Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Critters (1986)

Written by: Dominic Muir and Stephen Herek, with additional scenes by Don Opper
Directed by: Stephen Herek
Dee Wallace Stone as Helen Brown
Billy Green Bush as Jay Brown
Scott Grimes as Brad Brown
M Emmet Walsh as Sheriff Harv
Don Opper as Charlie

I introduced my daughter to the Critters movies last summer, and she loved them. She's obsessed with getting $300 because one of the vendors at G-Fest last year had a life-size Critter statue for sale at that price. We watch a lot of horror movies together. There are probably not too many little girls who, when given an information sheet to fill out about themselves to hang up in the classroom, put down Dog Soldiers as their favorite movie.

Just this evening I had a conversation with my mom wherein she asked if there were any movies on at the theater the kids wanted to see besides Kung Fu Panda 3, which I took them to last weekend. We all loved it, incidentally. I mentioned Beez wanted to see The 5th Wave, and mom immediately gasped in an amusingly dramatic way, “Don't take her to that, it's PG-13!” I laughed.

“Mom,” I said. “You realize the kids have seen plenty of PG-13 and even R-rated movies with me. We watch them together. They know it's all make-believe. I explained to them years ago that it's all done with makeup and special effects. The actors get up and wash it all off at the end of the day and go home and have dinner with their families. I wouldn't watch anything I was unsure of cold with them. Every horror movie they see, I've already seen and have judged them capable of understanding what they'll see in it.”

“I know,” she said. “But you never know.”

This movie is based on a book for 13 year olds,” says I. “I'm sure it's PG-13 for a couple of salty words, nothing more. You remember when you and dad used to rent Jaws for me all the time? It was rated PG because PG-13 hadn't been invented yet, and if it were made today with not a single frame changed, it might even get an R. Don't you remember Ben Gardner's chewed-up head with its eyeball hanging out falling out of the boat? Quint's death scene where the shark bites him and you can hear his ribs shatter as he vomits up a huge gout of blood and screams like a dying pig before getting dragged into the water?”

I didn't even mention the beaver shot in the beginning.

You might not know this, but as much as I love Godzilla and all that other stuff, if pressed to pick a single favorite movie it would have to be Jaws.”

“I never would have guessed,” she said.

“And that is largely down to all the times we watched it when I was little, with dad sitting behind me and grabbing my shoulders and yelling 'RRAAAAGH!' when the scary music hit a crescendo or the shark jumped out. It's the stuff memories are made of.”

As you may have ascertained from the preceding conversation, I wasn't allowed to watch R-rated movies as a kid. Oddly enough, the movie that opened the floodgates was Carnosaur, because it had dinosaurs in it and mom knew how much I loved dinosaurs. Then it came out that I'd been watching R-rated movies at friends' houses for years and she just sort of gave up. But long before that, despite my not being anywhere near 13 yet, I remember renting Critters and being blown away by it. I mentioned ages ago in my review for Grim that, although I never got busted cranking the cyclopean butter churn (praise Cthulhu), my folks had a knack for walking in on questionable parts of movies I was watching. This time it was actually dad, passing the TV room just as the shape-shifting bounty hunter melts and re-forms into Johnny Steele.

This is, I should note, my first ever review by request, and for a very special requester at that. Not long ago, Beez asked me, “When you write about movies, do you ever do movies that people ask you to do?”

“No, but then again no one's ever asked. I suppose it depends on the movie. I try to mostly write about movies not many other people write about or have even heard of. Why?”

Would you ever write about something that we watch? Like Critters?”

Possibly. Why? Wait, this is just because you want to watch Critters again, isn't it?”

“Maybe. Yes.”

For a moment I thought, no, Critters is too mainstream, too obvious. And then I realized that I don't think a single one of my b-movie reviewing compatriots has done a piece on this flick. It occurred to me that it has been relegated to cult status, and not that many people care about this franchise anymore. That's a damn shame, because even though the third and fourth movies don't hold up as well to viewing through adult eyes, the first two flicks in the series are absolutely delightful and deserve to be held in higher regard.

The movie opens much like Night of the Creeps, with a mishap aboard some kind of intergalactic prison. Some things called Crites have broken free of their containment and stolen one of the fastest ships in the facility. We don't get a look at them yet other than a clawed hand operating the ship's controls, but the prison's warden is extremely concerned at their escape so they must be some pretty frightening characters. He calls in a couple of shape-shifting bounty hunters with featureless glowing blobs for heads and informs them that the Crites' last known heading was in the vicinity of a planet called Earth, and they'd better get there and re-capture the creatures soon or there won't be anyone left to appreciate their efforts.

Meanwhile, we're introduced to the inhabitants of a sleepy little town in rural Kansas, where the most exciting thing up until the invasion of a group of carnivorous hedgehog piranhas from space was a bar fight at the bowling alley. Of course, the Crites land their stolen spacecraft in the pasture of the Brown family farm on the edge of town and once all the cows have been consumed, the voracious creatures move in on the next largest source of food in the area – people. In a pleasant departure from the usual formula for movies like this where the kid is the only one who knows what's going on and no one believes him, Jay is in the process of busting his son Brad sneaking out his bedroom window when they both see the ship come down in the distance. They go to investigate and find the mutilated carcass of one of their cows, and the action is off and running.

Rather than waste a bunch of time with the kid trying to convince the adults of danger, the Brown family finds themselves under siege by the Crites pretty much immediately. The tension instead comes from hoping the bounty hunters can track the creatures down in time to prevent the whole town from becoming a buffet.

Next to the Killer Klowns from Outer Space, the Critters are probably the most famous and recognizable creations of the Chiodo Brothers special effects studio. The tiny, razor-toothed furballs are a great monster design, from both a practical standpoint as well as an iconic one, brilliant in their simplicity. With the exception of the man-in-a-suit super-Critter at the end of the movie, the creatures are all quite small and realized through puppets both animatronic and hand-operated, which means they're incredibly versatile and can occupy pretty much any space on the set they need to. Their form of locomotion is probably the most clever thing about them. Need Crites moving at high-speed to chase the actors? Just cover some basketballs in fur and throw them across the set! You would think the major down-side to having such small monsters would be losing a lot of detail and mobility, but the Chiodo Brothers wring an incredible range of expressiveness out of the puppets. Corey Burton's vocalizations for them add even more personality. Rather than just make a bunch of random animal noises, he actually created a Crite language, incorporating elements of French and Japanese.

The Critters are also very memorable creatures for the exact opposite reason than the xenomorph from Alien. Where every inch of that creature was covered in strange, biomechanical detail that draws the eye all over its anatomy to find new surprises with each viewing, the Critters are one of the least complicated monster designs in all of film. Just balls of shaggy fur with big red eyes, split across the middle by enormous mouths filled with row upon row of needle sharp teeth. The bare essentials of nightmare fuel.

They're also damn funny, which is probably the main reason this movie is often dismissed as a Gremlins knockoff. Aside from having small monsters, a comedic streak, and a PG-13 rating, I don't think that's a fair cop. According to Stephen Herek, a great deal of pre-production had already been done in 1984, before Gremlins ever hit theaters, and that rewrites were undertaken once Spielberg and Dante's movie became a hit in order to decrease the similarities between the two properties even further.

If you're looking for something to ease your young'uns into the genre with, Critters should definitely be on the menu. No graphic nudity or sex, and just a sprinkling of that good old 80's gore wrapped up in a funny and fast-paced package with a solid script and good performances from some reliable character actors. Of course, the biggest cuss word in the movie comes as the punchline to a great gag and is spoken by a scary-but-cute foot-tall furry alien. If your kid is in the habit of parroting back things they think are funny to the point that words lose all meaning, view at your own risk.

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