I’m gonna kick this off with a confession: Before agreeing to write this piece, I had never seen Critters...
...I barely knew what a Critter was, let alone that their scientific name is Crite. I had a sense that Crites were a sort of Gremlins knock-off, but then again, everybody says that. I even told my friend I didn’t know what to write about Critters, and she said, “Isn’t Critters basically Gremlins?” What a bummer, that one of the main legacies of your film is, “Isn’t that just like that other movie?” Practically the very first factoid you get about Critters on Wikipedia and on its IMDB Trivia page is that director/writer Stephen Herek had the idea for Critters years before Gremlins was released. It’s just an odd coincidence, and one they tried to avoid by modifying the original script to stand out from Gremlins, released almost two years before Critters.
But after watching all five Critters films over this last week, for the recent anniversary of the first film, I’ve gained a solid appreciation for those little Tasmanian devil/porcupine/furball bastards. I can see why they live on in the hearts and minds of many a fan, more than three decades after they first graced the silver screen. Because they’re not just Gremlins-adjacent. The Crites are bloodier, raunchier, and hungrier. Gremlins begin their franchise as adorable lil Furby floofs and gradually become a nigh-unstoppable evil. The Crites, on the other hand, kick off their franchise by escaping an intergalactic prison, by being such hardcore badasses that the guards at this space-prison have to put two of them down.
If I’ve learned anything this week from my Critters binge, it’s this: Gremlins could learn a thing or two from the Crites.
That’s why I thought it’d be nice to take a moment and celebrate these roly-poly sons-a-bitches and list some of the things I appreciate about them. I mean, people ask me all the time why I like horror so much. What is it about movies like Critters that gets me goin? Well, in the case of the Crites, my short answer is that they love a good cheeseburger and they stick together (sometimes literally). That’s something I can get behind.
But my long answer is this:
Crites Have Their Own Villains
The first Critters (released in April 1986, directed by Stephen Herek, who went on to direct Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Mr. Holland’s Opus, among others) opens with a pair of bounty hunters, Ug and Lee (which, by the way, awesome), who are tasked with hunting the Crites down no matter what. They watch a little space-TV to get a sense of Earth, and shift their faces accordingly, into humans. The process is effectively ooky, with some amazingly squishy ADR work. It positions the bounty hunters as a second antagonist after the Crites. But as the film moves on and we meet the Browns, our rural hero family, it sort of becomes apparent that everyone in this film has an antagonist. Tweenager Brad Brown (Scott Grimes) clashes with his dad Jay (Billy Green Bush), the town drunk Charlie (Don Keith Opper) clashes with almost everybody… Giving the Crites someone they’re trying to avoid as well puts them on an even playing field with our other characters, making them immediately sympathetic. Just like Brad doesn’t want to be locked in his room after accidentally hitting his sister with his slingshot, the Crites don’t want to be locked up either.
Who does, right?
Crites Swear Like Pirates
The Crites don’t have nearly the sense of humor that Gremlins do, but they swear like nobody’s fuckin business. At one point in Critters, two Crites are taking a breather on the Browns’ front porch, just as the Browns have retreated into their home. “They have weapons,” one Crite observes. “So what?” asks another, just seconds before Helen Brown (Dee Wallace) blows him off the face of the earth with a shotgun. “Fuck!” shouts the first one. I mean, that’d be my reaction, too. And in Critters 2 (1988, dir. By Mick Garris), one of the Crites gets his hair shot off like he was wearing a toupee. He looks at his reflection and says, “Bitchin!”
Crites Have an Obsession With Food/Consumption
I’d be hard-pressed to find a solid through-line in the Critters films about any consumer or capitalist commentary. And I’m on my way to a PhD in Horror, so I could find one. But there is a sense, in the first two films, that food is something to be revered and respected. In the first Critters, a number of the scenes we get of the Browns occur around the table. We even meet the Browns over breakfast. Later, Jay brings Brad his dinner in his room, making food an entre to a more serious conversation. And earlier, Jay is pissed that his daughter’s boyfriend Steve (Billy Zane) is eating his food. In Critters 2, there’s an undertone that anyone who eats meat deserves to be punished. That carnivores are dirty sinners. A meat-eating junkman gets Crite-ed, for one. But vegan commentary aside, Crites embody that communion around the dinner table as much as families like the Browns do. There are so many scenes throughout the entire franchise when the action pauses and we get to see the Crites eating and laughing together. They’re a destructive force, yes, but what could be more human than a family sitting around, laughin, eatin burgers and chairs and stuffed animals and soap?
The Crites Reward Conspiracy Theorists
Like any good horror movie villain, the Crites reward those who pay attention. Those who believe in the signs and take the proper precautions. My favorite example of this is in the fifth film, Critters Attack! (2019, dir. Bobby Miller), when a guy strips off his shirt to go run outside, saying, “Listen, I don’t believe in monsters.” This is the inherent fun of any shlocky horror flick, of course: the moment we get to shake our heads and say, “Listen, good luck with that.” We know we’d survive the Crites at least a little while longer than this bozo because us horror fans know how to listen to the signs. How to believe. And those who do not have faith, who are too stubborn to believe in little green men—or little furry eatin machines—are summarily punished.
The Crites Always Attack a Bucolic Atmosphere
In the first Critters, after we meet the bounty hunters, we transition quickly to a pleasant, rural atmosphere: the Brown family farm. The camera lingers on a sizable B-roll of cliché rural images, which are all echoed in the second film’s opening, but now overgrown and left behind, as the Browns have moved away. Even Critters 3 (1991, dir. Kristine Peterson) opens with a family in their car singing the most bucolic Americana song out there: “Big Rock Candy Mountains.” These opening images lend each film a sense of relatively peaceful, idealistic American life. Helen Brown’s house-dress in the first film is a great example of that ideal, too. And the Crites, in turn, present an obvious invasive force to this ideal, devouring everything in their path. Do they represent Time, eating away at small-town life until it’s gone? Are the Crites Death itself, come for us all? Could you view the Crites’ attack on Easter in Critters 2 as some anti-Christian agenda? Sure. Fact is, I think they’re whatever you think they are. And I think that’s what makes them effectively frightening and fun.
Crites Only Kill People Who Deserve It
This is one of the many reasons I wasn’t fully onboard with the Critters Attack!, the 2019 entry in the franchise. The Crites do, indeed, attack anybody in that film. In the original series, it’s easy to track who they might pounce upon, and only those who seem to deserve it die. There’s the shithead property manager in Critters 3, the grumpy sheriff dressed as the Easter rabbit in Critters 2, and Billy Zane in the first one, who ate Jay’s cooking (I guess you can count that?). But in Attack! they’re just attackin anybody. A group of unsuspecting park rangers, some random townsfolk… Not fair. Otherwise, just like Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers, any number of the other greats—the Crites only feed upon those who sin. Well, “sin,” according to their own logic.
And the funny thing is, this is how I feel in real life, too: very little tolerance for others’ bullshit, drama, and nonsense. One small offense, and I’m ready to eat ya. Did I learn that outlook from the philosophy of films like this? Or do I find these films comforting because they embody that idea? Chicken or the egg?
Hard to say. But the Crites certainly scratch an itch. The same way a good Friday the 13th does: only sinners get slashed.
Crites Always Survive
The end of Critters 2 presents an interesting scenario. On one side, we have the angry mob of the town, complete with torches and pitchforks, hellbent on ousting their adorable invaders. Then we have the Crites, another tight-knit community, on the other side. So tight-knit, in fact, that they glom together into a giant ball in order to escape an explosion. So here’s the question: What side do you want to be on? Either way, you’re part of a collective, and the Critters films praise that idea: those who band together always survive. But which pack do you want to join? The angry human one? Or the one that survives a fuckin explosion by glomming together into a giant freaking ball and rolling away? To me, that’s a question akin to, like, which lightsaber would you rather have? Because the coolest lightsabers belong to the dark side. Sorry, not sorry. Say what you will about the prequels, but Darth Maul’s saber? General Grievous’ four sabers at once? Hot damn, y’all. Come on.
So my answer is easy: I’d be the ones who survive the explosion. Who survive period, no matter what.
Crites Rarely Miss
One of the best aspects of the Crites is their ability to shoot poison darts at people, making them sleepy and disoriented. During the entire original four-film franchise, I counted exactly one time when the Crites straight-up missed their target with their porcupine barbs. I even said aloud, “Wow, they missed,” because I was so used to them hitting their mark. And I just think that’s impressive, five stars.
Crites’ Intentions Are Pure
Critters 4 (1992, dir. Rupert Harvey) is arguably the worst entry in the franchise (my official ranking is 23154. Don’t hate me). But it does bring us a young Angela Bassett, Brad Dourif, and Leo Johnson from Twin Peaks. At one point, Fran (Bassett) is taking a shower when the creepy captain of her ship (Anders Hove) interrupts her and tries to pull the ole, “Want me to join you?” She decks him (go Bassett!), and he turns tail. But listen: If Crites were going to interrupt your shower, you know they’re only doing it for one reason. A singular, pure intention. In fact, in Critters Attack! they do interrupt a guy’s shower, and they do it only for food.
I can respect that.
Crites Barely Play By the Rules
Like any great horror movie villain, Crites hardly play by a strict set of rules. Just as other slashers seem to teleport around at will and have varying degrees of indestructability, the Crites change the way they play their game all the time. Call it sloppy writing, but I think it’s just Crites being Crites, having a rollicking good time. Because that’s the thing—Crites are never having a bad time. They’re always smiling, always having a gas. Sometimes they grow to twenty times their original size. Sometimes loud noises make them explode. Sometimes they can glom together into a giant ball. Sometimes they seem to breed their young in the warmth of a recent kill, rather than in eggs. They do whatever the hell they want, and I respect that, too.
Out of everything, I think that’s my favorite lesson I learned from Critters this week, and one I hope to carry for another thirty-five years at least.
So thank you, Crites. Don’t believe what the haters say. You ain’t Gremlins. You’re your own beast. And you ain’t half-bad after all.
By Sam Rebelein