Written by: Stephen Herek and Don Keith Opper
Directed by: Stephen Herek
Executive producer: Robert Shaye
Reviewed by: Brett G.
While most people associate the 80s with the countless number of slasher films that emerged in the generation, Critters shows that the genre had more to offer. While many studios were churning out slasher after slasher, New Line Cinema unleashed this fun little creature feature on an unsuspecting public. It should be evident by now that I have nothing against slasher flicks, but as far as pure entertainment goes, Critters has managed to entertain me as much as any slasher for over fifteen years. Any devout horror fan will tell you that there are certain films that they’ve watched for as long as they can remember. Critters falls into that category for me. I practically owned my local rental store’s VHS copy of the film, as my friend and I rented it (and its sequels) nearly every Friday night. We’d always rent a few other flicks, but Critters was our standby that delivered weekend after weekend.
The premise is fairly simple, if not thrillingly absurd: a group of interstellar prisoners (referred to only as Crites) escape from a deep space penal colony. Upon hearing this news, a head council sends two faceless bounty hunters after them. Of course, we soon learn that the prisoners are headed towards earth. Luckily, our bounty hunters are able to transform into anything that “likes them.” One of the bounty hunters goes channel surfing and discovers a rock star by the name of Johnny Steele (Terrence Mann), who he proceeds to imitate. Our second guy can’t find anyone that likes him, so he has to go faceless until he arrives on earth, which sets up some funny gags when he begins to imitate everyone he sees.
While the bounty hunters are hot on their trail, it turns out the Crites arrive to earth first, where they land in a small Kansas town. More specifically, they land on a farm owned by the Brown family, who end up being typical small town types. You’ve got the no nonsense father who is portrayed by one of the most underrated actors of all time in Billy Green Bush. You’ve also got 80s stalwart Dee Wallace Stone in her typical role as a wholesome mother to go along with the two kids: April and her younger brother, Brad. There’s also Charlie, a ne’er-do-well mechanic that works odd jobs for the family. He also doubles as the town drunk who claims to have UFO sightings as well.
Of course, Charlie ends up being validated once the Crites show up to wreak havoc on the town, and it’s at this point that their true nature is revealed. Heretofore unseen, one might imagine the Crites to be any sort of creature, but, as it turns out, they’re basically furballs with a penchant for mayhem and an appetite for just about anything. The Crites set their sight on the Brown family, and the bounty hunters arrive soon after. It’s a classic setup for a creature feature: strange aliens terrorize a small town family, and it plays out brilliantly, as Critters is full of everything you’d expect: suspense, thrills, and laughs.
Even though it’s straight out of the eighties (look no further than Terrence Mann’s power mane for proof), Critters is very old school and feels like a creature feature from earlier decades. The film is simply an entertaining romp from beginning to end. I hesitate to call it a horror comedy even though you’ll find yourself laughing at the film more than being scared by it. Don’t let such a fact deter you, however, because Critters is an undeniably fun film.
Stephen Herek’s direction and the film’s photography are both competent. I don’t think anyone will be blown away by either, but both get the job done. The plain, down home look of the film mirrors the subject matter perfectly, as Critters does not set out to be a flashy film. In that respect, the film features very little in the way of gore, but the Crites still manage to be quite menacing despite their diminutive stature. Also, the effects by the Chiodos Brothers (both involving the Crites and otherwise) are extremely well done for a relatively low budget feature. While everything about the film (including the title characters) seems absurd, there’s a solid heart to be found in the cast of characters that infuses the film with a small town charm. In this respect, the film is very similar to another creature feature, Tremors, and, even though this film isn’t as infinitely quotable as that one, there are several memorable moments in the film. Among them are the aforementioned visual gags that ensue as the second bounty hunter transforms into several townspeople, including Charlie.
In terms of characters, the cast of Critters is its strength, as Opper brings an irresistible charm to the character of Charlie; Opper would later reprise his role in the three sequels and would become a fan favorite. The film also features Lin Shaye (sister of Robert), a familiar face to any die hard New Line fans. Viewers will also find a young Billy Zane, who manages to actually break the cliché of the “bad boy outsider from New York.” In an unusual turn for horror flicks, it’s actually April that’s eager to get into his pants.
For the most part, however, Critters plays out exactly how you expect a creature feature to play out. This is not to say that the film is trite or predictable, however, as I’ve managed to derive enjoyment from it for all these years. It’s undeniably charming in a way that the uninitiated might not comprehend. As with any personal favorite, one cannot discount nostalgia from the equation here, as Critters is a film that is near and dear to my heart. Still, I think there’s a lot for first-time viewers to enjoy here. Luckily, Critters and its sequels are all available on DVD now. Even though the disc here is bare bones (besides the theatrical trailer), I still ran out and bought it the day it was released. In terms of presentation, I was not disappointed, as the image quality is solid. There’s also two soundtrack choices: a 5.1 remix and the original stereo mix. Having listened to both, I can’t say I have a preference for either. The 5.1 mix seems gratuitous considering the source material, and it sounds a little thin. Either choice will get the job done. The only other misstep is the atrocious cover art used by New Line, who opted not to use the original theatrical and VHS art. Luckily, viewers can catch a glimpse of it on the main menu (pictured left). This disc can be found for under $10 at most online retailers these days. Thus, I encourage everyone to barge into your local store and proclaim “I’m here for the Crites.” Buy it!
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