The Critters franchise is very close to my heart. Like Gremlins, it is not only one of the first horror movies I remember seeing, but it’s one of the first films I remember seeing in general.
During my adolescence I felt like the only person who had seen these films, and because of that they felt extra special to me. Over time and with the proper amount of Internet saturation I learned that I was not, in fact, the only fan. Not by a long shot. The Critters franchise has a cult following all on its own.
In recent years the Critters franchise has seen an oddly bountiful resurgence. Scream Factory released a wonderfully stacked Blu-ray boxset (something I never thought would happen) containing all four films at the time. On top of that, not one but TWO separate Critters projects were released within a year of each other in 2019.
Critters fans have eaten well recently, as they say.
Speaking of eating, what say we stop this jibber-jabber and tuck into the main course? Let’s revisit the entire Critters franchise available to us here in early 2022!
Directed by Stephen Herek of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Critters is second only to the two Gremlins films in the “Tiny Terror” subgenre.
It’s a bit of a bummer the Critters franchise can never get out from under the Gremlins shadow, because according to the Making-Of featurettes on the Blu-ray, screenwriter Dominic Muir wrote the initial draft of the film before Gremlins was even released.
Aside from being about little monsters that cause mayhem, the two films are completely different from each other. Gremlins is sardonic, satirical, and far more irreverent. Critters plays it straight. It acts as more of a modern (modern for the 80s that is) update of invasion films of the 1950s. Hell, the inspiration for the film is the famous Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter of 1955 – one of the most well-known alien encounters on record.
Critters is stacked with a great cast of character actors and genre icons. 80s genre mom Dee Wallace is the matriarch of the Brown Family. And Billy Green Bush, M. Emmet Walsh, Lin Shaye, and a young Billy Zane are all present.
Half of what makes the film so endearing is that it does what the best creatures features do—it gives the audience likeable characters that actually kind of feel like real people.
We like the Browns, and we like Charlie. We don’t want to see them become Critter chow. Due to this the film actually has a decent grasp on tension. The Critters are mean little bastards that could be hiding in any dark corner, waiting to strike. I can see this film genuinely scaring some younger viewers even today. It’s great gateway horror.
Another affable feature of Critters is the 80s-ness of it all. Horror fans are perpetually obsessed with 80s horror and Critters is no slouch when it comes to what makes the decade so beloved by genre fans. A running gag of the film finds a duo of shapeshifting Bounty Hunters hot on the trail of the Crites. The leader, Ug, decides the best face for him to fit in on Earth is that of fictional rock star Johnny Steele (Terrance Mann). Steele’s song, Power of the Night, is heard multiple times throughout the film and is a certified banger of thick, cheesy goodness.
Critters is simply a confident, well made, well-acted creature-feature—the kind that are all but extinct from movie theaters these days. It was a modest film with all of the right ingredients to also become a memorable one. After the runaway success of New Line’s Cinema’s A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, Critters came out just two years later and became another notch in the young studio’s horror-friendly belt. And the Critters franchise was born.
Critters 2: The Main Course (1988)
My choice for favorite Critters flick depends on my mood. The Main Course marks the feature film debut of horror ambassador and alum Mick Garris, and it’s an auspicious start.
Garris crafts a slick, colorful, and highly entertaining sequel that ups the ante on the mayhem in all the ways a sequel should. Critters 2 occupies an interesting space in the genre. It’s not content to be a basic sequel. Its part holiday horror film (it takes place during Easter) and part anti-meat horror film ala Tobe Hooper’s immortal The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (TCM).
Yes, I’m serious.
Much has been written about the indictment of the meat industry under the surface of TCM, but nobody discusses Critters 2 in that same context. Of course Critters 2 is no TCM, but it’s not even subtext here. It’s plain old text.
The entire movie is a comment about the gluttonous, ravenous need to consume meat even when it’s to your own detriment. Garris himself is a vegan, but as far as I can tell he wasn’t when he made the film (stating he’s only been a vegan on his Post Mortem Podcast for about a decade), so this is one hell of a happy coincidence.
Taking place two years after the first film, Brad Brown rolls back into the town of Grover’s Bend to visit his nana just in time as the eggs the first batch of Crites left behind decide to hatch. Now instead of just one family’s farm, the entire town is in jeopardy.
The Nana character (Herta Ware) is an old hippy type, and a loud and proud vegetarian who denounces meat whenever she can. Fictional fast food establishment The Hungry Heifer plays a large role in the film’s narrative and is a total send-up of the industry. It’s gimmicky, tacky, and serves mass produced, frozen garbage to the public who is more than happy to eat it up.
And so are the Critters. So single-minded in their quest to consume the red stuff, they don’t even care if it comes from live prey as the film rolls along. They are just as content to chow down on the frozen patties in the Polar Burger warehouse right outside of town.
The Main Course features improved special effects over the first film, bigger set pieces (the Critter Ball is legendary), fun characters, comedy that mostly works, and some standout kills. In the pantheon of “Tiny Terror” genre flicks, Critters 2 is among the very best.
Critters 3 (1991)
Yes. This is Leonardo DiCaprio’s feature film debut. That is a fact I never get tired of telling people.
If memory serves, this may have been the first Critters film I saw as a child. It’s definitely the one I saw the most back then as it was the only one we owned on VHS back in the day.
That probably explains why I still have such a soft spot in my heart for Critters 3. This third installment was the first to be released direct-to-video and its reputation isn’t much higher than Critters 4, which I personally find to be a tad unfair. For one thing, this film has Critter action throughout its runtime, which gives it an automatic leg up right out of the gate.
Critters 3 and Critters 4 were shot back to back on a smaller budget than the first two films in the franchise. The reasoning all comes down to the dollar. The first film was a modest box office success and an even bigger success on video. Critters 2: The Main Course was a box office flop but a huge hit on video. New Line Cinema decided to go where the proven money was and greenlit two more sequels for the direct to video market.
Directed by Kristine Peterson, Critters 3 is a small scale affair with all of the action taking place in a rundown apartment complex. The family unit at the center of the film unknowingly picks up some Critter eggs on their way back home, thus making everyone in the building an item on the buffet menu.
The violence this time around is sadly toned down from the previous two films, which each featured great moments of surprise gore. Here we get some blood and that’s about it. The hijinks here will either charm you or have you roll your eyes in exasperation. It all depends on your tolerance for puppets eating beans and blowing farts.
Luckily for me, my tolerance for that kind of tomfoolery is high.
For the life of me I can’t find much to hold against this film. It has simple aspirations and delivers on them. The characters we’re supposed to root for are likeable/tolerable enough. We hate the characters we’re supposed to hate, and we root for them to be Critter chow. The Critter mayhem is plentiful and the Chiodo Bros. deliver more solid work in the effects arena.
Oh, and there is a scene of Critters watching Julia Child on TV like the good boys they are. What’s not to like here? Critters 3 is fun, guys. Loosen up.
Critters 4 (1992)
Not even the awesome cast of Brad Dourif, Angela Bassett, and Anders Hove can save Critters 4 from being an inexplicably dull affair.
The ingredients were all there. Critters terrorizing the crew of a spaceship should have been the easiest homerun ever. Alas, director Rubert Harvey made a film that is aggravatingly light on Critters both in action and in number. There are like, two of them the entire film, and there is a whopping TWO full attack scenes.
I’m well beyond any desire to sit down and complain about films online. I like to talk about what I enjoy, but sometimes duty calls and I must answer. Critters 4 is largely lifeless.
The plot is hardly worth mentioning. The franchise’s hero, Charlie (Don Opper) finds himself in the future after the events of Critters 3 and must deal with the little buggers now causing a ruckus for the space crew that unknowingly pick them up. There is also some waffle about nefarious genetic experiments with the Crites, but it hardly pans out into anything fun or interesting.
Critters 4 very obviously rip-offs the usual suspects – Alien, Star Wars, you get the picture. Sometimes when a low budget genre flick rips off the greats it can be charming in its own right with how blatant it can be. Here it just feels cynical and cheap.
There isn’t much going on throughout most of the film. The characters sit around nondescript spaceship sets yammering about their situation. The Crites hardly feel like much of a threat at all because they are so separate from the cast most of the time.
The climax of the film isn’t even Critters-centric; it’s a stand-off between the survivors and other series mainstay Ug (still played by Terence Mann), who turned evil for literally no reason.
The few Critters moments peppered around the film are rather decent, if frustratingly sparse. The first attack features a newly hatched baby Crite forcing itself down a character’s throat and eating them from the inside out. It’s a surprisingly icky and gruesome death.
Despite having far less of a budget to work with than the first two films, the legendary effects team of the Chiodo Brothers do some great work with what they have. The Crites are well articulated and expressive and they work well within the limitations of the budget. Limited as it is, the Critter action is the only true highlight of the film. Not even Dourif and Bassett can wring much from the material.
There is an attempt at making Critters 4 a more serious, grim affair than the previous movies in the franchise. Alas, the script just didn’t show up to the party.
Critters: A New Binge (2019)
Most fans would say A New Binge is the obvious nadir of the Critters franchise—and considering the general consensus that Critters is a series of massive diminishing returns, that is a rather scathing indictment.
Originally the film (it’s technically a web series but for all intents and purposes it’s a film) was supposed to be an exclusive on the now defunct go90 Verizon streaming service. It later found a home on horror genre streaming service Shudder in March of 2019.
My first viewing of A New Binge was one of total befuddlement. Here I was, a life-long Critters fan seeing the first brand new film in the series in 27 years and this is what I get?
The direction the film went was so out of left field, so truly confounding I couldn’t even be mad at it. I was just flabbergasted.
Helmed by Jordan Rubin of Zombeavers fame, A New Binge is an irreverent mix of low-brow humor and creature-feature hijinks that I have come to enjoy on a level I am not ashamed to admit is probably ironic. But also kind of not ironic?
The older I get the more I don’t believe in ironic viewing. If you like something, you like something. No need to gaslight yourself by attributing your enjoyment to irony.
Make no mistake, much of the humor in A New Binge falls flat. Everything involving the Critters themselves is a joy largely because it’s a bunch of hairy puppets and not people. The human-centric gags are groaners. The cast isn’t up to snuff and the material they are given is mostly thankless. The only human cast member that gets middle level chuckles is Gilbert Gottfried as the character Uncle.
Despite all of its shortcomings, I can’t help but be won over by the film’s ambition to just have fun. Especially when the movies that directly proceed and follow A New Binge are so tedious and dry, A New Binge stands out as a bright little oddity of a reboot.
The production value is severely limited, but the filmmakers do their best to make it work. The puppetry isn’t nearly as strong as the original 4 films or even Critters Attack! but the effects team put a lot of effort into squeezing every ounce of life out their Crites that they could. I love that A New Binge gives the Critters loads of dialogue and personality to work with. It’s their show this time around, more than ever. They may have just as much, if not slightly more screen time than the people.
Critters: A New Binge is not an easy recommendation. It’s a farce. The humor skews bro-y and cheap, the cast is largely below par, and the production values can dip so low it’s outright amateurish at times. Yet in the face of all of these shortcomings I can’t bring myself to hate A New Binge. Despite not really sticking the landing, I can sense the fun the crew had making it. There is an obvious love of the franchise apparent in the film that the more “serious” reboot Critters Attack! lacks entirely, and with a runtime of barely 80 minutes it’s a breezy watch.
Critters Attack! (2019)
Yeesh, what a bummer to go out on. Having two completely new but unrelated Critters projects come out so close to each other was a bizarre experience. We live in an age where reviving any pop culture property with even a modicum of recognizability is the norm. Even so, I never imagined Critters would be on anybody’s radar for a reboot. Let alone two of them.
Released on-demand in July 2019, the fan discourse around Critters Attack! was that it was at least better than Critters: A New Binge. Is it though?
SyFy nabbed the broadcasting rights to Critters and with that, greenlit a new feature film to be directed by Bobby Miller, who made a mild splash with his feature debut The Cleanse. Out of that deal came Critters Attack!, a film so dry and lifeless not even the amped up gore and decent puppetry work could save it.
The film lumbers along without much of a care for craft, engaging characters, or even playful horror. While the Critters themselves do get a decent amount of screen time, their mayhem just feels tired and rote without much creativity put into any of the set pieces.
I should be the easiest guy to please with a new Critters movie. I knew that when I didn’t even crack a ghost of a smile when they were on screen, Critters Attack! was a true dud.
Not only is the film a laborious snooze, it couldn’t be bothered to stick with the lore the Critters franchise previously established.
I know how immensely nerdy that just sounded. Believe me, I’m not getting precious about the sacred canon of the Critters series. The problem is Critters Attack! can’t seem to make up its mind if it’s a full-on reboot or a quasi-sequel set in the same “universe” as the older films.
I would have no problem if the film decided to do its own thing completely with the Crites, but what we get is just half-assed.
They reproduce in a totally different way. There is a new, benevolent female Crite (yes) introduced which utterly contradicts the film’s own rules on how they reproduce. Loud noises make them blow (again, yes). They still shoot barbs out of their bodies at their victims, but there is no sedative effect as in all previous Critters films. So what’s the point then if the barbs don’t do anything?
On top of that, Dee Wallace returns in the vaguest role imaginable. Is she supposed to be Mrs. Brown from the original film? Reference to her being a “bounty hunter” is made, but whether she’s of extraterrestrial origin or just a standard human is never even hinted at. We don’t know. The film never once takes the time to parse out even minor details.
I can see Critters Attack! offering up mild amusement for those who go in without any expectations whatsoever. The effects are decent. So there’s that much. I don’t consider myself hard to please with this kind of genre fare, but I was sadly just flat out bored with this one more than anything. And as the saying goes, the worst thing a movie can be is boring.