Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Critters (1986)

Trends are something of a blessing and a curse.  On the one hand, they do provide some form of stability and predictability.  We know (to within some degree of certainty) what will happen in any given superhero film (you could even say in any summer tent pole film these days and you could probably also describe how each shot will be composed, rendered by a computer, and edited, but that’s a screed for some other time).  And these films are (generally) flocked to, because of the familiarity they engender.  Of course, the better ones do something a bit more original within their parameters.  It has always been this way.  Unfortunately, most of them are not the better ones.  

On the curse side, the same predictability of content ineffably leads to staleness, and from that point it becomes more and more a series of motions gone through, until they are no longer financially rewarding and boring beyond all reason.  Thus do we come to lineage stretching from Gremlins in 1984 to Ghoulies to Stephen Herek’s Critters to Munchies to Hobgoblins.  After being beaten to within an inch of its life, the trend will generally go into a coma for some time, and eventually will be resurrected for audiences who are either unfamiliar with them in the first place or have a nostalgic itch that they scratch for those who were around the first time down the road.  These cycles (like almost all cycles) are nigh inescapable.  That’s why they’re cycles.

One day, on the maximum security prison asteroid of Sector Seventeen (not to be confused with Space Station Eleven, where the Bearded Men live), eight Crites (think porcupines but more ornery) manage to escape while under Commander Zanti’s (played by Michael Lee Gogin and named for the similarly themed “The Zanti Misfits” episode of the classic Science Fiction series The Outer Limits) wardenship.  He calls upon a pair of interstellar bounty hunters to kill the mini-space-criminals and bring back their scalps (more or less).  Needless to say, the Crites’ purloined ship just so happens to crash land in Kansas, not too far from the Brown family farm.  Time to feed.

Part of the film’s thematic concern is identity.  Brad (Scott Grimes) is a young teen boy, kicking off his journey into manhood.  Yet, he still plays around with homemade explosives (back when this sort of thing would get a pass in a film as simply youthful mischief) and delights in tormenting his older (and sexually active) sister April (Nadine Van der Velde).  His ordeal against the aliens will force him into a role of responsibility, where he has to think of people other than himself, because their lives are literally in his hands.  Town drunkard Charlie (Don Opper) is another character who is searching for an identity.  He was a great baseball pitcher, but when things didn’t work out, he became a souse.  He also needs to accept responsibility, but Charlie needs to rethink a purpose in life he once had.  The bounty hunters are able to change their appearances to blend in (not that their actions would ever keep them incognito for long).  The more dominant of the two quickly settles on the persona of (super awesome) rock star Johnny Steele (Terrence Mann).  His partner cannot settle on a look (“nothing likes me”) and has to go through no less than three, before settling on the one which brings the issue full circle (okay, maybe a half-moon).

In my opinion, the screenplay (co-credited to Herek and Dominic Muir) doesn’t stick to one single genre, but it blends them all quite well at the same time.  Aside from the obvious Science Fiction (I would swear that the farm setting was chosen for the steep hill which leads down to the main house, which is strikingly analogous to the iconic hill image from both the 1953 and the 1986 [the same year this film was released] versions of Invaders From Mars) and Horror genres (including a pair of red eyes staring in at Dee Wallace from outside her kitchen window, recalling The Amityville Horror), there is also much of the Western in Critters.  It takes place squarely in the American Midwest.  It involves a gang of criminals converging on and terrorizing a small town (shades of High Noon and The Magnificent Seven).  There are gun-toting bounty hunters (whose every move sets off a sound effect reminiscent of a cowboy’s boot spurs).  It has a drunkard who needs to find his inner badass (a la Rio Bravo, El Dorado, and hell, even Blazing Saddles).  There are even Westerns on various televisions in the background.  Nonetheless, these elements feel as intrinsic to the film as any others.  That’s solid script structure and filmmaking, in my eyes.     

Not uncoincidentally, Herek’s film is also largely Spielbergian (and especially evocative of Spielberg circa 1986) in tone (Steven Spielberg having been an executive producer on both of Joe Dante’s Gremlins films).  You have a destructive element introduced into a small community, like in Jaws.  You have a resourceful kid as the main protagonist, like in E.T: The Extraterrestrial (in which Dee Wallace also appeared).  You have a scene with a UFO gliding over a rural road, like in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (and an image I used to have a jigsaw puzzle of as a youngster, in case you were wondering).  One of the Crites even bites the head off an E.T. doll, as a little poke in the ribs at the Hollywood juggernaut and his schmaltzy version of an alien creature.  Further, the film is imbued with a feeling of Americana, though it never gets too specific about it. 

As you can clearly see, Critters is most definitely a trend-following rather than a trendsetting piece of cinema, and I liken it to a sort of fruit cup medley (to borrow the parlance of school cafeteria menu creators everywhere).  It is an admixture, but like the proverbial fruit cup, its variegated flavors play well with each other, and they (usually) complement one another quite nicely.  The runtime flies by swiftly, and the creature effects, provided by the legendary Chiodo Brothers, work persuasively at bringing the Crites (from the smallest furball to the full-sized “adult”) to life.  Sure, they all have one personality, and that one is stereotypically flippant, but you just can’t help liking the little bastards.

MVT:  The glorious (and practical, did I mention all the effects are practical?) effects by the aforementioned trio of siblings are glorious.  Of course, a few years later they would gain cult status with their phenomenally freaky take on a perennial bugaboo with Killer Klowns From Outer Space.  But all of their work maintains a sense of style and character which is difficult at  the best of times to cultivate from layers of rubber, metal, and cables.

Make Or Break:  The Make for me is the multiple iterations of Johnny Steele’s hot-licks-infused rock anthem, “Power Of The Night.”  The music video for it is both noticeably self-conscious as well as being a fine example of the form during the heyday of Hair Rock.

Score:  7/10

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