helen is straight out of a 1950s postcard, fluttering around the kitchen like a flawless Disney heroine with purely moral dreams, but when the Krites threaten her family’s very existence she unleashes the die hard warrior beneath the plaid apron. For such a meagre, bare-bones outing, the script does a wonderful job of fleshing out the characters. You really get behind the community, which is essential for a film with such likeable heels. Veteran actor M. Emmet Walsh is able to craft a bumbling Sheriff worthy of both our affection and our derision. The fact that one of the bounty hunters continues to change form, assimilating various members of the town’s utterly perplexed residents, certainly doesn’t help his cause, but it works wonders for the film’s sense of irony. Don Keith Opper’s slow-witted Charlie is also a character we can get behind, a kind of pre-op Charlie Gordon of Flowers for Algernon fame (surely an inspiration given their matching first names). Since this is an early New Line Cinema production (the kind that features the cool, flashing red logo synonymous with A Nightmare on Elm Street), we also get a cameo from producer Robert Shaye’s sister, Lynn, and you can always count on her for an endearing, down-to-earth cameo.
Krite 1: They have weapons.
Krite 2: So what!
[shotgun creeps from behind the Brown family door and blasts Krite 1 into oblivion]
Krite 2: Fuck!
As if the Critters weren’t a bad enough scourge of the Brown homestead, the bounty hunters are equally careless, reducing the family farm to a pile of splintered matchsticks by the film’s end. They’re under no illusion as to who they’re dealing with here. The Krites need blasting into nonexistence for the sake of the galaxy, and they don’t fuck around. For a pair of outer space assassins who show almost zero emotion throughout, it’s quite the achievement that we actually care for them too, due mainly to the relationship they build with the Brown boy. The movie even has it’s own “E.T. phone home moment,” our head bounty hunter instead handing Brad an intergalactic transmitter and simply telling him, “call me”. As luck would have it, the device also has the ability to reverse all damages to the family property, though you have to wonder who would ever think of making a device for such a purpose. Perhaps my lack of experience with shape-shifting bounty hunters from outer space can help shed some light on that one.
Critters certainly made an impression with the movie-going public, making more than ten times the studio’s outlay ― hardly Earth-shattering figures given its $3,000,000 budget, but a tidy return for a then-Indie company like New Line Cinema. New Line would soon strike gold with the increasingly popular A Nightmare on Elm Street Series, before one day producing the record-breaking Lord of the Rings franchise and ultimately merging with Warner Bros, but humble outings like Critters certainly helped put them on the commercial map. Critters would also spawn several sequels, Warner subsidiary Blue Ribbon Content reviving the series as recently as 2019 with TV movie Critters Attack! and a TV show which debuted on horror streaming channel Shudder on March 21, 2019. It’s popularity will likely never reach the heights of the original, which wasn’t so high to begin with, but the series has never claimed to be anything more than B-movie schlock. The fact that it is still around, albeit by the skin of its razor-sharp teeth, is testament to the original film’s legacy. It may be low down the horror franchise pecking order, but there are millions who will never forget the furry rapscallions who gave the word ‘monster’ an irresistible edge.
Initial reviews for Critters were mixed, but very few failed to identify the sense of fun that makes the movie so damn watchable. One word that aptly describes Critters is ‘fun’. This movie is soooo much fun. From start to finish you’re absolutely fixated on Chiodo’s remorselessly monstrous creations and the almost winsome sense of charm they exude. I wore my VHS of Critters out as a kid, and I love it just as much as an adult, perhaps even more so. It’s the kind of fun-filled movie you can watch again and again, and with the film carrying a 15 certificate there’s plenty for hardcore horror fans to admire too. Those involved with making the movie surely had fun with it. You can feel their love for B-movie cinema, and it’s all delivered with a degree of style that belies its meagre budget, sharing almost as much with the era’s blockbuster productions. It would be unfair to label the film a rip-off. It’s derivative, transparently so, but it is also deeply knowledgeable and affectionate towards the genres it so lovingly sends up. In an era chock-full of lazy reboots and franchise cash-ins, of micromanaged major studio vehicles that leave nothing to chance, it’s so refreshing to go back and revisit a low-risk movie such as Critters, which, above all else, is moviemaking for the sheer thrill of it.