Justin McConnell – director of Lifechanger and Clapboard Jungle – on how carnivorous 80s mini-beasts buried their way into his heart…
My love affair with pint-sized monsters began with Critters. I was around 12 when I first watched it, and distinctly remember the circumstances: I was home sick from school a lot when I was a kid, and to try to ease that, my father used to rent movies for me to watch while I was battling whatever bug had hit me that week. Specifically, he used to rent the movies my mother wouldn’t be thrilled I was watching, including a lot of R-Rated material. For example, this is how I first saw Dario Argento’s Phenomena, via the US cut Creepers (talk about kindertrauma!).
Critters was one of the first films my father rented under these conditions, and I remember distinctly how much the movie captured my imagination. It quickly joined a growing list of material that formed my taste and love for genre films, beginning with things like The Monster Squad and The Lost Boys, and moving ever on from there.
Before this I had seen at least one pint-sized monster movie, the king of the sub-genre, Gremlins. As much as I enjoyed Gremlins (and it’s bonkers sequel), and as much as I admit it is the ‘better’ movie in an objective sense, it was Critters that stuck in my head the most. Such a simple concept – alien balls with teeth that want to eat everything in sight – seems silly on paper. It’s even silly in execution, but knowingly so. Here was a film inspired by the small town sci-fi and horror of the 50s, given a contemporary twist, vicious monsters, some truly out-there sci-fi ideas, and anchored by a relatable family of characters. Which, admittedly, is a lot like Gremlins, and is often believed to be a rip-off, although the script for Critters was written before, and just ended up being released afterwards.
Regardless, something about Critters gave it its own distinctive identity. Maybe because the creatures, despite being little murder machines, had full sentience, language (their subtitles get the biggest laughs in the film), and can even fly complex spacecraft. Perhaps it’s the alien world around them, and the two shape-shifting bounty hunters, who may be more of a destructive threat to the town than the Crites. Maybe it’s the feel of a Spielbergian community twisted by the acerbic wit of the script. Maybe I just really love puppets, and practical effects work created in the 80s heyday. It’s likely a mix of all this, and more.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must state that Critters is not my favourite horror film. The idea of narrowing all the genre cinema I love down to a single entry has always been a task beyond my ability, as the list is just so long. But it definitely sits towards the top of the pile, and when paired with Mick Garris’ equally-entertaining sequel, is something I can revisit time and time again. It sent me on a road of devouring all the little monster media I could. Give me a gremlin, mogwai, Belial, Aylmer, ghoulie, munchie, hobgoblin, boogen, gelfling, Toulon-puppet, Gate-Imp, Darkfall demon, Demons 2 imp, or whatever RLM called the creatures in Feeding Frenzy, and I’m into it. But among all those, Critters stands out the most. It has a special charm all of its own. All these years later, despite it basically being a gateway horror film, the movie still has bite.
If you have yet to see it, I envy you. If you haven’t revisited it in a while, I recommend you do. It is the Spooky Season after all, and there’s always room for Critters on your watchlist. Happy Halloween!