Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer
As a lifelong lover of all things science fiction I enjoy deep, cerebral, and thought-provoking Sci Fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Interstellar. But sometimes I just want to rock back, switch off my brain, and watch an alien menace run around and slaughter a bunch of hapless humans in gory fashion. And one franchise that serves up this type of bloody intergalactic buffet is Critters, which centres on the titular small, furry, carnivorous aliens and the shape-shifting alien bounty hunters (and later human recruits) trying to wipe them out.
While the series has a reputation as being a budget take on Gremlins the original film’s writer/director Stephen Herek says the script was written long before Joe Dante’s 1984 horror comedy and had to be retooled due to similarities. As the 1986 film turned 35 on April 11 (hey, that’s my birthday!) it’s the perfect time to do a ranking of all the franchise entries.
Now I know not everyone has seen the 2019 film Critters Attack! nor the 2019 web series Critters: A New Binge, so I will be going full SPOILER on the first four films and mild spoilers on the last two entries. With that out of the way let’s shape-shift into a rock star, strap on our giant guns, and go blast our way into our ranking of all six Critters franchise entries:
#6 Critters: A New Binge (2019)
Now while the concept of a Critters series sounds cool you should keep your expectations low with this one. Like limbo champion low. Firstly it is a web series so the episodes are each around ten minutes, and the eight episodes combined is about your average movie runtime. Secondly it is a reboot so there are no direct connections to other films. Thirdly, and most importantly, this show looks cheap. The Critters themselves look decent enough but everything else is a poorly rendered, conspicuous green screen mess of visual and practical effects. At times it looks like a parody rather than an actual series. When the effects from the 80s films look better than your series then you know you have issues. I won’t go into plot details but I will say when the big twist is revealed the show nosedives and becomes increasingly insulting to the intelligence.
So is Critters: A New Binge even worth watching? Well the show is surprisingly funny at times (mostly in the first half) thanks to the most talkative Critters ever in the franchise and a couple of moments with comedian Gilbert Gottfried. And there is a bounty hunter character I thought was decent. But the rest of the characters are generic and one dimensional and not worth your time. And this lazy series is not worth your time either other than for your completionist viewer. This is definitely not what fans waited more than 25 years for.
#5 Critters 4 (1992)
I mentioned in our Freddy vs Jason vs Michael vs Leatherface: Ultimate Slasher Showdown article that space is where horror franchises go to die before rebooting, and this is the case with Critters 4. And it is a shame really. Genre mainstay Brad Dourif (Child’s Play franchise, The Lord of the Rings) actually gives a solid performance as awfully-named and sardonic technician Albert Bert and Don Keith Opper is dependable again as town drunk-turned-bounty hunter Charlie McFadden. A pre-fame Angela Bassett, however, is completely wasted and seems mostly there for an overly gratuitous shower scene. The other main cast are nothing to write home about, especially Paul Whitthorne as annoying teen Ethan. “You’re not my father!” Oh shut up Ethan.
Critters 4 is also painfully, aggressively boring. And that is one thing a Critters film should never be. There is barely any Critter action and they never use their paralysing quills. Actually they don’t do anything of note here. And the film also does my man Ug dirty. Now I have no problem with a franchise hero becoming a villain, but you have to explain it and you have to earn it. All we know is Ug has gone corporate and “things change”. Seriously? That’s it? Come on man! Fans and actor Terrence Mann deserved better.
And just a side note—the film is set 50 years in the future and the character Bernie tells Charlie everyone he knew would be dead. Um, did the life expectancy on Earth drastically plummet in five decades? Because otherwise everyone Charlie knew would likely still be alive but just older. And it is also unlikely space travel would have advanced that much in such as short time. #justsaying. And other than the decent performances by Dourif and Opper, and the fact that this film wraps up the main story arc, this slogfest could have been a contender for last place.
#4 Critters Attack! (2019)
While Critters: A New Binge was an unmitigated disaster thankfully the other 2019 franchise entry, Critters Attack!, was not half bad. Dee Wallace (The Howling, Cujo) returns from the original film and though she does not feature that much she makes the most of her screen time. The film follows a sushi restaurant worker and college hopeful named Drea (Tashiana Washington) who discovers a cute wounded alien in the woods while babysitting two teenagers with her brother. And little does Drea know that those pesky Critters have also arrived on the planet and are looking to feast.
This one delivered for me. Washington was a likeable lead. The other young actors did not annoy me. There is a LOT of Critter eating action and the body count is easily higher than the previous two films combined. There is also copious amounts of Critter slaying action, which is always a good time. And there are both franchise callbacks and an expansion to the mythos with the new alien. My only complaint is that the Critters use their paralysing quills but it seems to have no effect and no explanation is given. It just feels off. That aside, I had a lot of fun with this one and I think you guys will too.
#3 Critters 3 (1991)
This entry is most famous for being the film debut of future screen star Leonardo DiCaprio. Here he plays Josh, the stepson of corrupt landlord Briggs who wants to evict tenants from his apartment building without compensation. And some of that Leo star quality and charm shines through in this early role.
This film was shot together with Critters 4 but it seemed like most of the attention went here. The plot is a basic one—Critters invade an apartment building and try to eat everyone they can. And while they only kill two people (the landlord and sleazy maintenance man Frank) the danger of them is constant and tangible.
And I actually do care about the characters here, including spunky Aimee and her family, kindly elderly couple the Menges, sweet Rosalie, and handy phone technician Marcia. I also thought this was some of the best acting from Don Keith Opper.
While Critters 3 is a much smaller affair than Part 2 and there is a lot less blood and spectacle it is a very entertaining entry with likeable characters and some cool Critter slayings as well.
#2 Critters (1986)
And here’s the one that started it all. The sleepy town of Grover’s Bend is ground zero for an alien invasion, and they have come with their bellies in their hands as we say in Trinidad. Now films about aliens landing in small towns and causing havoc is not exactly novel, and has been a Sci Fi film trope since the 1950s. But Critters does enough to make itself stand out. The design of the Crites is cool and fun and their ball rolling and paralysing quill abilities add both visual and story interest. Some outstanding work there from special effects artists Chiodo Brothers. One of the Crites also displays the ability to grow in size the more he eats though we never see this again in any of the other entries. And the shape-shifting bounty hunters with their oversized guns was an inspired inclusion. The Critters only eat two people here (young Billy Zane and future Star Trek actor Ethan Phillips) but they are a menace throughout and the audience feels the fear and trepidation of the trapped Brown family.
The cast here is very strong as well. Dee Wallace and Billy “Green” Bush are both quite believable as Helen and Jay Brown respectively, and Scott Grimes shines as young Brad, which was his debut film role. Terrence Mann is wonderfully robotic as bounty hunter Ug and Don Keith Opper is affable as Charlie, who at this point is the town drunk and alien conspiracy nut. Future Insidious star Lin Shaye also appears as police dispatcher Sally (and she also returns for the sequel as well). Writer/director Stephen Herek does good work in this his directorial debut, delivering a punchy, well-paced, action-packed, scary, and darkly humorous experience.
Honourable Mention: Critters: Bounty Hunter (2014)
I stumbled upon this six-and-a-half-minute fan film while researching this article. It’s simple set-up—an unmorphed bounty hunter hunts for a Crite—but the special effects are outstanding (you could learn a thing or two here Critters: A New Binge) and it is tense and atmospheric. You guys definitely should check this one out.
#1 Critters 2: The Main Course (1988)
The first sequel (and the last franchise film to be theatrically released) Critters 2: The Main Course may have made less money at the box office than the original but I think it’s the superior film. It took everything from the first movie and just took it to the extreme. And if that’s not the spirit of the 80s, then I don’t know what is. You liked the Critters? Well how about an army of Critters swarming the town and eating as many people as they can in gory fashion, including a disagreeable sheriff in a bunny costume. You liked the bounty hunters? Well they are back and this time Ug’s partner Lee shapeshifts into a buxom nudie model (played by the buxom Roxanne Kernohan). And she is one bad mama jama and the originator of the catchphrase “Kill Crites!” Together with Ug and bounty hunter recruit Charlie they blow up a lot of Crites and a good portion of Grover’s Bend in the process. Lee’s brutal death at the hands (well actually teeth) of the Critters was easily one of the saddest moments of the franchise.
Scott Grimes is upgraded to lead in this one and he holds his own as a leading man. Barry Corvin takes over from M. Emmet Walsh as former Sheriff Harv and he adds a lot of energy to the proceedings. There are also more set pieces including blowing up the hamburger factory and the thoroughly disturbing giant ball of Critters, an ability that would return in later installments. And the scene of Charlie crashing his ship into said ball was quite a memorable one as well. Of all the Critters franchise entries Part 2 holds up the best and is the most entertaining overall.
After rewatching the first four films and watching the new entries for the first time I think there is still a lot of potential in this franchise. And I think in the right hands we can have an installment that fans old and new would want to bite into.
Julien “Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. I can also be found posting about TV and movie memes, news and trailers on Facebook at Movieville. And to stay on top of all Redmangoreviews articles you can like and follow us on Facebook here.