In the wake of the huge financial success of GREMLINS (1984) came the obligatory spate of films copying the 'cute-but-evil mini-monster' format. Critters is just one of many of these and is perhaps the most imaginative and entertaining of the bunch, with the irresistible fx creations of the Chiodo Brothers being a big reason for its success. Critters, referred to as "crites" to those in the know, are little, red-eyed hellraising furballs from another world. They have huge mouths full of razor fangs and an insatiable appetite for, well, pretty much everything. And the more they eat, the more they grow. These creatures also possess a high intelligence (at least high enough to mastermind an escape, drive a spaceship and talk to one another), can compact themselves into a ball and roll around like tumbleweeds and can shoot tranquilizing quills to incapacitate victims. As the film opens, eight of the little suckers manage to break out of a maximum security prison asteroid and steal a spaceship. The warden of the prison promptly enlists the aid of two faceless bounty hunters to track the escaped critters and then either capture or destroy them before they can feed. Bet you can guess which planet the crites decide to check out.
We then meet your typical midwest Kansas farm family; The Brown's. Homemaker Helen (Dee Wallace) is busy fixin' up breakfast and preparing her crew for the day. Teen daughter April (Nadine Van Der Velde) is pissed she can't get into the bathroom because kid brother Brad (Scott Grimes) is busy running a thermometer under hot water to get out of going to school. Geometry exam, you know. And car mechanic pops Jay (Billy Green Bush) is just so country he wears bib overalls, drinks his coffee out of a Mason Jar and wonders why anyone would buy a sports car cause it can't haul hay. Charlie (Don Opper), who is - how should we be put this nicely - a little bit "slow," helps Jay out on the cars. Charlie's also a drunk who is obsessed with the possibility of alien life and thinks he can pick up transmissions from space in his teeth fillings. We're also introduced around to some of the townsfolk, including Sheriff Harv (M. Emmet Walsh), police dispatcher Sal (Lin Shaye, sister of executive producer Robert Shaye) and Steve (Billy Zane in his second film role), a rich kid who's interested in dating April.
As night falls, Brad is grounded and stuck in his room, April has her new boyfriend over for dinner (with the family) and dessert (in the barn later) and dad is preparing to defend his title at a local bowling tournament. Helen is, uh, who knows? Probably going to do the dishes or something. The ship carrying the crites finally lands, and they're so hungry they can eat a cow. And do! And a deputy, too! The little aliens make it over to the Brown farm and make themselves a general pain in the ass by destroying the fuse box, stopping by the chicken coop for a midnight snack, biting off Steve's fingers, clogging up the toilet, having a pillow fight and nibbling on each of the family members. But the bounty hunters aren't far behind. Because they're faceless, they can take on whatever form they choose. After watching a tutorial about life on Earth, one of them decides to transform into the likeness of famous rock singer Johnny Steele (played by Terrence Mann). The other isn't quite as decisive and decides to pick his identity upon landing, going through a dead deputy, a pious reverend and finally even Charlie himself.
Because none of us speak Crite, the filmmakers were kind enough to provide us with subtitles for what the lil critters say, which is a cute touch and used well. The movie as a whole is certainly nothing special, but there's enough action, horror and laughs to move you through painlessly enough. In keeping with the vibe of many other PG / PG-13 rated mainstream horror releases of the time, there's a hokey "feel good" ending tacked on, though it's not quite as puke-inducing as the finale of POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE (1986). Then again, what is? Co-star Opper co-wrote it and there's a fun score from David Newman.
Critters was a modest hit in theaters and did very well on video so CRITTERS 2 (1988) followed with Grimes, Opper, Mann and Shaye all returning. It was followed by the direct-to-video releases CRITTERS 3 (1991), which was set in a big city tenement building, and CRITTERS 4 (1991), which was set aboard a spaceship.