Director: Stephen Herek
It must be nearly 20 years since I last saw Critters on TV, but I remember thinking it was terrific. So when I spotted a boxed set of all four films on sale for a tenner I told The Wife precisely what she could buy me for my birthday.
My memory did not play tricks. Critters is fab!
A fairly lengthy prologue sets up a situation remarkably similar to Lilo and Stitch: the escape, during transport, of dangerous alien prisoners who land on Earth and are followed by a pair of agents employed to track them down and dispose of them. The ‘Krites’ are small, dumpy creatures with huge mouths who eat anything and have spines on their backs. Hang on, it really is Lilo and Stitch!
We don’t actually see the Krites at this point, we just have voices over spaceship footage reporting that there were ten but two have died. After various shots of explosions and a departing spaceship we encounter our first actual character. This is a seated alien on a floating platform, cleverly framed so that we don’t see the actor’s legs sticking out underneath. According to the credits he’s called Warden Zanti (presumably an Outer Limits reference) and he’s played by 4’3” Michael Lee Gogin (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Wacko, Spy Hard, Munchies), which makes me wonder whether he is just sitting on the ‘floating’ platform and some stagehand is pushing it about.
He employs two leather-clad, humanoid alien bounty hunters who have glowing, green, featureless faces. Heading for Earth, they pick up some TV signals looking for an image to adopt and the taller one comes across the video for that week’s number one single, performed by a pretty boy rocker named Johnny Steele. Hey, I like 1980s soft rock as much as anyone (no honestly - you should see the number of Toto albums on my shelf) but ‘Johnny Steele’ with his all-female backing band makes Richard Marx look and sound like Korn.
Nevertheless the tall bounty hunter adopts Johnny Steele’s face, meaning that he is played for the rest of the film by stage musicals star Terence Mann (who also, of course, plays Steele himself in the fake music video). The shorter bounty hunter doesn’t choose a face, saying that nothing really agrees with him.
It’s worth noting the terrific effect of the face change. Nowadays there would be a simple morph from the featureless green head to Mann/Steele’s features. But what we get here is a gradual and frankly rather icky build-up from the skull of muscles, blood vessels, nerves and finally skin.
Down on Earth we meet the Brown family, who live on a farm in the middle of Kansas. Dad Jay (Billy Green Bush: Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday) is a bluff, no-nonsense, hardworking type while mum Helen is a dependable housewife and mother. In a clever piece of casting that was clearly designed to make life easy for journos commenting on the film, Helen is played by Dee Wallace Stone who was previously the mother of another family who met a slightly less aggressive alien - in ET. (Later in the film, when the Krites get inside the Brown house, there is a scene where one of them tries to communicate with an ET doll and then bites its head off.) The actress’ other genre credits, mostly in equally maternal roles, include The Howling, Cujo, I’m Dangerous Tonight, Alligator II, The Frighteners, Abominable, Fred Olen Ray’s Invisible Mom I and II and John Carl Buechler’s Tyrannosaurus Wrecks.
Teenage daughter April (Nadine Van der Velde) and son Brad (Scott Grimes) complete the family and exhibit archetypal sibling antipathy. Grimes is now a rock singer, a regular on ER and the voice of the son in American Dad; he was also in Band of Brothers and Frogs! and voiced the main character in Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night. Van der Velde was in Munchies and is now an animation writer and script editor with credits which include both feature-length Rolie Polie Olie specials. Brad has a supply of home-made fireworks, a Mutant poster on his wall and a pet cat named Chewie. April is only interested in her current boyfriend, Steve, played by an unrecognisably young Billy Zane who had made his feature debut one year earlier in Back to the Future.
We are also introduced to Charlie, a slightly simple young man who helps around the Brown homestead, played by Don Opper (Black Moon Rising, Android, Ghost in the Machine) who gets an ‘additional material’ script credit. Charlie likes a drop of the hard stuff and believes that UFOs are trying to contact him through his fillings. Finally there is the local law enforcement department which consists of Sheriff Harv (the ever-reliable M Emmet Walsh: Blade Runner, Harry and the Hendersons, Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat, Wilder Napalm, Retroactive, National Lampoon’s Men in White...), Deputy Jeff (Star Trek: Voyager’s Ethan Phillips) and radio operator Sally (Lin Shaye: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Amityville: A New Generation, 2001 Maniacs and a regular face in Farrelly Brothers movies).
Jeff is the first person to encounter the Krites, swerving to avoid one as it rolls across the road. He bangs his head, gets out to investigate and gets severely chomped up. The two bounty hunters are on the Krites’ tail so Jeff is the first human they encounter and the shorter one assumes his form, complete with facial injuries.
Over at the Brown homestead, April and Steve are making out in the barn while Brad is confined to his room for hitting his sister with a catapult (he’s actually covering up for Charlie) although he is able to get out via the roof and a convenient tree. When Helen sees something with glowing eyes outside the house and the phone proves to be dead, Jay investigates down in the cellar and, about halfway into the film (which is the correct point, in my view) we get our first good, albeit brief, view of a Krite, a being composed almost entirely of fur, teeth and poisonous spines. The Krites chomp down on Jay but he is able to make it back to the house with his wife and son. Out in the barn, Steve is attacked and killed but Brad rescues his sister.
The besieged family is then intercut with the exploits of the two bounty hunters who have commandeered Jeff’s car but don’t know how to get it out of reverse so drive through the town backwards. They smash into the church where the shorter one adjusts his form to look like the local minister (Jeremy Lawrence). They later investigate the bowling alley (where Jay Brown would be if he wasn’t injured and trapped by extraterrestrial furballs) and the shorter one adjusts again to look like Charlie, who is there drowning his sorrows at the bar because no-one takes his claim to have seen a spaceship seriously.
What this means is that the second bounty hunter (they are never given names) is played by three different actors during the course of the film and while it’s not exactly the most complex character I think that’s still a remarkable feat. Eventually the two aliens encounter Brad, racing to get help on his bike, and the realisation dawns that the ‘critters’ attacking the Browns and the Krites being hunted are the same thing. It all ends up with a great big showdown involving the Krites, the Browns, the bounty hunters, Charlie and Harv.
There really is nothing to dislike here. Critters is exciting, funny, clever and played completely straight without ever being po-faced (Mann is excellent as the by-the-business alien who confuses people by looking like a chart-topping musician). The production values are top-notch, the acting is uniformly good, the script is tight and Stephen Herek’s direction is spot on. This is one hugely entertaining film.
The Krite special effects by the Chiodo Brothers are straightforward and effective. Obviously this was part of the Small But Dangerous Supernatural/Alien Creatures Portrayed By Puppets subgenre which started with Gremlins and also included the Ghoulies and Munchies films. For the most part the Krites are simple handpuppets or rolling furballs probably thrown by hand. There is however one brief shot of a Krite walking across a room which looks like a costume among oversize props and there certainly was a giant-size Krite costume created because one of the little buggers grows considerably later on.
Other special effects such as the bounty hunter transformation and the various spaceships are also excellent. Chuck E Stewart (Spy Hard, the X-Files movie, Monkeybone) is credited as special effects supervisor. Others who worked on the effects include Frank Ceglia (Frozen, Phantoms, Leprechaun II and IV, Crossworlds), Casey Cavanaugh (Face/Off, Terminal Velocity), Bruce Steinheimer (The Running Man, Mission: Impossible II) and Gene Warren Jr (Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Return of the Living Dead, Vampires: Los Muertos). Ron Thornton’s name can be spotted way down in the credits.
Also in the cast are Art Frankel (The Ring), Douglas Koth (Sorority Girls and the Creature from Hell), Montrose Hagins (who seems to have made her screen debut in this film at the age of 64, going on to appear in episodes of Cagney and Lacey, Quantum Leap, Seinfeld, ER and other top shows), Roger Hampton (who had small roles in Vamp, Wes Craven’s Chiller and Halloween II), David Stenstrom (Project X and various Power Rangers voices) and Adele Malis-Morey (Kingdom of the Spiders). The voices of the Krites - which are conveniently, sparingly and hence amusingly subtitled - are provided by Corey Burton whose list of ‘additional voices’ credits includes pretty much every Disney or Warner Brothers cartoon series of the past 20 years.
First AD Leon Dudevoir also worked on Friday the 13th Part V, The Wraith, The Boogens, Hangar 18 and Space Rage before becoming a ‘production executive’ (which seems to be slightly different to ‘executive producer’ though I’m not sure how) on the likes of Blade, The Island of Dr Moreau and Dark City. Second unit director Mark Helfrich is an editor by trade with credits that include Rambo, Predator, Scary Movie and X-Men 3. This film’s editor was Larry Bock (Revenant, Galaxy of Terror, Sorceress) while cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt worked on Mutant (hence the poster on Brad’s wall), The House on Sorority Row, Teen Wolf, Ally McBeal and Clockstoppers. Also commendable is the work of production designer Gregg Fonseca (A Nightmare on Elm Street, House I and II, Wayne’s World I and II) and art director Philip Dean Foreman who progressed to production designer on the sequels as well as Eliminators, Space Raiders, Zone Troopers, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Highway to Hell and Sometimes They Come Back.
This was the directorial debut of Stephen Herek who followed it with two more terrific comedies: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. After that, he started making bigger but blander pictures such as The Mighty Ducks, the insultingly bad live-action version of 101 Dalmatians and the notorious Eddie Murphy turkey Holy Man.
But the big mystery here is Domonic Muir, who seems to have no credits after Critters until he started writing Charles Band movies almost 20 years later. As ‘August White’ he provided the scripts for Decadent Evil, Doll Graveyard and The Gingerdead Man. The Inaccurate Movie Database says he is aka Brian Domonic Muir and Brian Muir. (Presumably not the ‘Brian Muir’ who worked in art departments in the 1970s and 1980s, most famously designing Darth Vader’s helmet. There was also an Australian actor named Brian Muir in the 1970s.)
BloodyDisgusting.com lists Brian Muir as co-writer (with Jeff Burr: Pumpkinhead II) of two forthcoming sequels to Monster Man and Fangoria.com recently announced that Muir and Burr were working on something called Snake Attack. I think I need to track down Domonic Muir and find out what he’s been up to in those intervening two decades.
MJS rating: A