What Year?: 1986
Classification: Knockoff/ Parody
Rating: Pretty Good!
As I completed the previous entry in this feature, I have given thought to many more movies I might cover. My most important decision has been on the time frame, and my settled preference is around 1975 to 1985. I have further reflected just how many movies I've considered fail or come close that criteria alone, especially on the 1980s side. Westworld, 1973. Zardoz, 1974. Lifeforce and The Falling, 1985. Terrorvision, 1986. The Gate and The Hidden, 1987. Mac And Me, Deep Space and Killer Clowns From Outer Space, 1988. Dead Space, 1991. I will probably cover at least some of these. But the one I would definitely bend the rules for is this film.
As usual with this subgenre, the story is simple and quickly set up. In the far reaches of the galaxy, a group of aliens called the Crites hijack a ship taking them to an interstellar prison, and a warden sends two shape-shifting bounty hunters to pursue them. The next stop is a farm on planet Earth where the Crites go to ground, revealing themselves as fast, voracious and venomous terrier-sized predators. While the monsters proceed to lay siege to the farm and devour several humans, the bounty hunters arrive and tear up a nearby town. As the battle continues, the surviving humans kill several Crites but are left wounded and drugged. A plucky kid escapes for help, and inevitably returns with the bounty hunters, just in time to team up against a Crite that has eaten enough to grow to giant size and run off with a human hostage. It all ends with charm and a few decent twists, followed by the completely predictable closing shot to set up a sequel franchise.
Critters was the best of a crop of ripoffs and knockoffs in the wake of Gremlins. I rate it as a knockoff separate from a ripoff because it is moderately later than the evident source material, and especially because of the high level of creativity invested in the final product. The best touches come from creature effects by the Chiodo Brothers, who went on to direct Killer Clowns. The Crites/ Critters look as satisfyingly nasty as they act, and they have a level of agility that was especially elusive with "practical" creature effects. Their signature moves are shooting poisonous quills and rolling along like tumbleweeds when they advance or retreat. In a further nuance, they have a believable level of vulnerability. They take losses to ordinary weapons, mainly a mother's shotgun, while holding the clear advantage in a battle of attrition. It's all livened up by short bits of dialogue between Critters. If I had to pick the usual "one scene", it would be an encounter between two Critters and the mother, already so iconic I got an auto complete when I started to enter the line in a search.
But I'm going to make another departure from form and talk about those bounty hunters. The Critters are fun, but these two make the movie a thing of beauty. There's no one scene I will point to, because only the full movie together will show just how totally and bizarrely incompetent they are. The best frame of reference is the Prime Directive from Star Trek, simply because they do the opposite at every opportunity in the most egregious possible way. The mind can boggle trying to figure out what their manual looks like. Don't acquire or imitate native dress. Don't seek help from local authorities, including friends and family of people you are specifically impersonating. Openly use advanced technology in view of the populace, regardless of whether you need it. If you must communicate with the natives, don't explain terms known only to you, and don't hesitate to threaten them when they don't give an answer to questions they couldn't possibly understand.
In hindsight, Critters was the beginning of the end of an era. It proved that even a low-budget film could have top-notch special effects, and it also showed that a "knockoff" production could still give its source(s) a serious and original treatment. I personally find Critters better than Gremlins in many ways, in large part because its creatures could be funny without being forced to act "cute". But few of the movies that would follow, including its own sequels, would equal it, and soon enough the advent of CGI would sweep them all away. So enjoy it for what it is, because we won't soon see its like again.