*** This review may contain toothy grin and dart quill spoilers ***
A group of ‘Crites’ hijack a prison ship and escape to earth where they lay siege on a farmhouse attacking the family inside.
Director/writer Stephen Herek Critters is an ambitious creature sci-fi, along with fellow writers Domonic Muir and Don Keith Opper it juggles a lot of sci-fi elements despite a predominantly rural setting. There are intergalactic face-changing bounty hunters, alien creatures, spaceships and ray cannons. Herek and company in true 80’s fashion spend little time in giving the creatures and bounty hunters a back story leaving it to the imagination. This works in its favour compared to the excessive exposition in many of today’s films. Likewise, the Critters just happen to come across the farmhouse after chowing down on a bull. Interestingly at the time of Critters’ VHS run I unjustly saw it as a rip off Gremlins, much like Munchies. Yes it cashed-in on its popularity but writers have since pointed out that it was written before Joe Dante’s classic went into production and subsequently underwent rewrites to reduce the apparent (in the ether) similarities between the two films.
The escaped alien Crites with their sharp toothy grins and tranquilizing dart quills amusingly roll around like hedgehogs on speed. Encapsulating the sound of 1986, artist Che Zuro plays in the background among some other 80s bands with David Newman’s score giving power to the action setups and menace to the Critter puppets. The encounter in the cellar where the father is attacked is quite effective, especially the preceding search and reveal by torchlight.
The Critters are amusing times, at one point they converse with subtitles, “They have weapons” says one, “So what?” replies another before getting blasted away. There’s also scenes where a Critter encounters an E.T. (1982) doll – tearing it apart, a toilet hiding Critter (a likely homage to 1985’s Ghoulies) and also a moment where one eats a cherry bomb may rouse a chuckle.
In the opening the commander of the prison hires two shape-changing bounty hunters to pursue the Crites/Critters to earth (maybe his inspired AVP Requiem’s story-line). These hunters, with Space Marine like costumes get some humorous moments mainly because of mistaken identity by the small townspeople. Tim Curry-like actor Terrence Mann takes form of the rock band front man Johnny Steele, complete with a Bon Jovi hairdo. While the other takes on faces of a few locals notably Don Opper who plays a duel role of both the bounty hunter and the towns paranoid drunk Charlie McFadden.
McFadden a friend of young Brad Brown have a Miyagi and Daniel san Karate Kid bond which is older man young boy relationship that are seemingly avoided in films these days. Brad played by Scott Grimes (who latter would voice American Dad’s Steve) is a stereotype 80s film kid experimenting with fire crackers, bickering with his sister and trying to bunk off school. Notable is Billy Green Bush’s Jay Brown as an everyday farmer and his wife played by Dee Wallace Stone). Wallace is given very little to do, the character Helen Brown is purely functional and pretty much retreads her E.T. mother role, that said she does get to fire off a few shots at those Critters. Playing Brad’s teenage sister April is fresh faced actress Nadine Van der Velde (who was 24 years old at the time) and incidentally appeared in the aforementioned copycat film Munchies. Actor Billy Zane sporting a little rats tail shows up as April’s boyfriend, destined to be Critter fodder. For sale-ability appeal Blade Runner’s acting veteran M. Emmet Walsh plays the pretty useless local Sheriff Harv.
There are a handful of stunts and although the optical effects have unsurprisingly dated the practical effects still hold up well. The impressive gooey face changing sequence is memorable and the Critters themselves are simple and effective from the rolling, to the firing quills with plenty of good old fashion blood on display after an attack. After the bounty hunters cause some mayhem in the church and a local bowling alley (the teams shirts echo a Ghostbusters logo design) they arrive at the farmhouse to capture the Critters. In the final act after the family house is invaded we have our heroes go about rescuing April from a giant kidnapping Critter. Herek gives us an obligatory end explosion, a chance for a special effect team to show off their fine miniature model skills, with moments for the editors to flex their skills. In addition, with some eggs laid in a barn there’s the inevitable unashamed set up for a sequel (which came two years later in 1988).
Critters still has a charm about it thanks to the novel creature design and acting of likable Grimes’. Produced by New Line’s Bob Shaye (A Nightmare on Elm St.) Critters is squarely aimed at its mid-teen target audience and despite some bumpy pacing Critters delivers enough laughs and playful alien set-ups to retain a lasting appeal long after the VHS was replaced by DVD and on-demand films.