Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Critters (1986)

Directed by:
Stephen Herek

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.


Critters 2 (1988)

... aka: Critters 2: The Main Course

Directed by:
Mick Garris

If you recall, the final shot of CRITTERS (1986) was of some eggs left behind by those pesky little "space porcupine things" before their spaceship was blasted out of the sky. Two years have passed and the Brown family has since moved to the big city, slow-witted Charlie the town drunk has finally found a purpose in life by going to space to become an alien bounty hunter, Sheriff Harv (Barry Corbin replacing M. Emmet Walsh) was voted out of office and has become a bitter hermit and former dispatcher Sally (Lin Shaye) has found a new job as reporter for the Grover's Bend Gazette. Young Bradley (Scott Grimes), known in those parts as "The Boy Who Cried Critter" since there was no actual proof of the alien's prior visit, has clearly picked the wrong time to return to town to visit his health-food-addict Nana (Herta Ware). The eggs remain in the barn after all that time... and they're about ready to hatch. Somewhere in space, bounty hunters Ug (still with the identity of rock star Johnny Steele and still played by Terrence Mann), Charlie (Don Opper) and the identity-shy "Nothing Face" get word about the eggs and are ordered by their commander Zanti to return to Earth to exterminate the critters.

A shady antique's dealer (Douglas Rowe) gets his hands on the eggs and sells some to Nana. It's Easter time, so the eggs are all painted and distributed around town and some are even going to be used for the church's upcoming egg hunt. It isn't long before they start popping open and "hundreds" of baby crites are infesting the town, quickly increasing in size the more they eat. The antique's dealer and his dog make for nice appetizers. Next up is the grumpy new Sheriff, who's forced to dress up as the Easter Bunny, ends up getting a pant load full of the little monsters and leaps through the church window during the middle of service. Megan (Liane Curtis), daughter of the newspaper editor (Sam Anderson) and a budding reporter herself, finally gets Bradley to admit to what happened two years earlier and the two try to get Harv to help them out. Just in the nick of time, the bounty hunters land on Earth. They find a Playboy magazine on the ground so "Nothing Face" aka Lee can transform into one of the centerfolds (Roxanne Kernohan), complete with a staple in the stomach. And off to "Kill Crites" they go...

The "man-eatin' dust mops" invade the Hungry Heifer fast food restaurant and get their money's worth on the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet before getting blasted to bits. One gets his toupe shot off and another is deep fried in hot oil. The Crites chuckle, say things like "Bitchin" and "Cheeeeesburgers!" and all combine together to create a giant Critter ball at the very end which can roll over people and skin them alive. Since there are so many of the things to contend with, the townsfolk (who congregate that evening in the church just like in the same year's BLOB remake) decide to lure them all to a local hamburger plant to try to blow them up. It's all done with a lighthearted touch and has another "heartwarming" ending to ensure a PG-13 rating despite the fact there's about as much gore and gunk, profanity and nudity as many R-rated films.

Critters 2 (subtitled "The Main Course" on the poster only) is a watchable though lesser follow-up. One noticable improvement over the first is that much of the film takes place in the daytime and thus the monsters are much easier to see. The cast is OK, the monsters get more face-time here, there's a higher body count (not difficult to match the two deaths in the original film), the Chiodo Brothers (Charles, Edward and Stephen) provide fun effects and there are a few amusing moments (such as when the faceless alien attempts to transform into Freddy Krueger). Unfortunately, most of the humor is juvenile and takes center stage over everything else. The humorous dialogue ("Who are we gonna call; Critter Busters?") is often cringe-worthy and it also resorts to "comic" sound effects, such as "boing!" or a bowling-ball-knocking-over-pins sound when a big Critter mows over a few people, for cheap laughs.

This was director Mick Garris' debut feature, which he also co-wrote with David Twohy. He'd go on to make the so-so PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING (1990) and many, mostly-mediocre Stephen King adaptations, including SLEEPWALKERS (1992), the epic(ally overlong) TV miniseries THE STAND (1994) QUICKSILVER HIGHWAY (1997), THE SHINING (1997), RIDING THE BULLET (2004), DESPERATION (2006) and BAG OF BONES (2011). Cynthia Garris, the director's wife, wrote and sang the funny Hungry Heifer jingle (and provided the voice for the alien Zanti). Eddie Deezen (restaurant amanger), Tom Hodges (town punk) and Frank Birney (reverend) co-star. Two more direct-to-video Critters films followed in 1991.

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