Rupert Harvey knew he was on to something with Critters after one memorable test screening. Specifically, it was the scene where the Critters, who had already been terrorizing the Brown family, were standing on the doorstep of the family’s home talking in their guttural language with subtitles translating for the audience…until one of them is blown to gooey bits by a shotgun blast (wielded by none other than E.T. mom Dee Wallace), and the other lets out a subtitled “Fuck.”
“It totally destroyed the audience,” Harvey recalls. “They just howled. We lost the next scene because they were laughing so hard and I thought: ‘Okay, this is probably going to work.’”
It had already taken a lot of work for Critters to get this far.
Bringing Critters to Life
Released on April 11, 1986, the horror comedy about a small town and farm-dwelling family under attack from little furry space aliens with a taste for human flesh was unfairly dismissed by some as a Gremlins knock-off.
But that did a disservice to the unique tone of Critters; a sci-fi comedy featuring belly laughs alongside genuine moments of terror. A film that owed as much to 1950s sci-fi B-movies as it did anything else, with its tale of picturesque Americana under attack from aliens.
It also overlooks the film’s quirkier narrative aspect like the pair of shapeshifting alien bounty hunters who arrive on Earth to hunt the Critters down, with one of them assuming the form of a popular Jon Bon Jovi-esque rock musician.
This surreal sci-fi tone, coupled with the copious violence, occasional bad language, and general unpredictability of it all helped give Critters the feel of a rebellious younger brother to the more mature Gremlins.
To many, it was the cooler, edgier movie and one that boasted underlying themes that remain universal to this day.
More importantly, the accusation of imitation was incorrect. If the two films were related, it wasn’t by design with screenwriter Brian Dominic Muir first writing the script for Critters back in 1982, two years before Joe Dante’s film hit cinemas.
“I don’t think I saw Gremlins until we were in post-production,” Harvey, who produced Critters and worked on two of its three original sequels, tells Den of Geek. “It was certainly not something we were thinking about very much at the time, if at all.
We were dealing with very different creatures and the fact that they were so different in concept meant I wasn’t terribly bothered by it. Gremlins were these mythical, earthbound, magical beings whereas Critters were extraterrestrial. People who say there are similarities are just influenced by the fact Gremlins was such a huge success, but it was a much bigger budget movie.”
Muir’s script didn’t see the light of day for nearly three years before he showed it to friend and fellow budding filmmaker Stephen Herek who developed it further. That was where Harvey came in.
The three men met while working on Android, a distinctive low budget sci-fi film Harvey was producing alongside independent movie trailblazer Roger Corman.
“Brian gave me Critters to read and l loved it,” Harvey recalls. “It was an archetypal American story about foreigners invading the homeland. It’s quite prescient given the current state of politics in America. There was this quintessentially American setup with this almost pioneering family struggling through adversity to come out the other side.”
35 years on, that notion of protecting the homeland is one Harvey feels is reflected in the inward-looking politics increasingly prominent in America and the UK today. That sentiment was already bubbling under the surface when Critters came out in the Reagan-era of the 1980s.
“It was novel to look at that then through the lens of Critters,” he says. “No one was seeing the film in those terms but that human fear of outsiders coming in has always been there and has been a fundamental part of cinema and drama since forever.”
Harvey agreed to develop the film under his production company, Sho Films. Though he mulled over an offer to produce a low budget version of Critters with Corman, everything changed when Bob Shaye and New Line Cinema came calling.
“New Line was really a mom-and-pop operation at that point. They hadn’t made A Nightmare on Elm Street yet. They weren’t the New Line of today, but Bob offered to double our budget, so I did the deal.”
Even so, Shaye took some convincing on the choice of director.
Herek would go on to helm Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, and a string of big budget Disney movies in the years that followed but had never directed prior to Critters, having previously worked as an editor.
“Stephen, to his credit, even though he had no leverage other than a script we wanted to make, absolutely insisted that nobody would direct it but him and if he didn’t it wouldn’t get made,” Harvey says. “He stuck to his guns and there was never any shift in that position on Brian’s side. I had to convince Bob on several occasions to go ahead with us and, even during production, to actually stick with Steve. But we were all very glad that he did.”
On the writing side, Harvey enlisted Sho Films’ in-house writer Don Opper. A fellow Roger Corman acolyte, Opper had written and starred in Android where he also worked with Herek and Muir.
He was seen as the ideal candidate to work alongside Herek after Muir became unwell.
“Brian, unfortunately, became quite ill not long after we started making Critters,” Harvey says.
Muir was reportedly battling Hodgkin’s disease at the time. Though he recovered, the writer, who often wrote under the pseudonym August White for Full Moon Entertainment later in his career, sadly died from cancer aged 48 in 2010.
“He was a very sweet, nice man,” Harvey recalls. “In Brian’s absence, Don worked with Stephen on polishing the script. One of the ways was to enhance the family and their relationships.”
By then the distinctive looking Opper had also been cast in the pivotal role of Charlie McFadden, the town drunk and a conspiracy theorist convinced the fillings in his teeth are picking up signals from outer space.
Like a cross between Randy Quaid’s deranged pilot from Independence Day and Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade, Charlie would eventually emerge as a fan favorite, appearing in each of the three Critters sequels.
He was one of several quirky locals introduced early on in Critters with much of the first third of the film dedicated to establishing the Brown family, their farm, and the characters of the fictional Kansas town of Grover’s Bend where the Critters land.
In one picture postcard scene of the perfect nuclear family, the Browns gather round the breakfast table in a primary colored kitchen, blissfully unaware of the approaching danger and disruption to follow.
That slow build-up may be less commonplace today, but it’s something Harvey believes was crucial to the success of the film.
“That was one of the things that appealed to me about the script,” he says. “If you set that up properly and the audience is in there with you. They gain an understanding of the family dynamic right away and they are engaged. It helps you then feel for each one of them subsequently…The rules are the same, and they have been since the first Greek dramas; storytelling is still about humans and the human condition. Just making stuff about what the monsters are doing has no appeal.”
Critters came during a time when horror comedies were commonplace in multiplexes.
“Studios started to notice in test screenings that the audience response was often bigger when you capped a scare or moment of high tension with a bit of wit or humor,” Harvey explains.
Post-screening surveys bore this out; using humor to emphasize or punctuate a terrifying moment drew a bigger response from the audience. Regardless of the visceral impact of the scare itself. It made it more memorable to viewers.
The Cast of Critters
It helped that Critters boasted an impressive cast to bring the script to life.
Blade Runner’s M. Emmet Walsh appeared as the grouchy local sheriff while Dee Wallace, who had starred in E.T. only a few years earlier, was also convinced to sign on as the Brown family matriarch Helen. Billy “Green” Bush was cast as the hardworking man of the house Jay Brown with Nadine van der Velde as his high school teen daughter April.
Despite some impressive names, Harvey ranks the casting of future Party of Five and ER star Scott Grimes in the role of mischievous central teenage protagonist Brad Brown as the most significant. It’s Scott who first discovers the Critters and Scott that begins to fight back against them using his slingshot and potent firecrackers coming off like a hellish Kevin McCallister from Home Alone.
“Scott was tailor-made for the role,” Harvey says. “He was at the center of the craziness and he had the audience’s sympathy and support because no one was paying attention to him.”
For all the acting talent on display, however, much of the movie’s success rested on the tiny shoulders of a few hedgehog-like puppets.
“The biggest challenge was making the Critters appear to be a viable threat as the antagonists,” Harvey says. “We were really fortunate that we found the Chiodo Brothers.”
A trio of siblings who specialized in stop motion and animatronic work, the Chiodos were relative newcomers to the movie business and would go on to projects like Elf and Team America: World Police.
“We knew from the script we were dealing with a fur ball that got around fast by rolling around and was all teeth and voracious,” Harvey says. “That was the extent of the design parameters. They came up with the drawings and the details as to how they would work.”
Harvey cites the Critters’ distinctive, almost limbless design as both a blessing and a curse.
“From a construction and manipulation point of view, they were relatively straightforward,” he says. “But from an action perspective, there was not a lot you could do with them.”
While other projects, like New Line’s later Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, would struggle with glitchy animatronics, there were no such problems with the Chiodos’ creations with each running impressively well thanks to a crack team behind the scenes.
“Even though the Critters were fairly simple creatures, there were times for some of those shots, when we had 10 guys running different cables and things to them to get them right,” Harvey recalls. “They had eye movement, mouth movement, lip movement even their little arms and legs move because these things needed to look as believable as possible. But it was still tough to make these things that rolled around something scary and frightening rather than cute and laughable.”
That was where Billy Zane came in. A good horror villain needs a good victim. Cast in the role of April’s unsuspecting boyfriend Steve Eliot, the then unknown Zane ended up falling afoul of the Critters in arguably the film’s standout gory death after encountering the furry fiends while enjoying a makeout session in the family’s barn.
“It was the first thing he’d ever done. I think he’d arrived in L.A. a week before,” Harvey says, recalling how uncomfortably hot that barn scene was for everyone involved. “It was 100 degrees in the barn. He had little furry creatures stuck to his stomach and was covered in fake blood. It was so hot and sticky. We stayed there for the whole day, getting all the inserts and various other bits and pieces to make the scene…But that setup in the claustrophobic space of the barn helped to make the scene much scarier because we could set it up in a kind of way that made the punchline, the payoff, much more visceral.”
The Bounty Hunters
For all the machinations of the Critters themselves, it’s their pursuers from outer space, the two faceless bounty hunters, who almost steal the show.
Especially after one decides to take the form of fictional hair metal superstar Johnny Steele, the singer of “Power of the Night” a song so pitch-perfectly cheesy, you had to wonder if Steele is a real artist rather than musical theater actor Terrence Mann.
“I went to see Terrence who was appearing in Cats on Broadway. He’d been suggested by a friend and was seriously interested in doing the film,” Harvey says. “We had a friend in New York who was in the music business and had a recording studio. He put together some tracks and we created this imaginary band that he stole the identity of the lead singer from.”
Despite some striking similarities to artists of the time, Harvey insists Johnny Steele wasn’t set up as a deliberate lampooning of any one artist.
“The band was generically inspired by particular bands of the time,” he says. “There wasn’t any one group or individual. We were post punk and before real heavy metal. There was more of a glam goth influence.”
Teaming up with Charlie and Brad, the bounty hunters eventually destroy the Critters though it comes at a cost to the Browns, with the family home blown-up in the process. It was a powerful symbol of the way these invaders had shattered their lives but not their spirit. Unfortunately, New Line Cinema didn’t like it as an ending.
“Bob wanted it changed so that the house was rebuilt in the end but I was against it so we had a few arguments about that, but it was Bob’s money, and we did it and it came out very successfully.”
Shaye and New Line would occasionally prove tricky customers, with Harvey often forced to traverse the familiar pitfalls of independent filmmaking.
“We were in production and things were really tough and there was one point in time when Bob and I sat down in the trailer and he explained to me some things that I won’t go into,” Harvey says. “Things were very tricky for a week or two financially, but they sorted themselves out. That was a typical attribute of an independent movie. ‘Oh God you’re spending $150,000 dollars a day, can you spend $100,000?’. Not unheard of but no fun at the time.”
For all the trials and tribulations of the film, cast, and Critters themselves, however, he has fond memories of working on the film.
“We weren’t stuck in Los Angeles in some smoke-filled space,” he said. “The set was built on Newhall Ranch, this huge bucolic area of land outside of L.A and there we were for five weeks shooting in relatively hot temperatures.”
Critters Sequels and What’s Next
After a quick turnaround in editing, Critters was released in cinemas, proving to be a hit with over $13 million made at the box office off a budget of $3 million. This kind of success made sequels inevitable.
Though Harvey was unavailable for the second film, he returned for the third and fourth movies, which were filmed back-to-back and released direct to video.
“By then video cassettes were a huge component to New Line’s early success and helped finance the Nightmare on Elm Street and Critters sequels and all of the other movies that they then started making in order to become the powerhouse they became,” Harvey says. “I think it funded something like 40 to 40 to 50 percent of New Line production for that period of time.”
Harvey was initially hesitant to get involved, citing Shaye’s wishes to make the sequels for even less money than the first film. However, he ultimately relented after agreeing to film them back-to-back.
Harvey has mixed feelings about the two sequels, particularly the third movie, which he had conceived as being “much darker and much more violent” than what eventually made it to the screen.
“I wanted to do a George Romero homage for the third film,” he says. “I was very much interested in the claustrophobia of the tenement building in New York City, that kind of atmosphere. Boy, did it ever turn out differently.”
Having also agreed to direct the fourth film, which was set in space and wrap up the franchise, he found himself too busy to oversee work on the third movie.
“It was different. I didn’t have as much to do with Critters 3 because I was directing the fourth film. We were shooting back to back. We had a week down in between the two. All the time we were shooting Critters 3 I was prepping Critters 4.”
While the fourth film featured both a young Angela Bassett and Brad Dourif on top scene-chewing form, the third entry has become among the most noted in the years since thanks to the presence of a young Leonardo DiCaprio in the main role.
“It’s the movie that shall remain nameless on Leo DiCaprio’s resume,” Harvey jokes.
He doesn’t have a lot of memories about DiCaprio on set though there was already a sense he was destined for big things.
“One day he told me he needed some time off. He had to go and audition for this movie. After he came back I asked ‘How did it go?’ and he said ‘Robert De Niro is really great’. he’d been off auditioning for This Boy’s Life…And of course, when he did that movie, it was like, ‘Holy shit. Well, where was that actor when we were making Critters 3?’”
While Leo is unlikely to return to the Critters franchise anytime soon, Harvey, who had no involvement in a recent TV revival, believes that there is life in the old furballs yet.
“It’s not a franchise that’s going to go away,” he says cryptically. “Whatever comes next needs to be something that is responsive to contemporary sources. I can’t really say too much about it, because nothing is final. All I can tell you is that I don’t think this is the end.”