October 4, 2011

Critters is a modest sleeper, all the more unexpected because it appears to be nothing more than another of the occasional rip-offs of Gremlins.

And, in fact, it is another rip-off of Gremlins, but it’s quite cheerful about its borrowings, and hard to dislike. The film’s tone, like Gremlins, is comic-scary, but it doesn’t have the distasteful spoofiness of some imitators.

The movie’s about some bowling-ball-sized renegade beasties who escape their planet and zoom across the galaxy on an inevitable collision course with the third planet from the sun. They’re chased by a pair of cosmic bounty hunters who can change their appearance to fit the planet they work on (these guys are borrowed from The Terminator).

On the way, one hunter tunes in to MTV, and he metamorphoses into the appearance of a fictional rock star (a funny idea that isn’t really developed).

Everybody crash-lands in a Kansas cow field, near the house of your typical all-American family. The critters invade the house and terrorize the family, while the bounty hunters go into the small town nearby and search for the fugitives, meanwhile knocking things around pretty good.

These critters are furry, with large mouths and three or four rows of teeth. They speak in intergalacticese, but subtitles make their language comprehensible (and, incidentally, provide the biggest laugh of the movie when a critter uses an earthbound expletive).

The little guys are distinguished not by their cunning, but by their ferocity. They love biting into a leg or a shoulder and holding on for dear life.

Co-writer and director Stephen Herek leans heavily on the comedy, but he keeps the suspense genuine (will the family be able to hold off the critters until the bounty hunters get there?) and he doesn’t trivialize the family. It helps that he cast good actors as the parents (Dee Wallace Stone and Billy Green Bush), and a lively kid (Scott Grimes) as the precocious son who gets the family out of a few scrapes.

The local color in the town is provided by M. Emmett Walsh (Blood Simple) as the sheriff and Don Opper (Android) as the town simpleton, who believes he picks up alien radio conversations in the fillings of his teeth.

Herek’s aim is too small, and finally a bit too silly, to attract the crossover crowd that made Gremlins a huge hit. The popularity of Critters will probably be limited to those who are fans of the genre already. But those fans are likely to get a kick out of it.

First published in the Herald, April 16, 1986

Fun movie. Herek’s next film was Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a very sharp effort that left the impression he might be a real comer, although he hasn’t fulfilled the quirky promise (he had a family-film success with the first Mighty Ducks picture and competently did the Oscar-bait thing with Mr. Holland’s Opus). Don Opper, a memorable presence, stuck with the Critters sequels, one of which, Critters 3, was Leonardo DiCaprio’s first movie.