Along with teen sex comedies, slasher films, and jingoistic action hero cartoons, the early-to-mid-‘80s, depending upon your taste, was a golden era for what might most simply be called monster comedies. So we got Gremlins, Ghoulies, C.H.U.D., Q, The Winged Serpent, Basket Case, Troll, a double handful of others and their ensuing sequels. If you wanted to push it some, you could even toss E.T. and Ghostbusters in the mix. Despite the contemporary settings, hip jokes and cultural references, most were clearly modeled after classic ‘50s sci fi and monster movies like The Blob, most were relatively mild and family friendly (at least when compared with the nihilism of the slasher films), and a number of them went on to make lots and lots of money.
Released in 1986, screenwriter/director Stephen Herek’s debut feature, Critters, was a little late to the monster comedy game, but Herek tried to work that to his advantage. Deny it as he might (and has), Critters is both an amalgam and homage, offering both spoken and unspoken nods to some of the most popular sci fi and monster films from earlier in the decade.
The film opens like so many third-tier sci fi films from the era (think Krull, Enemy Mine, or even Ice Pirates), with a group of eight condemned Crites escaping from their cell aboard an interstellar prison transport ship and attacking the crew. The Crites, which are kind of like furry, bipedal alien hedgehogs with poisonous quills, red eyes, and wide mouths dilled with needle-sharp teeth, commandeer the ship and, being as they’re always hungry, set a course for earth. When prison officials realize what’s happened, they dispatch a couple shape-shifting intergalactic bounty hunters (one played by Terrence Mann, who also sings the god awful theme song) to track them down and kill them.
Then we leap smack into the middle of Spielbergville, Kansas, and the farmhouse of the Spielbergian Brown family, complete with chaotic meals, understanding parents, bickering siblings, new boyfriends, lighthearted pranks, a movie-obsessed pre-adolescent son (Scott Grimes), and even E.T.’s Dee Wallace to nail it all down. In fact E.T. references run as thick through the film as Gremlins references, so you see straight off what Herek was aiming for here. The camerawork, the lighting, the dialogue, editing and the scenario itself all scream Spielberg Junior.
Elsewhere in the rural community, we get some bowling, the goings-on at the local garage, cute banter between a sheriff’s deputy and an unseen dispatcher, M. Emmet Walsh (who’s always a blessing) as the sheriff, and the inevitable town drunk, Charlie (Don Opper), who takes on the standard ‘50s teenager role as the one person in town who knows what’s happening, though of course no one listens because he’s a drunk. Charlie, the only character who would reappear in all four films in the franchise, is also the only apparent friend of that movie-obsessed Brad Brown, and together the two of them like to concoct their own homemade fireworks. An odd hobby maybe, but one that comes in handy when dealing with an invasion of alien hedgehogs.
As per the formula of E.T., Gremlins, Close Encounters, and Poltergeist, once the genial atmosphere and character types are established, the hijacked prison ship crash lands in the inevitable back forty, releasing the Crites who immediately begin eating, their diet consisting mostly of cattle, chickens, and deputies. Then they lay siege to the Brown farmhouse as the references and clichés continue to pile up (“The phone is completely dead! They’ve cut the lines!”). Well, then Brad and Charlie team up, they in turn team up with the bumbling bounty hunters (one of whom now also looks like Charlie), things go all whiz-bang, and along the way we’re treated to a generic ’80s pop soundtrack and direct references to Jaws, Ghoulies, Ghostbusters, Star Wars, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Killer Shrews.
Although touted at the time of its release as, quite simply, Fine Line’s version of Gremlins (and you have to admire the lack of guile in that), Herek has always adamantly denied this, insisting not only that the script was written before Gremlins went into production, but that he and co-writer Domonic Muir went back and re-wrote it to try and avoid any comparisons. Unfortunately, it seems that for every glaring similarity between their film and Joe Dante’s 1984 hit they excised, they replaced it with something from an even bigger and more recognizable hit. I mean for god sakes, the Crites even sound like Gremlins, save for all the wicked cackling.
Not that Critters is a bad film. Herek does an admirable job as a first time director aping Spielberg’s style, which isn’t meant as an insult. The performances are solid across the board, it’s still a fun picture, and I admit I do love the scenes in which the badly-disguised bounty hunters crash their way into a church and later a bowling alley, demanding the confused locals hand over the Crites. And being as it’s essentially a summation of genre films from the previous half-decade, picking out the references can give viewers who may feel they’d seen this story one too many times before something to do as they watch.
In any case, and however it was approached, the formula seemed to work. It may not have been a colossal blockbuster on the scale of E.T., but it earned over $30 million on a $2 million budget, enough to warrant three sequels, even granting Leonardo DiCaprio his big screen debut in Critters 3. So you see? If not for Critters, we may not have had The Revenant, which ironically enough was just a conglomeration of reboots of old episodes of Grizzly Adams.
Herek, meanwhile, who had nothing to do with any of the sequels, kept chasing that family-friendly mainstream magic in the years to come with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and the live action remake of 101 Dalmatians.