Ah, Critters. One of those flicks I grew up with that has not only held up over the years, but I actually enjoy it more now than I did as a kid. It was unfairly declared a Gremlins clone despite director Stephen Herek’s rebuttal of such claims, chalk it up to bad timing I suppose. Sadly Gremlins has become the much more popular of the two over the years and while I do think it’s good and deserving of the praise, it’s just unfortunate that Critters has been left in the shadows of those silly gremlins. I’d say the main drawback at the time was probably the lack of a cute, cuddly character to help brand the film and market it to children, you can probably thank George Lucas for that little trend. Personally, the film works for me because Critters feels more like a western than anything else and if there’s one thing I love more than horror, it’s westerns. Just replace cowboys and outlaws with intergalactic bounty hunters and man-eating hedgehogs and there you have it.
The film starts in space on a prison asteroid where some evil creatures called the “Crites” escape and steal a ship, heading for Earth. Two shape-shifting bounty hunters are sent hot on their trail as the Crites crash land near a small midwestern town. Starring ’80s horror mom Dee Wallace, character actor extraordinaire M. Emmett Walsh, and a fresh-faced Scott Grimes, the stereotypically ordinary residents do their best to fight off the ferocious furballs. This is no easy task, these critters have razor sharp teeth, bad attitudes, and an insatiable appetite.
The bounty hunters arrive and have formed themselves to look like rock star Johnny Steele and the local drunk (after a couple of failed attempts as a dead cop and a minister). Just one of the many gags that help bring that quirky charm to the film. The characters are quick to spout one-liners and the critters even get some of their own, subtitled of course. It’s this sense of humor that elevates Critters above your average horror fare. Everyone involved has fun through to the final showdown and those of us along for the ride are smiling the whole time.
Even though there are some distinctly familiar elements, it feels more nostalgic than it does a ripoff of anything in particular. The filmmakers use their knowledge of the horror and sci-fi genres as well as the audience’s to their advantage. Critters knows it’s a B-movie and aspires to nothing more. It uses classic horror scenarios to build suspense, always keeping its tongue firmly in cheek and never passing up an opportunity for a laugh. I love that the monsters are smart enough to escape and pilot a ship but are so blindly driven by hunger that they often lead themselves to their own demise.
I suppose director Stephen Herek had to have a good sense of humor since eventually his career became something of a joke itself. After this film and the also under-appreciated Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure he made a string of uninspired family films, but then again contemporary Disney can suck the life out of just about anything. Despite that, his first two films remain delightfully quirky comedies that are very much products of their time period. The ’80s produced some of the most fun and most ridiculous horror movies and Critters is a prime example. It will always stay one of my favorites.