When you end up with a hit movie, chances are good that someone is going to try and copy your success. After Jaws made you afraid to go into the ocean there came Piranha, Tentacles, and Orca: The Killer Whale. So…after Joe Dante’s Gremlins was a hit in the summer of 1985, we saw a wave of little monster movies, including Ghoulies, Munchies, and, of course, Critters.
Critters takes place in the town of Grover’s Bend, Kansas, which seems to be located in the part of Kansas where there are mountains in the distance!?! It seems that a spaceship has landed on the farm of the Brown family. The ship was carrying 8 escapees from a prison asteroid, a voracious species conveniently called “Crites.” The Crites have one thing on their mind, to feed…and apparently they’ll feed on anything. The more they eat, the more they grow. Hot on their trail are two shape shifting bounty hunters intent on destroying the Crites…even if that means shooting up the local bowling alley. In fact, one could make a case that the bounty hunters do more damage than the Crites.
Various sources online show the makers of Critters claim that their film was in the works long before the success of Gremlins. In fact, they even claim to have changed their story a bit to avoid too many similarities. For what it’s worth, Critters is a much more violent film than Gremlins. The Mogwai of that film did terrible things to people, but they were just mischievous. The Crites, on the other hand, want to eat the people. We end up with fingers being bitten off and plenty of gaping bloody wounds. Though the way they role around like giant dung beetle balls is kind of humorous, for the most part, these little guys are pretty vicious. They’ve got glowing red eyes, their teeth are nasty looking, and they even shoot spikes out their fuzzy little heads. This was an early PG-13 film (that rating started in 1984) which made full use of the new freedoms that rating offered.
I guess we can give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t get their idea from Gremlins, but they’d have a hard time making the case that they didn’t borrow significantly from the work of Steven Spielberg…who was an executive producer on Gremlins. Many scenes in Critters come right out of the playbook for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Observe…
– Characters slowly search through the thick fog while carrying oversized flashlights.
– We don’t actually see what the Crites look like until almost 40 minutes into the film…Spielberg used this slow reveal in both E.T. and Jaws.
– When we do finally see the Crites, one of the first shots is of one sitting amongst stuffed animals, like in E.T.
– There are shots as if we are seeing out of the eyes of the Crites chasing people, like similar shots of E.T. running from police at the beginning of that film.
– To top it all off…the mom in this film is Dee Wallace Stone, the mom from E.T.
There is even a scene where a Crite eats an E.T. doll. And it’s not just E.T. they borrowed from. One shot of a spaceship zooming over a country road is clearly an homage to a famous shot from another Spielberg film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
There are several attempts at humor, but the film is too violent for the humor to win out. I mean how can you laugh too much when Billy Zane gets his fingers bitten off and is left in the barn to die when a Crite bites into his stomach? Billy Zane, man!?!?
Three sequels followed this film…Critters 2: The Main Course was the only one that got a theatrical release. But Critters 3 featured Leonardo Di Caprio and Critters 4 had Angela Bassett. Perhaps we’ll check out the sequels in future posts.
In the end, I guess Critters is one of those films that is too violent to call it “fun” and too goofy to take it seriously.