CRITTERS *** USA 1986 Dir: Stephen Herek. 82 mins
As their Freddy Krueger stock soared, New Line Cinema initiated a lighter, PG-13-rated franchise with this archetypal 80’s post-GREMLINS low-budget monster movie. With Dee Wallace in one of her patented, devoted-80’s-mom roles and old-school puppet FX by the Chiodo Brothers, it has substantial nostalgia value even if it shamefully plagiarises the Joe Dante classic (one critter even cries “Uh-oh!”) and other Spielbergian movies of the period (including POLTERGEIST), with a David Newman score that joins in by aping Jerry Goldsmith.
The dastardly “Krites” steal a spacecraft and head to the very familiar American small town of Grover’s Bend, pursued by a pair of dogged bounty hunters, one of whom (Terence Man) shape-shifts into the body of an 80’s hair metal star. Scott Grimes is likeable as the typical Amblin-era juvenile hero – with a slightly odd friendship with goofy town drunk / UFO nut Don Opper – while his older sister (Nadine Van Der Velde) makes out with a ridiculously young, pony-tailed Billy Zane! The pop-culture references are typical of the time, with a cat named Chewie, an E.T. doll savaged and overt nods to GHOSTBUSTERS, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and even GHOULIES. The budget results in a reduced level of sustained GREMLINS-style creature mayhem, but the Critters are deliciously nasty small-scale successors to the Mogwai’s spawn. Foul mouthed and unapologetically vicious, they turn a family home into a bloody battleground with their pointy teeth, glowing red eyes and tranquiliser-like fur darts. In the most iconic moment, a defiant, shotgun-wielding Dee Wallace screams “Get outta my house!” at the hedgehog-esque little bastards.
CRITTERS 2 **** USA 1988 Dir: Mick Garris. 89 mins
A rare Easter-set horror film, this gave prominent early credits to Mick Garris (writer of THE FLY II and director of PSYCHO IV in the same period) and writer David Twohy, en-route to creating the Riddick franchise. The set-up is standard horror sequel stuff, though it’s among the most likeable of the many genre sequels at the end of the 80’s. The bounty hunters from CRITTERS predictably return to the same town to eradicate the Krite menace once again; also back are Scott Grimes, now sporting a broken voice and mullet, and New Line mainstay Lin Shaye reprising her role as a local newspaper lackey. Grimes tries to pick up hot 80’s girls with come-on lines like: “You’re kinda like Jimmy Olsen…with breasts”. Critter eggs are discovered by local rubes and passed off as exotic European Easter Eggs (!) to turn a profit, leading to dog-eating carnage, while a third bounty hunter transforms into a Playboy centrefold (Roxanne Kernohan), complete with staples and rare bare boobs in a PG-13 movie. Slicker and funnier than the first film, this has more GREMLINS-inspired mayhem, with a bravura set piece involving a grumpy Sheriff in a critter-infested Easter Bunny costume and a great self-referential gag in which a bounty hunter almost morphs into New Line’s big franchise star Freddy Krueger thanks to a video-store standee. Weaknesses include Don Opper’s increasingly irksome, sentimental performance as the cloying Charlie, but it’s full of treats, and the busy climax includes a fabulous horror-comic gag worthy of EC Comics in which a giant, rolling critter runs over an unnamed schmuck, instantly rendering him a grinning, red-raw skeleton.
CRITTERS 3 ** USA 1991 Dir: Kristine Peterson. 82 mins
Acceptable kiddie horror-comedy fodder written by splatterpunk scribe David Schow, in which cute teenager Aimee Brooks has to deal with an invasion of the Chiodo Brothers’ Krites in the tenement building apartment she shares with her widowed dad and little brother. Annoying series veteran Don Opper is back as Krite ass-kicker Charlie, Frances Bay is fun as an eccentric old-timer with a paranoid husband, Geoffrey Blake channels Joe Pesci as a sleazy maintenance man and a very young Leonardo Di Caprio is the step-son of the building’s corrupt landlord. Pokier and cheaper than the first two movies, it’s watchable but severely bland, and unimaginatively stages mundane Critter-attack scenes, with standard, sub-GREMLINS scenes of the creatures chattering to each other, food-fighting and farting. Brooks, who looks like a young Madchen Amick, is an appealing heroine but it’s very forgettable. Shot back to back with the space-set CRITTERS 4, it ends with a “To Be Continued” card.
CRITTERS 4 * USA 1992 Dir: Rupert Harvey. 100 mins
Don Opper’s Charlie – who had outstayed his welcome about 10 minutes into the second movie – is on a new mission to save a couple of Krite eggs (now endangered species) but gets locked in a transport pod and knocked unconscious. He wakes up five decades later, in the year 2045 “Somewhere in the Saturn Quadrant” on an abandoned space station, where the critters eventually break free. The final CRITTERS movie to date boasts an unexpectedly good cast, with SUBSPECIES’ gaunt vampire antagonist Anders Hove sharing the screen with a manic Brad Dourif, a young Angela Bassett – who takes a gratuitous PG-13 shower -, TWIN PEAKS’ Eric Da Re and even the voice of Hammer star Martine Beswick. Sadly, it’s lifeless and miserably unimaginative, with sporadic, dull Critter action and a drab new setting. Prefiguring the space-pirates-versus-monsters action of ALIEN RESURRECTION, it also pre-empted a mini-trend for desperate producers to send their horror franchise poster boys into space – namely, HELLRAISER BLOODLINE, LEPRECHAUN 4 and JASON X. (Plus a throwaway joke about putting Michael Myers in space in HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS).
Reviews by Steven West