Jarv’s Schlock Vault: Critters
Dad’s been shredded, Mom’s got a harpoon in her neck and they just keep getting bigger!
In the beginning, there was Gremlins, a top rate family movie about little monsters. It hit a perfect mix of thrills and laughs and is regarded, rightly, as a classic.
Gremlins spawned an excellent sequel and a host of generally shitty imitators (I’m looking at you, Ghoulies). Critters is the best of them, and is a damned good little film in its own right. Hilariously, Dominic Muir, the writer and Stephen Herek, the director, now claim that they had written it years before Gremlins, but had to drastically rewrite it to remove similarities. Bullshit, says I, but I couldn’t care less. There’s no shame in a rip-off, provided that it doesn’t suck. You only have to be embarrassed if you cynically aim at a cash-in, fuck it up completely and drop a turd like Quigley Down Under.
Let me tell you a story about a young, devilishly handsome, prodigiously talented lad growing up in a grim provincial city in the 1980’s. Our erstwhile protagonist had somewhat hopeless parents, who lacked a basic understanding of either video technology or censorship. One evening his parents went out for dinner leaving the 8-year-old hero in the care of buxom teenage babysitter that would be a certain corpse in a slasher movie. Within moments of the front door closing said large breasted babysitter’s sleazy boyfriend turned up with a six-pack of beer. Babysitter despatches our hero to another room to watch a film so that she can be impregnated by douchebag and confirm her status on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder. And what was the film? Critters.
This film has always held a special place in my heart since traumatising me as an 8 year old. There’s nothing like watching a film about ravenous Velcro basketball like monsters to the gentle accompaniment of a nasty peroxide sticky-permed slut making noises like a seal being harpooned, as a result I hadn’t watched it again until yesterday, and I’m ecstatic to report that it still stands up.
The usual quick plot summary: Alien (Crites) species breaks out of prison, hijacks ship and heads to earth. Predictably, they land in small town in the ass-end of nowhere near a dilapidated farm. Bounty hunters wreck town looking for them, Crites terrorise family, carnage and hilarity ensue. Bounty hunters ride to the rescue; farm is destroyed, before being rebuilt.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of this film. I usually watch these with my Irony dial turned up to 11, but this one doesn’t need it. It is genuinely good. The cast is top-drawer with Dee Wallace and M. Emmet Walsh heading a line up featuring a very young Billy Zane. They all turn in proper performances, and it’s clear that everyone took the whole thing very seriously. Don Opper, as town submoron Charlie- who can hear aliens in his fillings, actually managed to forge a career out of this film, reprising his role in all three sequels. Herek’s direction, in his first outing, is solid if uninspired and the special effects are passable for the time.
However, there are several factors, aside from simple professionalism, that raise it far above dross like Ghoulies. Firstly, the transformation effect on the face morphing bounty hunters (one of whom is, hilariously, called Ug and takes his face from a shitty 80’s big-hair soft rock tosser called Jonny Steele) by R. Christopher Biggs is simply phenomenal, even if it is reminiscent of the end of Raiders of The Lost Ark.
Secondly, and far more importantly, the Crites themselves are exceptional monsters. The design of them, by the Chiodo brothers, to begin with is cleverly thought out- they look vaguely cute but it’s hard to ignore the teeth and spikes. They grow when they ear, which must be problematic, although I suppose there is a maximum height, which gives us a fabulous man-in-suit moment to laugh at, and they can fire toxic needles out of their back at people. If pricked, the victim is instantly rendered insensible until the needle is removed, which revives them faster than speed. The script, however, wisely focuses on the humour. It is well aware of the inherent silliness of Space Hedgehogs on the rampage, and plays up to this. There is a sequence about half way through when they critter are wrecking the house involving an exchange between a critter and a stuffed E.T. doll that ends with the Crite biting the doll’s head off. There are several moments like this, and each of them raises a smile. It’s gleeful stuff, and thoroughly enjoyable.
On a slightly different note, although it is far tamer than I remembered it being, there’s a wonderful atmosphere to the film- it really feels like an old-fashioned 1950’s alien B-movie. They take their time building up the key characters and relationships and when it all turns to shit, the feel of panic in the cast is palpable. You actually care about this family, even the annoying kid, and do not want any of them to be turned into pet food.
It isn’t perfect, by any means, the horrid 80’s power ballad “The Power of the Night” that they insist on playing all the time is infuriating and wretched, and the ending is a bit lame with the Bounty Hunters magically rebuilding the devastated farmhouse. Needless to say, though, that these are minor flaws and don’t detract too much from the film
Overall, would I recommend it? Yes, but not in the way I was expecting to. It isn’t a film that I’d watch late at night after a drunkening armed with nothing more than a kebab, but it is one I’d gladly sit down with on a Sunday afternoon. I’d even go as far to say that with the state of cinema nowadays I’d have no qualms letting a 10 year old watch it, aside from the swearing- it isn’t going to scar anyone, but don’t take this as gospel. You have your own minds; it is entirely up to you. Let me put it this way: it isn’t fucking Hostel. It’s a family movie with something for everybody. And you cynical bastards thought I didn’t like those sorts of films.
I’ll probably come back to the Critters sequels at some point, and they’re definitely more schlocky than the original, especially Critters 4 (in space), and are also packed with hilarious before they were famous appearances. Even if none of them hit the heights of this first attempt, they don’t detract from either my feeling of fond nostalgia or my current enjoyment of it.