Thursday, October 9, 2014

Critters

As far as cheap knockoffs of Gremlins go, you could do worse than Critters (1986), a lot worse. Never scary or suspenseful, Critters works as a reasonably engaging monster romp that combines the family under siege scenario with a sci-fi bend and a sly sense of humor. It's not great, but it's fun.

Vicious, tiny aliens critters known as Crites escape an asteroid prison (that is to say a prison on an asteroid and not prison for asteroids), taking a spaceship to Earth where they begin munching on everything in sight and terrorizing a family on an isolated farm. Meanwhile, two alien bounty hunters are dispatched to take care of the Crites. The aliens can alter their faces, so one adopts the visage of a famous rock star and the other regularly changes his face to match the local he encounters, including the town preacher, village idiot, and sheriff's deputy. While the Crites eat everything they encounter, the bounty hunters blow up everything they encounter.

Let's see, we got M. Emmett Walsh as the local sheriff trying to figure out what's going on, Dee Wallace Stone as the mother who acts so distraught you'd think she didn't realize she was in a movie about furry little monsters with razor sharp teeth and poison quills they shoot out of their back, Billy Zane with an awesome ponytail as the rich boyfriend of the teenaged daughter, Billy Green Bush (I love that name) as the dad, and Scott Grimes as the kid who gets to be hero. There are also the series regulars: Don Opper as the idiotic, alien-conspiracy-obsessed Charlie (who reminds me of Forrest Gump without the accent) and Terrence Man (the poor man's Tim Curry) as the bounty hunter who looks like an 80s rocker, complete with big hair.

The plot unfolds more or less how you'd expect. The monsters show up, there are some establishing scenes of the family to establish their foibles, Walsh let's us know he's in the movie, the Critters make their presence known, the family barricades itself in the house and waits for a rescue before deciding to make a run for it and/or fight back.

Effects-wise, Critters works. The monsters aren't especially realistic, but they function and move well enough that their threat is believable. Director Stephen Herek keeps them in the shadows and doesn't linger on them too long when he does have them out in the open. Usually, we only see their red eyes, their fangs, or their quills as they shoot through the air. The balance of the effects include a model spaceships and the morphing faces of the bounty hunters. They're enjoyable in a campy way; it's a monster movie for kids.

There are two things that elevate Critters, though. The bounty hunters are one. Monster hunters are usually competent  or at least demonstrate they know what they're doing. These bounty hunters demonstrate poor marksmanship, detective skills, and basic diplomacy. Their idea of looking for the Crites is not to follow their trail but to march into a church and declare to its occupants they want the Crites, even though, having been briefed on the cultures of Earth, they should know that humans have no idea what Crites are or have had any contact with an alien life. They also respond to any perceived threat (like the church organ) by blowing it up and everything else around it. And they act so stern and humorless it becomes funny; these aliens have no idea how ridiculous they look.

The other joy of Critters are the critters themselves. Physically, there's nothing too fancy about them: fur balls with teeth that move around by rolling (although their POV shots remain steady). They swallow firecrackers with a burp. The movie takes the time gives them a personality. These little guys talk to each other, and the movie has fun by giving us subtitles. One critter, after watching a buddy blown away by a shotgun, exclaims, "Fuck!" Another critter gets set on fire, and he bolts for the nearest toilet bowl,where, upon diving in, he lets a relieved, "Ahh."

The critters also have an encounter with a stuffed ET doll, an encounter that begins with one of them asking Spielberg's famous alien who he is. When ET doesn't respond, the Crite rips his head off. So many movies give us mean, filthy aliens and monsters that presumably communicate among themselves, but it's nice of Critters to give us creatures that are that bad once you get to know them.

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