Critters – Introduction

A little late but here is Darrell Buxton’s introduction to Critters, that took place Friday 18th March. 

As bus driver Al Stevenson asks at the start of CRITTERS 2, “has your granny ever told you about those space porcupine things?”.

We’re nothing if not democratic here at QUAD, and have finally conceded to popular opinion. Ever since we started our ‘Fright Club’ screenings, it seems that the 1986 movie CRITTERS has been the most-requested title, and so it’s finally here.

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The late eighties saw a boom in movies featuring gangs, if not whole armies, of ravenous and mischievous little demon creatures, all kicked off of course by Joe Dante’s marvellous 1984 Christmas smash hit GREMLINS. The home video market demanded more of the same, but GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH took a further six years to emerge; in that interim period, a whole string of knock-offs were produced to fill the gap.

 

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Even before CRITTERS, 1985 had brought us GHOULIES, with its famous poster image of a miniature green monster grinning as it pops out of a toilet bowl, accompanied by the tagline “They’ll get you in the end!”. Unbelievably, GHOULIES made it to a four-picture series, with GHOULIES 2 in 1988, through to GHOULIES IV in 1995, with the irresistibly-named GHOULIES GO TO COLLEGE in between in 1991.

1986 brought us TROLL, directed by make-up and special effects ace John Carl Buechler, and featuring Michael Moriarty and Noah Hathaway as father-and-son characters both called ‘Harry Potter’, battling a powerful wizard who has been transformed into the title beastie. A young lad named Harry Potter? Involved in magic duels against a mythical entity? In 1986? Somebody somewhere might have been taking notes… TROLL of course also spawned a follow-up, the notorious Italian production TROLL 2, often considered a contender as “worst film of all time” and the subject of its own documentary, BEST WORST MOVIE, a smash hit at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas where it premiered in 2009. There were even a couple of different films which got released under the title TROLL 3, such being the haphazard way of the Italian film business!

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The editor of GREMLINS, Bettina Hirsch, directed her own GREMLINS rip-off, MUNCHIES, in 1987, with a quartet of beer-swilling, junk food-addict, womanising little imps developing from some fossilised remains discovered in Peru. Two later films, MUNCHIES and MUNCHIES STRIKES BACK, claimed to continue the series but were really nothing more than poor, watered-down fantasy films aimed at kids. In 1988 director Rick Sloane offered yet another cash-in, HOBGOBLINS, which became a Mystery Science Theater 3000 favourite and which amazingly got a belated sequel 21 years later! And 1989’s barely-released ELVES might sound promising, but sadly the title isn’t an honest one since we only see one on-screen evil elf; though the plot – featuring Nazi breeding experiments and a department store Santa played by Dan Haggerty from ‘Grizzly Adams’  – is crazier than Christmas.

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But the high-spot of all this post-GREMLINS anarchy has to be the CRITTERS series, made by New Line, the company behind the successful NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise. There’s a lovely gag involving Freddy Krueger in CRITTERS 2, by the way. If you were here in October for our screening of KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE, you’ll be pleased to know that the Chiodo Brothers, the team behind the Klowns, were also responsible for designing, building and puppeteering the spiny, toothy, insatiable little fiends in CRITTERS. The first film, released in 1986, was directed by Stephen Herek, who used it as the springboard for a very successful career as he later made BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, 101 DALMATIANS, THE MIGHTY DUCKS, the Charlie Sheen/Kiefer Sutherland version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and the drama MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS which secured an Oscar nomination for its star Richard Dreyfuss. More recently Herek has directed episodes of the revived ‘Dallas’ and ‘Hawaii Five-O’ TV shows, and something called DOLLY PARTON’S COAT OF MANY COLORS, which I admit I have yet to encounter…

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CRITTERS is set in the same sort of white picket fence/carefully tended flowerbeds/mom’s apple pie environment as one of 1986’s other notable cinema offerings, BLUE VELVET, although it has to be said that rather more damage and destruction gets done to the picket fence here. The cast is filled with cult favourites  – Dee Wallace had starred in Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING but had since settled nicely into dependable motherly roles, and delivers a fine example of that here in the tradition of her turns in E.T. and CUJO. The great character actor M. Emmet Walsh had stolen the show in the Coen Brothers’ debut BLOOD SIMPLE not long before being cast as the Sheriff in CRITTERS, and he’s a welcome presence as ever, making the most of that unique style of  ‘Deputy Dawg’ dialogue delivery where he seems to miss out part of every other syllable but somehow conveys meaning galore via that honeydew Southern drawl of his. You’ll also spot a young Billy Zane, getting some action in the hayloft in more ways than one; and how nice it is to see gap-toothed Don Opper in a substantial role  – Don had starred in a brilliant low-key science fiction movie called ANDROID in the early eighties, and really deserved to go on to enjoy a major career on the back of his performance there. He’s credited with writing additional scenes for CRITTERS, which may well suggest that he amended and beefed up some of his own dialogue  – he’s very much that sort of actor, and it’s to the film’s benefit. Don went on to appear in all four CRITTERS movies.

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Speaking of those sequels, CRITTERS 2 arrived in 1988 with many of the original cast returning. Mick Garris, a former Universal Studios publicity and promotions man, directed, one of his earliest assignments prior to adapting several Stephen King bestsellers for American TV in the 1990s and then creating and masterminding the excellent ‘Masters of Horror’ series in 2005. CRITTERS 2 sees the outer space Crites killing the Easter Bunny, amongst other atrocities! CRITTERS 3 takes the Crites to L.A., where they invade a high-rise apartment block – a teenage actor with a few television credits on his CV made his motion picture debut here, in the role of ‘Josh’. Whatever did happen to Leonardo DiCaprio, I wonder? Likewise, CRITTERS 4 took the toothy title monsters back away into space, and featured among its cast Angela Bassett, just a few short years away from her acclaimed starring roles in TINA: WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT and MALCOLM X.

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If four CRITTERS films still isn’t sufficient to satisfy your Crite-like appetites, then last week Adam J Marsh uncovered and posted on Facebook a six-minute fan film, very professional-looking, called CRITTERS: BOUNTY HUNTER, which we’ll try to provide a link for at the QUAD ‘Fringes’ blog  – certainly worth a look.

If you were eight or nine when you saw CRITTERS, with its horde of hungry, toothy little furballs, juvenile lead character, and preponderance of hair metal and power balladry, it probably became your favourite movie. Being in my mid-twenties at the time, it wasn’t really for me and I can’t say I enjoyed it too much back then  – but watching CRITTERS again recently, it’s a breeze of a film, a real easy watch, and very, very entertaining. And naturally, being the eighties, of course, just when you think it’s all over…

Enjoy the flick, and if you want to see CRITTERS 2, 3, and 4 up on this screen in future, you know who to pester!

Here’s Johnny Steele with Power Of The Night

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