Critters was released in 1986, and was definitely not a cash-in on the success of Gremlins two years prior (incidentally one of my favourite films of all time). It was apparently written before the Joe Dante film was released and they claim to have actually reworked the script to make it less similar. Regardless, it’s not the first time, and far from the last time, that two films have stark similarities so I’m not going to try and draw comparisons between them. (But obviously it’s nowhere near as good as Gremlins.)
The sci-fi opening to this film immediately demonstrates the good intent of this film. It has a visibly low budget, but a great deal of care has gone into the sets and costumes of this sequence. It’s a simple set-up scene with the “Crites” escaping a meteor prison (?). The apparent chief, an obese blue… thing, instructs two bounty hunters to hunt them down. No explanation is given about any of this, and it’s perhaps for the best. On their way to Earth, they take on human form in a sequence with some awesome Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque effects. One of them takes their form from a transmission of fictional rock star Johnny Steele’s music video “Power of the Night”. This is seemingly an enormous hit in the film’s setting as it’s played repeatedly by different characters throughout the film, but oddly no one ever seems to recognise the alien who’s taken on his image, but I digress. This duo is given some of the best scenes of the film, as they wreak havoc across the town in their search for the Crites. Their deadpan destruction lends a genuine dark humour to the film that carries over in many later scenes.
We are also introduced to a family that lives in Kansas. Supposedly the main characters, they’re lifted directly from every family film that has ever been made; the troublemaking brother that irritates his older sister and their parents who are just there with little purpose beyond the Dad owning a shotgun and the Mum from E.T. screaming a lot. They’re likeable enough, but a little bit too long is spent setting up their paper-thin characters, and those of some other citizens of the town, with some incredibly awkwardly acted/directed dialogue and ensuring that the boy has plenty of dangerous toys and hobbies that would come in handy in the slim possibility that a group of alien beasts started terrorising them, or anything like that.
It seems like quite a long time after the opening scene that the Crites feature again, and they’re only seen in brief glimpses for the first part which gives a good build-up to the attacks.Eventually it builds to a full face-off which is exciting and tense and funny when intended, especially a gag involving the Crites’ subtitles that I expect will be rehashed through the sequels. It does feel like this film was dialled back to attain a more family-friendly rating as the brief glimpses of somewhat nasty deaths coupled with the antics of the bounty hunters and wide pool of expendable secondary characters suggest much darker early drafts, but the result is an entertaining, funny sci-fi monster movie that’s a good introduction to this type of horror for younger viewers and a good, if almost entirely by-the-numbers example of 80’s horror, for better or worse depending on your view (in my opinion for the best).