1984’s Gremlins can be blamed for a trend in horror movies that ran rampant throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s. I am, of course, speaking of the “little killer monsters” subgenre. You have your Munchies, your Ghoulies, your Hobgoblins and to a lesser extent the Troll franchise, but the most highly revered of all the Gremlins knock-offs will forever be the Critters series. Probably the best thing to come from New Line Cinema since their Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Critters is good fun no matter how many times I watch it.
A flock of “crites” (otherwise known as “critters”) escape from a deep space prison asteroid and hightail it for the planet Earth. Upon landing in the small Kansas town of Grover’s Bend, the vicious furballs begin to feed on anything and everything in sight. The Brown family become trapped in their farmhouse by the critters, who proceed to eat their livestock and grow larger in the process. All hope is not lost, however, as a pair of ultra-violent shape-shifting bounty hunters have followed the critters to Grover’s Bend and will blow up anything (or anyone) that gets in their way.
I can probably count on one hand the number of genuinely good PG-13 horror films I’ve seen. Critters has to rank among the best (“genuinely good” being a relative phrase). It’s surprisingly violent, if not all that gory for a horror flick of its rating. Granted, the majority of the critter bites are inflicted upon the father (who just keeps taking it in the shoulder over and over and over), but you still get some bloody goodness.
Critters has a decidedly comedic edge to it, which offsets the lack of gratuitous gore and helps even the picture out. Unfortunately, future Critters installments would focus too much attention on the humor aspect, such as the woefully bad Critters 3.
For such an unashamedly silly horror movie, Critters managed to pull in some nice talent. You have scream queen Dee Wallace (The Howling, Cujo) as, you guessed it, the mother of the family. M. Emmet Walsh plays Harv, the out-of-his-depth sheriff. And, in one of his earliest roles, Billy Zane appears as a mullet-sporting yuppie that takes a critter right to the chest. He’d actually be the first of two Titanic stars to appear in the franchise, with the second being Leonard DiCaprio himself in Critters 3.
There’s also Don Opper as Charlie, the bumbling mechanic who thinks he’s picking up alien transmissions through his fillings. He doesn’t really factor too heavily into this installment, though he’d go on to be the lead protagonist of the franchise. Also, hey, Scott Grimes! He plays the youngster of the film (Bradley) and he’d go on to become a voice actor, playing Steve on American Dad. Lastly, you have Terrence Mann as Ug, one of the shape-shifting bounty hunters. His involvement in the franchise would gradually diminish with each film, but he’d still prove to be a staple character.
Now to talk about the critters themselves. This is actually my favorite portrayal of the little murderous fuzzballs. As the series progressed they seemed to lose an ability with each installment.
By Critters 4 they didn’t even shoot quills out of their backs anymore. This first movie is the only one of the franchise to feature the critters increasing in size as they eat (when I was a kid, “the big one” used to freak me out). The critter puppets are nice and gruesome, with several rows of sharp teeth and some real nasty features. The puppetry can range from good to bad, depending on what’s happening (often times when being attacked by the critters, the actors simply hold a fluffy pillow to their stomach and run around screaming).
They have plenty of personality, with their vocals being provided by one of the most talented voice-over artists in the animation industry, Corey Burton (better recognized as Dale from Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers, Shockwave and Spike from Transformers, Brainiac from Superman and only about a billion other cartoons).
Critters is short; more or less than eighty minutes. That means it gets to the point fast and doesn’t let up. It also makes for a good time-killer on one of those lazy days. They used to show it endlessly on the Sci-Fi Channel and USA Network back in the day, which is how I first fell in love with the franchise. I still try to watch it every President’s Day as my own personal tradition. Why President’s Day? Because many many years ago, the USA Network had a marathon called “The President’s Daymare” in which they showed Critters. Yeah, a rather flimsy reason, but I’ll take any excuse I can get to watch Critters.