1986 in Film – Critters

Release Date: April 11th
Box Office: $13,167,232

Right, before we start getting into Critters (1986) properly, let’s get the one main criticism aimed at the film cleared up:

Critters rips off Gremlins (1984)

On the surface, it’s a fair cop: small sized creatures terrorise and/or kill people. However, the two films come at the subject from different directions.

Gremlins is based around myth, fairy tales come to life. It’s about being given a set of rules and the consequences that follow when you disobey them.

Critters is science fiction. The film starts in space prison with the Critters, or Krites as they are known amongst the space people in charge, escaping and stealing a ship. They end up on Earth, with a couple of shape shifting bounty hunters in pursuit. It’s a classic B-movie setup, although without the heavy anti-Communist overtones and instead with lashings of eighties slasher and monster film conventions.

Gremlins also takes place in that typical Spielberg location, the suburbs, whilst Critters is on a farm. This gives the film more of a feeling of isolation and of a siege, as the family under attack defend their house from the invaders. The family unit is also more together with his film; you have the Brown family as those taking on the Critters, a typical small town American family. The father figure is in the house and present, unlike in Gremlins where he is absent and his gift trying to make up for this backfires spectacularly.

Gremlins is also more of a comedy. Whilst it doesn’t descend into outright cartoonish parody like its sequel, it’s uses the tropes of its genre in order to play with them. The Gremlins themselves cause over the top carnage, like sending the evil old lady neighbour flying through the air on her stair lift. It’s doesn’t forget it’s a horror film at its core but it accentuates this with the comedy.

Critters isn’t quite as clever as this and is a more straightforward interpretation of the phrase ‘comedy horror’. You get a scare then a chuckle and never really mixes the two the way Gremlins does. It just has monsters that are tearing their way through a small American town with various genre stereotypes going through the motions.

So far it seems like we’ve established that Gremlins is the much superior film. And it is. The script is better and the special effects are also vastly better, which you’d expect considering the difference in budgets.

Not to say that Critters looks terrible, far from it. It shows that if you spend your money in the right way then you can get a good looking end product. The Krites look suitably horrible with mouths full of teeth and never look that much like puppets being thrown around. The sequences in space also have a great grimy look to them.

But these comparisons to Gremlins end up being unfair to both films. Once you get past the surface comparisons they are different films with different goals. A better comparison to Critters would be something like Tremors (1990); they’re both modern interpretations of the monster films of the fifties and sixties that end up being a fun ride through that style of film rather than deconstructing it.

Sometimes you just want to see people get attached by small aggressive space aliens and Critters fills that gap better than most films.

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