When it comes to the “tiny-terror” subgenre of horror movies that rose to prominence in the 1980s, some would think first of Joe Dante’s 1984 hit GREMLINS. But for others, the mini-monster movie franchise that springs to mind will forever be CRITTERS, starring those tiny, razor-toothed, bouncing space porcupines with an attitude as voracious as their appetite, featuring memorable special effects, a surprising number of prominent names in front of and behind the camera, and slapstick mixed with slaughter.
It’s been 30 years since CRITTERS first crash-landed into theaters — so I thought it would be fun to revisit the little monster franchise that could!
The critters — or “Krites” as they’re known throughout the galaxy — are a vicious species so dangerous that the galactic government has ordered their execution for the common good. Proving smarter and hungrier than their captors expected, the Krites escape custody and steal a faster-than-light ship to find something good to eat.
In this case, the Krites end up in Grover’s Mill, Kansas — putting the rural Brown family under siege and all humanity on their menu. All the while, two shape-shifting bounty hunters, Ug and Lee, pursue the beasts without much care for collateral damage.
One of the greatest strengths of CRITTERS is its surprisingly expansive sense of background — fugitive aliens, bounty hunters, a local UFO crackpot, and more — and much love for the critters themselves, who are genuinely amusing but just as deadly, having multiple abilities like rolling into balls for high speed, venomous quills, and razor-sharp teeth that can gnaw through anything.
Many of these skills come into play during their attack on Dee Wallace Stone’s character, in which they talk to one another in a subtitled alien language. When Dee turns one critter into chunky salsa with her shotgun, the other can only respond with the Krite version of “Fuck!” When’s the last time a monster dropped an F-bomb?
The Chiodo Brothers, whose claim to FX fame includes the cult classic KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE, brought the critters to life, with the perfect balance between silly and scary… not to mention the two alien bounty hunters, who became mainstays to the series and added a unique element of allies to our rural heroes caught in the crossfire. Ug takes the form of a heavy metal rock star he sees on TV, while Lee shifts appearance constantly, according to whomever it sees.
CRITTERS is the directorial debut of Stephen Herek, who also co-wrote the script with Dominic Muir, along with series regular Don Keith Opper — who also plays Charlie, the mechanic-turned-bounty hunter. Though often accused of attempting to rip off GREMLINS, the script had actually been in development well beforehand, and underwent further edits to distance itself from Dante’s Christmas creature classic. Despite these similarities (or perhaps because of them), CRITTERS premiered in April of 1986 from New Line Cinema to box office success — leading to the following three sequels:
CRITTERS 2: THE MAIN COURSE (1988)
Taking place two years after the isolated critter attack on the Brown farmstead, the town of Grover’s Mill is trying to move on when young Brad Brown (played again by Scott Grimes) returns to visit just in time for Easter. Unfortunately, there’s more than just candy to be found when a couple of locals discover a bushel of strange objects and… yup, they’re Krite eggs. They hatch, of course, leading a new generation of the frightening furballs to lay siege to the entire town! Ug, Lee, and Charlie return to fight the horde… but is it already too late to put an end to their feeding frenzy?
CRITTERS 2 is a horror sequel done right — more aliens, a higher body count, and even more over the top! It’s also the feature debut of genre icon Mick Garris, who did a phenomenal job escalating all the traits of the previous movie to new heights — as well as adding an almost Western style to the story as the townspeople, bounty hunters, and a revolver-toting sheriff have to band together against this threat… including the now iconic “Critter-Ball,” as you can see in action here:
In case you skipped the clip, our heroes can be seen attempting to kill the Krites by luring them into a meat locker and blowing them up… but instead, the little alien bastards bust out, merged together in one giant, flesh-stripping fuzzball of death, capable of reducing a grown man to a skeleton in seconds like a swarm of land-based piranha.
CRITTERS 3 (1991)
You just can’t keep a good critter down. As it turns out, the Krites weren’t quite destroyed enough in the last film, and Charlie the mechanic-turned-bounty-hunter-turned sheriff gives chase. A family from the city gets more than they bargained for when Critter eggs end up in their car — unwittingly bringing them to their apartment complex, resulting in some DIE HARD-style siege action, with the occupants attempting to make an escape through the roof.
As with many franchises, once the series went straight to video, the quality took a bit of a downturn. Still, there are reasons to revisit this entry — not the least of which being that CRITTERS 3 is the feature debut of a certain young Leonardo DiCaprio! Needless to say, this is one entry in the now Oscar-winning actor’s career that doesn’t get brought up all too often.
CRITTERS 4 (1992)
Taking place directly after the previous movie (and shot back-to-back as well), this installment finds Charlie’s with his hands on the last two Krite eggs in existence. He’s ready to smash them when he gets an abrupt holographic message from Ug and the “High Council” stating that now, under galactic law, they can’t make a species extinct — no matter how harmful. Charlie is adamant, to say the least, in his mission to eradicate the Krites. But as he loads the eggs into a cryogenic probe… he falls in too! Charlie and the eggs are frozen, adrift in space for 50 years, until getting picked up by a small spaceship hoping to make a quick payday from their find — only to get one confused bounty hunter and a couple of hungry, hungry critters.
The final (so far) entry in the CRITTERS canon follows that oft-mocked trend of sending a horror sequel into space, but oddly, unlike LEPRECHAUN or HELLRAISER, this is one of the few times where such a move actually makes sense; after all, the critters themselves are space aliens to begin with. Still, it does fall a bit too hard into territory already treaded by the ALIEN franchise with subplots involving an evil corporation hoping to use the critters for… well, evil, I guess. Still, like the previous direct-to-video entry, despite a dip in quality and budget, CRITTERS 4 still has its moments — and some surprising actors attached, including Angela Bassett in a lead role, and Brad Dourif with both a memorable appearance and death scene.
So here we are — thirty years since the original, and twenty-four years since the last CRITTERS movie. There was some talk about a CRITTERS web series a few years back… but there hasn’t been a word lately. Still, like the end of almost every CRITTERS film, I’m sure they’re just hibernating… and waiting to hatch again!