As befits the approaching holiday season, OP-dEaD will soon pay tribute to Gremlins, Joe Dante’s masterpiece of mid-80s monster mayhem. But for now, we’ll make do with a close cousin: Stephen Herek’s Critters. In the wake of Gremlins’ success, director/co-writer Herek’s inspired debut was probably the only movie to come close in terms of success and relative critical praise. It left comparable, second-rate fare like Ghoulies and Munchies in the dust, and spawned three decent sequels. However, the comparison to Gremlins is a tad unwarranted. For one thing, according to Wikipedia, Critters was in development before its illustrious predecessor. And the similarities between the two are fairly superficial. In my opinion, Critters is more the bastard, spiny-backed offspring of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
Fans know that E.T. started out a very different proposition. The suburban setting was the same, but Steven Spielberg initially envisioned the alien visitors to be downright vicious. In these early stages, his next project after Raiders of the Lost Ark was titled Night Skies. But at some point during pre-production, Spielberg changed his mind and the result was the cuddly little guy who trounced box office records in 1982. Rather than scrap the idea for Night Skies entirely, though, Spielberg got Tobe Hooper on board and the discarded project morphed into Poltergeist, another box office winner from the same year. And as a kind of completely unrelated what if?, Herek served up his mean-spirited space porcupines in 1986.
Critters has a simple and wacky setup, as a band of malevolent little creatures escape from a prison asteroid and hightail it to Earth. These fugitives from interstellar law, or “Crites,” have a couple of deadpan bounty hunters on their tails, and the whole thing is obviously played with tongue firmly in cheek. Choice moments include the bounty hunters crashing into a church, a critter’s vain attempt at eating a firecracker, and another one biting the head off of an E.T. doll when it fails to answer him. But the knowing approach doesn’t preclude an affectionate tone, most prominently conveyed here through the likeable Kansas family at the center of the mounting chaos. Herek is clearly fond of his characters (maybe even too fond), and he peppers proceedings with well-judged in-jokes.
Aside from the incident of stuffed alien mutilation, there are many other deliberate echoes of E.T. Dee Wallace Stone, who played the mother in both movies, is the most obvious parallel. Scott Grimes, as the fresh-faced Bradley, tools around on his BMX bicycle, just like Elliot did. And when he ventures out into the mist with his father (Billy Green Bush), it’s hard not to be reminded of all the flashlight action in E.T. Nadine Van Der Velde plays Bradley’s older sister. She’s a bit stuck-up in the early scenes, but we warm to her eventually. Robert MacNaughton had a similar function as the older brother in E.T. The ship in which the critters have escaped, or at least its entryway, is also a clear reference to E.T.’s vessel—albeit much cheaper!
As a dose of 80s entertainment, Critters works a treat. The central family plays it straight, while the bounty hunters, town oddballs and critters provide the comic relief. Tim Surhstedt’s photography lends a lovely golden glow to the daytime scenes, and composer David Newman does a credible John Williams/Jerry Goldsmith pastiche. Things do fall apart toward the end, but not enough to erase a positive impression. Critters is the kind of innocent movie that nobody makes anymore. It’s fun.
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