Imagine if Sonic the Hedgehog was a carnivorous space alien with glowing red eyes, rows of razor sharp teeth and could shoot poison darts from his back. Now drop eight of those suckers down in the middle of a rural Kansas farming community, mix in a couple of shapeshifting bounty hunters, and a cast of goofy locals and you have the best Gremlins rip-off of 1986. That’s right, this week we’re talking Critters, the film that launched a franchise that started in the Kansas countryside and ended up in outer space.
So these critters are actually an alien species known as Krites that escaped from a prison space ship and hijacked a ride to Earth. On their trail are a pair of bounty hunters that can morph their appearance to mimic whoever they want, so to blend in, they pick a famous rock star and an assortment of random locals. Going incognito is obviously not a concept that they’re familiar with.
Among the locals is a doofus mechanic named Charlie (Don Keith Opper) who’s basically what Forrest Gump would be if he had a drinking problem and listened to too much InfoWars – they even dress the same! Claiming to receive alien transmissions via the fillings in his teeth, he is the only one who isn’t the least bit surprised when alien visitors start showing up in Kansas like it’s MTV’s Spring Break. Soon after crash landing the Critters lay siege to a family farm, while the bounty hunters wreck a local church and shoot up a bowling alley. The only thing that can save the day is a kid who is a budding Unabomber teaming up with the bounty-hunting aliens to end this furry debacle.
Who made this?
Critters was the directorial debut of Stephen Herek, who would go on to make such classics as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitters Dead (1991). He eventually went the Disney route and directed The Mighty Ducks (1992), The Three Musketeers (1993), 101 Dalmatians (1996), along with Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995). Born in San Antonio, he went to the University of Texas to play baseball and when he didn’t make the cut, he began studying film. These days, he does Dolly Parton TV specials and produced the MacGyver reboot. Herek got his start, as so many did, working for Roger Corman in various capacities on Android (1982), The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), and Space Raiders (1983).
For those that say this is an obvious attempt to capitalize off the success of 1984’s Gremlins, Herek says that’s simply not the case. He claims that his co-screenwriter, Domonic Muir, is the guy who came up with the story and wrote the first draft in 1982; they even went back and did rewrites to eliminate some similarities between the two films. According to Herek, while working on City Limits (1984), where both were assistant editors, Muir told him about his idea and together they decided to go for it.
Domonic Muir is also the guy who brought the world the much-needed Evil Bong franchise: he wrote Evil Bong (2006), Evil Bong 2: King Bong (2009), and Evil Bong 3: The Wrath of Bong (2011). Often writing under the pseudonym August White, Muir also wrote a slew of kung-fu flicks and other straight-to-video gems such as Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (2010). Unfortunately, he passed away in 2010, at the age of 48, due to pneumonia.
The cast of Critters is pretty great too. Led by Dee Wallace who’s been in a bajillion fright flicks like The Hills Have Eyes (1977), The Howling (1981), Cujo (1983), and now does a bunch of Rob Zombie movies. Wallace plays the matriarch of the Brown family, whose farm is set upon by the hungry aliens. She doesn’t really have much to do besides scream hysterically and get shot in the neck by a poison dart, but it’s Dee Wallace, so that’s cool. The great character actor M. Emmet Walsh (the guy who hates the cans in The Jerk) is the local cop who bumbles around a whole lot, and that’s about all he does. Billy Zane has his first speaking role, after showing up in Back to the Future (1985) but way before he was the asshole trying to keep Leo and Kate apart in Titanic (1997), as the boyfriend of the Brown’s horny daughter. We also have an appearance from Lin Shaye, who has made a name for herself in some Farrelly Brothers comedies including Dumb and Dumber (1994), Kingpin (1996), and There’s Something About Mary (1998), in addition to the Insidious franchise.
Two other actors worth talking about are Don Keith Opper, the dude who plays the town drunk named Charlie, and Terrence Mann, who plays the bounty hunter named Ug that disguises himself as rock star Johnny Steele. The two actors with incredibly different backgrounds ended up being the only two to appear in all four of the original Critters movies.
Let’s start with Don Opper, shall we? His first credit was as second assistant director on Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), then as the production coordinator on Corman’s Galaxy of Terror (1981). From there he would go on to write and star in the previously mentioned Android and City Limits. He even got a writing credit of “additional scenes written by” on Critters. His brother Barry is an uncredited producer on Critters and went to produce the rest of the Critters franchise. So we have one guy who came up working for exploitation king Roger Corman, and then we have another guy who came straight from Broadway. Terrance Mann is mostly known for originating roles in Broadway musicals Cats (1982), Les Miserables (1987), and Beauty and the Beast (1994). He even went on to appear in Big Top Pee-Wee in 1988, so clearly this guy is a capital A, Actor. Now he is a distinguished professor of musical theater at Western Carolina University and the Artistic Director of the Carolina Arts Festival. Originally, the filmmakers wanted Billy Idol for the role, but as fate would have it, we got someone who may have been a bit more qualified. So, as I said, pretty different backgrounds for these two guys, but they were in it for the long haul with Critters.
And how about those Krites? Pretty nasty little devils aren’t they? Well, you can thank the Chiodo Brothers for those little balls of fury. If their name sounds familiar, it’s probably because they have done some awesome work in movies including Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Ernest Scared Stupid (1991), Elf (2003), Team America: World Police (2004), and some stuff for The Simpsons‘ Tree House of Horror episodes. One of the brothers even makes a cameo as the feet of the Krite that has grown to human size after eating everything in sight. The original creature design was based on Loony Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil, and I can definitely see the inspiration.
A true creature feature
Alrighty, let’s review this thing. First off, I love this flick. Sure it is a PG-13 movie that is in the same vein as a bunch of early to mid-80s little creature features, but it would make an excellent double feature with Gremlins. For a movie lacking an R-rating there is some decent gore. The father of the Brown family gets chewed up pretty good, and Billy Zane gets his fingers bitten off and his tummy eaten out. In one great scene the bounty hunter Ug transforms into the rock star Johnny Steele and his face does what can only be described as the reverse of the Nazi face melting at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The Krites are fun too. The reaction of one when his buddy gets blown away by a shotgun after scoffing at the humans being armed (“FUCK!”) was one of my favorite parts. We also have a straight-up Looney Tunes gag where one eats a firecracker only to have his belly bulge as it explodes inside him and then he slowly tips over. But my favorite scene is when the Krite ship is trying to flee Earth and makes one last stop over the Brown’s house, almost as a last minute middle finger, to blow it up out of pure spite and we hear them giggling onboard. Quick note: the dude who did the Krite voices is Corey Burton, and he would end up doing the voice of Dale in Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers and continues to voice that role along with that of Professor Ludwig Von Drake.
For once, I have to thank you Blood Suckers for picking an overlooked gem. I can’t wait to dive into the sequels and see how ridiculous this gets. Hell, Leonardo DiCaprio makes his feature film debut in Critters 3! This is the type of movie you can introduce to the young’uns to get them into horror, and Critters will be in regular rotation at my house for years to come. 4 Bolos – check it out!