Late one night, I went into a 7-11 with the sole objective of buying a stiff bottle of Nyquil and a pair of stale taquitos; I had whatever chest cold was going around and I wasn’t about to wait to eat a meal. The clerk was fumbling through a pile of change a customer had just laid out on the counter for a pack of Pall Malls, so I decided to pass the time by perusing through their forever desolate used DVD bin. I never expect to find anything worth watching in this area. Anyone who does must be in such a sad state of desperation that the infinitely superior RedBox outside of the building seems like the lesser alternative next to the multitude of forgotten Martin Lawrence comedies, SyFy originals and various Veggie Tales adventures.
Something compels me to flip through these things every time go in there, I don’t know if it’s the habitual remnants of my childhood Blockbuster nights coming back to haunt me or if I’m actually starting to lose it. On this particular trip, however, I found a gem that beckoned back to the warm fuzzy feelings from those magical Fridays when I would beg my mother to rent something from the horror section. That gem was the 1986 creature-feature Critters.
I honestly haven’t seen this since I was about 5 years old and in those days I was terrified of pretty much everything: the dark, the woods, basements, attics, bugs, sundown, being left alone in a room. I hate to admit that I was actually petrified by Troll 2 when I first saw it because I had this totally irrational fear of being eaten alive. I still have the occasional mini existential crisis when I think about another living thing consuming me to preserve its own existence. The only thing I really remember about Critters was how uncomfortable it made me feel to be around piles of lint and Koosh Balls. If someone would have brought me to a taping to the Rosie O’Donnell Show at that age I would have most likely had a heart attack as soon ash she brought out the Koosh Ball slingshot. But I’m a firm believer that most people who consider themselves horror fans were drawn to the genre because it helped them overcome such baseless fears.
I brought the DVD along with the Nyquil to the counter and the clerk glared at me as if I was the strangest person he had seen in there that evening. I guess the usual dope-fiends, drunks and mentally unstable people that walk through this particular South Philadelphia 7-11 during the nocturnal hours are what he considers normality. I probably looked like some sick psychopath who got his rocks off by robo-tripping and watching 80’s schlock when he couldn’t sleep, which wasn’t THAT far from the truth. I paid the man and left feeling proud of myself for passing on the taquitos. I was eager to get home, guzzle some cold medicine and pop Critters into the ol’ Digital Video Disc player.
I had almost completely forgotten the science fiction aspect from this film. It opens on an asteroid-turned-alien prison floating through space where we learn that the menacing Crites, (Tribbles on methamphetamines) have escaped on a stolen spaceship headed towards Earth to wreak havoc. Two faceless shape-shifting bounty hunters pursue these furry little assholes through the galaxy. Ug (Terrence Mann) assumes the form of fake rock ‘n roller Johnny Steele, whom I can only describe as looking like a science experiment between Jerry Seinfeld, a young Tim Curry and Tears for Fears Co-frontman Roland Orzabal. The other remains faceless because it seems that his body is unable to choose a suitable form.
On Earth, we meet the “All American” Brown family as they settle down for breakfast. One thing that struck me as a bit peculiar was when the father (Billy Green Bush) threatens his son Brad (Scott Grimes) by telling him he will “skin him alive and leave his bones out to dry,” if he misses the bus one more time. I can see why we eventually learn his son is a total pyro as we can see in a later scene where he’s built a damn pipe bomb in his room for fun. The mother, played by genre legend Dee Wallace, essentially plays the same character she played in E.T.; a mother holding the family together while seeming to always be on the verge of snapping. Hell, there’s even a scene where Brad tries to fake sick by using the same trick Elliot did with the thermometer, but you can’t fool ol’ Dee this time. Then there’s April (Nadine Van der Velde) who’s only real motivation is swooning over her city slicker boyfriend played by Billy Zane who’s only real motivation is to end up as Critter meat.
Their world soon comes crashing down once the Crites land in town. They roll in like toxic tumble weeds, causing devastation and eating everyone in their path, eventually converging with the bounty hunters at the Brown residence where they all meet for the final showdown.
Moments after the movie ended and I could no longer fight the urge to pass out due to Nyquil I had to address elephant in the room; Critters was most definitely New Line Cinemas attempt to cash in on the Gremlins craze. But unlike its other successors such as Munchies and Hobgoblins, Critters actually feels like a real movie and stands alone with its own special charm. Just because it was a rip-off with a dash of sci-fi doesn’t mean it was any less fun; imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
As I began to drift off I thought about my frightened childhood. How could these things that looked like they were one step away from being a Jim Henson lawsuit scare me? H.P. Lovecraft once said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” and this made me think about what I was truly afraid of. Crites, or Critters hid in the darkness, they could be under your bed or in your desk drawer. Unlike other movie monsters, these pocket sized creatures could be anywhere and you would never know it until it was too late. Not to mention, their strengths lie in numbers. Like the hydra, if you cut off one head two more shall appear. I think we’re all still somewhat afraid of the dark; it’s ingrained in our DNA through the evolutionary chain. I’d like to see how many of you need to fall asleep with the TV on every night.