Critters

In the wake of Joe Dante’s magnificently subversive Gremlins, Hollywood predictably had a two-for-one sale on any script that featured assaults from gangs of diminutive little creatures that also could perform little comedy skits on the side. In no time at all we were knee deep in horribly inferior rip offs such as Ghoulies, Troll, Hobgoblins and Munchies that were as about as scary as Kermit’s nephew from the Muppets and as funny as anaesthetic-free rectal surgery – however, one of these vicious little species managed to stand tall (well, tall for a two foot monster anyway) as being one franchise that was better than the usual crap. Allow me to introduce to you, the Krites; carnivorous little aliens who look like a cross between a porcupine wearing a great white’s dentures and a meth addicted Sonic The Hedgehog, whose premiere cinema outing proved to be a rather sweet homage to campy 50’s sci-fi.

On a remote prison asteroid, the arrival of new prisoners goes horribly Pete Tong when an eight strong group of aliens known as the Krites escape their Interstellar pokey and steal a ship to make their getaway. The news that alien criminals are on the lam is bad enough, but the fact that these are Krites is apparently as bad as it gets because these little toothy balls of fur have a voracious taste for meat and are making a bee line for the fleshy smorgasbord known as earth.
Meanwhile, in a sleepy farming town in Kansas, the Brown family are going on with their day to day lives, blissfully unaware that a very close encounter is on the horizon; mom and pop Jay and Helen are growing ever more exasperated with the mischievous antics of their young son Brad, not to mention the fact that their older daughter April seems to be dating a new boy every week and things come to a head when Brad takes the rap for an accident caused by well meaning, conspiracy theorist and town drunk Charlie.
However, all that shit is about to be put on the back burner when the Krites arrive and immediately work off their travel hunger by chowing down on some livestock, a local deputy and April’s ponytail wearing, New York boyfriend. Soon the Browns are under siege by the little tumbleweed looking fuckers, but salvation may be at hand in the form of a pair of intergalactic and chameleonic bounty hunters who round off their intimidating ensemble with immense firepower and atrocious aim and who may end up being even more of a destructive force to the town than even the Krites are.
As the Krites keep on eatin’, the Krites keep on growin’ and unless Brad can utilize his secret stash of very powerful firecrackers, the whole town may very well end up being a giant plate of left overs…

Directed by Stephen Herek, who went on to carve respectable career in comedy with Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure and The Mighty Ducks, Critters is love letter to creeky 50’s sci-fi that fuses it with some contemporary 80’s humor as it pushes its knowing fang deep into it’s cheek. However, despite being a perfectly acceptable entry into the area of mischievous mini-monsters, Critters biggest problem is and always will be that they’ll always be living in the sizable shadow of those green, big-eared little shits who terrorised Kingston Falls back in the year 1984. The similarities are inevitable, the Browns are all sorts of apple pie examples small town America who get excited about local bowling tournaments and seem to be constantly fixing their trucks and gathering for family dinners while never seeming to do any actual farm work on screen. It’s an adorable environment with nicely clean cut characters, but the denizens of the town just aren’t as sharply sketched as the ones in the Capra-esque, Spielberg produced epic. There’s even that law-mandated scene in every film featuring a gaggle of short, nasty creatures where the Krites get to do silly comedy skits, but simply ripping up a bed is hardly as subversive as all the shit that goes on in the tavern or the cinema in the far superior Gremlins.
So it’s no surprise that Critters is at it’s best when it manages to chew it’s own path and that’s usually when it chooses to lean fully into it’s sci-fi roots and embrace the fact that the Krites are actually surprisingly versatile, shark toothed killers who can fly spaceships, shoot paralyzing barbs out of their backs and can swear in subtitles when the family starts to fight back and fuck their shit up. They aren’t too bad at the old slapstick, either with one clueless Krite gobbling up a lit cherry bomb only for it’s cheeks to comically puff out when it detonates like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon and it’s this childish humor mixed with moments of actual gore that helps the movie leave a more indelible bite mark on popular culture than most of it’s peers. Watch as a post Back To The Future, pre everything else Billy Zane earns his severed fingers and gut chomping by sporting one of the most unnecessarily obnoxious ponytails in genre cinema…
Another thing that elevates Critters above the usual fare is the inclusion of the two, callously destructive, alien bounty hunters; one of whom adopts the face of fictional, luxuriously maned pop star Johnny Steele while the other struggles to find a face that fits and casually adopts the identity of various townsfolk as he goes. While the budget is low and some of the effect work obviously reflects that, the Critters themselves, courtesy of the Chiodo Brothers (Killer Klowns From Outer Space), are cool enough to comfortably circumvent the moments where they’re obviously razor-toothed hand puppets and a final act house explosion shows where the last if the budget went – and as this is an early New Line Cinema release, you can expect your inevitable Lin Shaye cameo too…
The cast are a nice fit (M. Emmett Walsh for God’s sake!) and it’s a genuinely nice touch that the mother is played by Dee Wallace Stone who’s far less enamored of these extra terrestrials than she was of E.T. back in 1982 – and yes, the film takes full advantage if this by having a curious Krite bite the head off a plush E.T. doll like an absolute savage. Plus bonus points for realising that Brad is played by American Dad’s Steve Smith himself, Scott Grimes…

The Krites would go on to have four more outings, plus a TV show all of varying quality, but taking silver in a sub-genre that’s notorious for churning out some real shit is an achievement in of itself and the initial bite of their inaugural cinema adventure took a noticable chunk out of monster movies.

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