Reviews

Stephen Herek

USA, 1986

Credits

Review by Katherine Follett

Posted on 05 October 2009

Source New Line Home Video DVD

Categories 31 Days of Horror VI

When I was an impressionable and easily terrified child, Critters gave me nightmares. My sister took a specific glee in unexpectedly changing the channel if HBO or Showtime was showing a horror movie when I was unprepared for it. For whatever reason, Critters was always the worst. When I returned to the 1986 film for this feature, I was expecting either to be residually creeped out, or to find it so laughably bad and campy that my childhood fear would be completely dismissed. Turns out that neither was the case.

When it first came out, Critters was accused of copying Gremlins, and there is some merit to the accusation. Both films have a titular small, destructive alien creature and a plucky young hero who must stop the mayhem. Both add edges of comedy to the horror. But calling Critters a “rip-off” actually dismisses another, better thing the two films have in common: a strong script that features a surprising amount of depth and realism for a creature feature.

Critters are more properly called Krites, and they’re an alien species that escaped from some sort of intergalactic prison asteroid and headed to Earth. Ravenous, but also intelligent, the Critters terrorize a small Kansas town, specifically young Brad Brown and his farm family. The only thing that can truly stop the Krites is a pair of Bounty Hunters, who show up wearing leathers and toting immense guns, transforming their faces into whatever species they find themselves among. (One of the Bounty Hunters, a recurring character, takes on the face of a poofy-haired 80’s rock star, but he comports himself with such quiet ruthlessness that it never feels ironic.) The Krites eat a few minor characters, terrorize the family, try to kidnap the older sister, and are eventually blown up. This is all pretty standard for a creature film – if satisfying – but the film’s success is in its admirably prickly portrait of a small town and a small town family.

The characters, even the minor characters, are solidly drawn, each with his or her own quirks and personalities. While this does cause the introductory scenes to drag on a bit, it leads to an unexpected effect when the bloodshed starts: unlike in most horror movies, we actually care a bit about the people who get munched. The sister’s boyfriend, Steve, seemed like kind of a nice guy (and not just because he’s played by Billy Zane), so you sort of feel bad when he’s eaten alive by a bunch of intergalactic carnivorous hedgehogs. Especially disturbing is when Brad’s no-nonsense, shotgun-toting dad is viciously and unexpectedly attacked, rendering him unable to defend his family. You expect that a character who got so much time and attention from the writer, actor, and director would be spared getting his shoulder chewed off, but you would be wrong. The result is fresh and unsettling. The comedy is also treated with skill. A scene of a man getting chomped to death is quickly cut to the chomping and churning of Mom’s garbage disposal. Once on Earth, one of the bounty hunters adopts the face of the local sheriff—the dead local sheriff, gory wounds and all.

But what prevents Critters from fully succeeding as a horror film is the obvious fakeness of the creatures themselves. The design is pretty good – a mouthful of teeth, red eyes, poisoned porcupine quills that shoot out at will – but the execution looks cheap, with stiff, immobile-looking puppets that move exactly like some dude’s wrist coming up through the trick floor. It’s too bad they didn’t divert more budget away from the unnecessarily high-tech expository scenes that took place on the prison asteroid in the interest of beefing up the monsters. But the bad special effects actually come as a bit of a relief, at least for me; camp is preferable to a recurrence of my childhood nightmares. Perhaps I was so affected as a child because the critters don’t just knock off convenient, anonymous bodies—they attack living, breathing human beings. And that’s not just admirable for a horror movie; it’s scary.

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