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Credit: New Line Cinema

How Critters, a Gremlins 'knockoff,' spawned a horror comedy franchise

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Apr 11, 2021, 12:10 PM EDT (Updated)

A bunch of tiny, furry, and swiftly reproducing monsters terrorize small-town America. It sounds like the premise of the ‘80s cult classic Gremlins. But Critters, a tongue-in-cheek horror comedy also directed by a protégé of exploitation maestro Roger Corman, shares the same elevator pitch. And, because it arrived in 1986 — just two years after the impossibly cute-turned-murderous puppets known as Mogwai first hit screens — Critters was inevitably, yet unfairly, dismissed as a pure knock-off.   

Stephen Herek has always insisted that his directorial debut, which turns 35 on April 11, was conceived long before Joe Dante explored the dangers of feeding antique store-bought pets after midnight. Alongside co-writers Domonic Muir and Don Keith Opper, he even went through the script with a fine-tooth comb to remove as many similarities as possible after being beaten to the punch. That's perhaps more effort than the makers of Munchies, Hobgoblins, and the countless other small creature features that popped up quicker than the furballs out of Gizmo's body. And it largely paid off, too.

Indeed, once you get past the basic premise, Critters proves to be a different beast, with its picturesque rural setting and blank-faced alien warriors steeped more in the sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s than Dante's box office smash. The whole thing even begins in deep space!

Yes, known as Krites, those destructive critters are, in fact, extra-terrestrial prisoners who, after escaping from a spaceship bound for a different asteroid jail, seek both refuge and sustenance on planet Earth. Unfortunately, for the remote Kansas town they land in, their diet consists solely of live flesh, and the two shape-shifting bounty hunters in hot pursuit prove to be just as chaos-inducing, too.

Blessed with the fangs of a piranha, the spikes of a hedgehog, and the wild red eyes of a Tasmanian devil, the Krites are faster and much nastier than anything that Gremlins had to offer. Designed by Charles Chiodo, one-third of the sibling special effects team who'd later spark a rise in coulrophobia with Killer Klowns from Outer Space, they even drop a few F-bombs (with the aid of subtitles, of course). It may have shared a PG-13 rating with its most obvious predecessor, but there's a reason why you never saw any Critters merchandise in the toy aisles.

Still, Herek shows a surprising amount of restraint in teasing their big reveal. You have to wait for the 35-minute mark — when the man of the Brown household Jay (Billy 'Green' Bush) is attacked in his basement — to get a first good look at the nightmarish creations. Instead, most of Critters' first third plays out like an offbeat Coen Brothers comedy.

There's the alcoholic faded star (Opper) who believes his teeth fillings are picking up signals from outer space; the young friend (Scott Grimes) who shares his passion for homemade pyrotechnics and the grouchy sheriff (M. Emmet Walsh); and his receptionist (Lin Shaye) more interested in the National Enquirer than keeping law and order ("This here says that John Travolta used to be a waitress in Fort Myers").

But once the town, and the Brown family, in particular, realizes they're under siege, Herek goes hell-for-leather, ramping up the blood and gore (a young Billy Zane gets a particularly undignified death), throwing in several inspired physical gags and obliterating pretty much every building in sight. The critters, however, can't take all the credit for such carnage.

Keen exponents of the "shoot first, ask questions later" approach, Jeremy Lawrence and Terrence Mann nearly steal the show as the once-featureless bounty hunters who gatecrash a Baptist church service, wreck a bowling alley and morph into everyone from preachers to fictional hair metal stars named Johnny Steele. Be warned: the latter's hilariously terrible "Power of the Night" is also a pitch-perfect pastiche that will permanently lodge itself inside your brain.

Herek may have tried to remove all traces of Gremlins from the final script but he had no qualms about referencing other pop culture. There are nods to Ghostbusters (see the bowlers' uniforms), Orson Welles' War of the Worlds (the town's name of Grover's Bend), and mother Dee Wallace Stone's biggest hit (the poor E.T. doll that gets decapitated by a Krite). You could never accuse Critters of taking itself too seriously.

Despite a lack of big names and a concept many believed had been already executed to perfection just two years previously, Critters did respectable numbers at the box office, earning back its $3 million budget more than four times over. Remarkably, the franchise it spawned proved to have longer legs than Gremlins' too.

Admittedly, this is very much a case of quantity over quality. Directed by Mick Garris (Herek bailed after studio New Line Cinema didn't give him the budget his vision required), the 1988 sequel The Main Course was an entertaining enough retread of the original which confirmed that those closing shot's eggs did hatch after all.

But 1991's Critters 3, which famously gave a young Leonardo DiCaprio his inauspicious big-screen debut, proved the joke had worn thin. And despite the best efforts of ever-presents Mann and Opper — and a relatively unknown Angela Bassett (Critters' casting team were seriously on the ball!) — the following year's fourth installment adhered to the rule that horror franchises going to space = creative bankruptcy.  

We've not even mentioned the 2019 reboot Critters Attack!, which saw Stone reprise her original role or the eight-part Shudder series The New Breed that arrived that same year, both of which received middling reviews. In contrast, Gremlins put its critters to bed after 1990's underrated The New Batch, although HBO Max will soon drop an animated prequel series that has already been given a second season.

Had Critters not produced so many inferior offshoots, or indeed got there first as future Disney regular Herek claims, then it may well have been remembered just as fondly as Gizmo and co. Even Dante has acknowledged that rip-off or not, the genre parody is worthy of his blessing. And who knows, without it, the man widely considered Hollywood's greatest modern-day actor may have become filed under "Where Are They Now?"