Case Number 03154: Small Claims Court


New Line // 1986 // 82 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // August 5th, 2003

The Charge

They bite!

The Case

On an interstellar penal colony, a group of criminal aliens steal a spaceship and chart a course for Earth. Some no-name cosmic council sends two gelatinous blob-faced bounty hunters after them. Apparently, the felonious Crites are incredibly deadly and need to be stopped before they can destroy the Big Blue Marble. When finally seen, it turns out that these terrors from beyond the stars are Tribbles with tons of teeth and Anna Nicole's appetite, and humans are the slop du jour for these downy dodgeballs. Landing near the Brown farm, it's not long before they discover the cattle, the poultry, and a couple of unfortunate bystanders. As the intergalactic terminators, disguised as famous Broadway actors, play hide and seek in an ever-weirder attempt to locate the repellant space rats, the Brown's find themselves ankle deep in meat-eating koosh toys. Eventually, liquored up town butthead Charlie leads the heat-packing heroes from Planet X to Rancho Rodentia and from then on, it's all explosions and alien animal splats. Seems that mankind with the help of quasi-man jelly, are the only combination clever enough to rid the world of the carnivorous Christmas ornaments known as Critters.

One year after Stephen Spielberg and Joe Dante pushed the PG-13 limits by sticking a little green goblin in a microwave and setting it on "explode," the purveyors of prepackaged terror, New Line Cinema, delivered its own skillful rip-off "adaptation" of extraterrestrial hedgehogs having a hissy fit and called it Critters. Surprisingly, the movie met with both critical and financial acceptance. For some, it was a complete throwback to the cheesy creature feature days when monsters were both menacing and amusing. There were even those who felt Critters was the movie Gremlins wanted to be, before it was womanized by the nummy muffin coockle butter BS of Gizmo and the other snuggly mogwai. Most agreed that the notion of fuming fur balls, gnashing their hundreds of teeth, chomping on the jugular vein and making bad puns (in alienese -- with subtitles) was wonderful. Indeed, there is a dark, discordant tone to Critters that soft soap like Gremlins stepped away from, hoping to avoid controversy and, as a direct result, reduced box office intake. With the added novelty of the shape-shifting cosmic bounty hunters and the tongue in cheek performances of its mostly no-name cast, the story of Grover's Bend, the Brown family, and an attack of hate-filled hand puppets spawned a mini-cottage industry for New Line. Never saying no to sequelizing the sugarwart out of something, the Nightmare on Elm Street's Mortal Kombat House Party people went on to milk the poor circular suckers for all they were worth. By the time Critters 4 came along, the premise was so dried out and near dead it was mistaken for Liza Minelli's career. And it's too bad, since the movie that started it all is a fairly decent little B picture.

Indeed, Critters is very reminiscent of the early '70s standard for invasion/giant animal/insect flicks, the kind of movie that AIP or Film Ventures International would have sprung on an unsuspecting drive-in public. It does follow the formula well. There is a limited location (the Brown household), the initial cat and mouse suspense, the death of a couple of ancillary characters, and the inevitable showdown between the forces of good and evil where lives and property are destroyed in an altruistic sense of sacrifice for the greater good. But Critters messes with this mandate a little, and adds elements that clip the clichés across the back of their pointed little heads. For example, one of the so-called heroes of the piece is Charlie, the alcoholic joke who practically stumbles into the action and provides limited, if eventually necessary, support for the goofy goings-on. Then there are the mutating men from Mars (or wherever) who can shift their shape to conform to any humanoid façade. Their interaction with the local population of Grover's Bend is a highlight of the film. But it's young redheaded Scott Grimes who steals this movie from everyone else. Unlike the typical teen or tyke in terror, Scott's Brad Brown is an explosives expert who desperately wants to save his family from the evil spheres of fluff. While he may be a tad too touchy-feely (he tends to end every line of dialogue with a super sized bear hug), his spunky resolve is a main reason why Critters works. He and the rest of the cast (along with director Stephen Herrick) are trying hard to make you believe the absurd events occurring. Critters may not have the family friendly ring of Mr. Amblin's animal antics, but what it lacks in cutesy it makes up for in claret.

You'd think that a film that's as fondly remembered as the original Critters would get some kind of special edition treatment from New Line. After all, this was one of their bigger titles and it did spawn a few extra franchise moments. But instead of laying on the added content, New Line does something very strange -- they go and hide the only legitimate bonus on the whole DVD as an Easter egg. Accessible by highlighting the menu screen Critter's eyes (they turn red), you get a five-minute alternate ending to the film. Now, this critic actually saw Critters in the theater upon its initial release and, unfortunately, he is in a bit of a quandary. He cannot tell if the ending on the film itself was the ending he saw in the theater, or if the alternate ending offered is actually the ending he remembers. He doesn't remember the house "rebuilding" itself (so-called original ending) and does recall the kind of "we're screwed, let's leave" finality of the bonus. So you get to take your pick. If you want the Brown's semi-rewarded for what they have done, pick the official ending. If you want to see a more realistic conclusion to the film, stick with the Easter egg version. The only other added material is a series of trailers for the other Critters pics (DVD-ROM content was unavailable). This may explain why the image looks so good on this DVD (the sound is unremarkable). New Line has done an excellent job of transferring this mostly at night film to the digital medium and the results are clear and clean with little or no compression defects. They also retain the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, as well as providing those with limited cinematic appreciation an open matte full screen edition to enjoy. For all its bandwagon riding swindle attributes, Critters stands on its own as a funky little fiend fright flick that's more nostalgic than nauseating. It may not have a certain Hollywood hit maker's seal of approval, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Remember, he approved Harry and the Hendersons.

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Scales of Justice
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile
Studio: New Line
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* English

Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks
* Alternate Ending
* Trailers
* DVD-ROM Access

* IMDb