M. Emmet Walsh
Billy "Green" Bush
Nadine van der Velde
1 Hr., 25 Mins.
Critters October 18, 2019
here are lots of movies about creatures from outer space invading Earth, but whether the creatures in question wreak havoc varies. Some intergalactic party-crashers end up taking to the kindness of their inadvertent hosts, like in E.T. (1982), and then in a way become part of the family they’d initially rained on the parade of. Others will almost immediately enact mayhem, like in Killer Clowns from Outer Space
(1988). Critters (1986) for sure belongs to the latter wreaking-havoc subgenre — if subgenre's the appropriate term to use here — but not as neatly categorizable about it is how pleased with itself it is. The film, often unfairly and I think inaccurately christened a Gremlins (1984) knock-off, is an energetic ball — a B-movie with dirt-on-the-cheeks playfulness. It feels made by people who love these kinds of movies — goofy, surprisingly thrilling excursions into lower-level monster-movie territory.
The eponymous beasts, known to their outer-space counterparts as Crites, were never supposed to be Earth-dwellers. The film opens on a galactical asteroid prison, where the Crites are locked up. Their imprisonment is a good thing. These are ball-shaped, spike-furred varmints who eat flesh and destroy buildings for a living. They have teeth for miles. Their red, slitted eyes could cut glass. And they’re fully aware that what they do on the day to day is unconscionable. They can fly spaceships; they have the aptitude to blow up homes just for fun. They can verbally communicate with each other, too — “Fuck!” one exclaims, in the incomprehensible Crite language, to one of its buddies when something goes awry at one point.
We meet these critters at a bad time, though the time's more so bad for their soon-to-be earthbound victims than the Crites themselves. The latter bunch has plotted an escape from their craggy prison, and, after successfully executing their plans, head straight for Earth on a jacked spaceship. Two shape-shifting bounty hunters — one globby and literally without a face, one who's transformed himself into a rock singer to disguise himself — follow. From there, the premise of Critters becomes soothingly facile. The creatures will crash land on a patch of the American countryside and terrorize its inhabitants — particularly the Browns, a Norman Rockwellian family. It’s only fitting that Dee Wallace, the luminous and oft-maternal scream queen, play the matriarch. By 1986 she’d become a paragon of women dealing with the turmoil-causing otherworldly à la The Hills Have Eyes (1977), The Howling (1981), Cujo (1983), and, of course, E.T. (1982). I’m sure that if Wallace had to choose one supernatural kook to run into on the street after a few years, she’d most want to bump into the goggle-eyed sweetheart from the latter movie. By the mid-1980s, though, what couldn’t she handle?
Critters is for most intents and purposes a home-invasion thriller, not the roving chase movie one might expect. In contrast to its genre peers, which tend to be dead serious and principally freaky, this one’s cheaply fun — an amusement-park fixture of a film that feels a great deal more expensive and extensive than your typical haunted manors and houses of mirrors. There are some bloody deaths and gnarly injuries in the movie, but it makes for such a good pastime that we unwisely start thinking that we’d like to experience it for ourselves after a while — an undervalued but a lot of the time crucial ingredient for films working with conceits similar to this one. I’m tempted to check out at least one of the many sequels, but my practical side tells me that too much of this good and economic a thing will minimize the revelry. We’ll see. B+