Horror has always tended to move in cycles and follow certain trends. The slasher obsession of the early 1980’s and the recent zombie phenomenon are two of the most obvious examples. But there are other trends that have happened in the genre that aren’t as fondly remembered as others. And tiny monsters are a perfect example of this.
While there were films of the sort before 1984, they were centered primarily on possessed or otherwise evil dolls and toys. And even then, they were not frequent. The most successful example before the craze took off would be Trilogy of Terror. Despite being only one segment of a TV movie, the Zuni fetish doll has lasted in the public consciousness. It had a huge impact on features like Child’s Play and Puppet Master. But these were still doll movies, not monster movies. Little creatures were still incredibly rare.
And then, in 1984, everything changed. Steven Spielberg had optioned a script by Chris Columbus for a movie called Gremlins. Howling director Joe Dante came on board to direct. It was initially a straightforward horror film, but was heavily changed and cut down to PG-13 to hit the largest possible audience. It proved to be an incredibly lucrative decision. Gremlins was a major hit, spawning a merchandising empire. More than that, it had a huge influence on the movies that followed.Right after the release of Gremlins and the immediate success, campy producers like Charles Band and Roger Corman both tried to jump on the bandwagon, creating Ghoulies and Munchies, respectively. Of the two, Ghoulies was certainly the more successful and was actually the most lucrative film produced by Band’s Empire Pictures. Most of that was due to marketing. Audiences found the poster, featuring a Ghoulie popping up out of a toilet with a headline promising “They’ll get you in the end” too good to pass up. The feature itself has almost nothing to do with the little monsters and is actually centered on a man inheriting his family home and taking over its bizarre Satanic cult. Response was mixed, the movie was not at all what people expected and so they gave the little monsters a more front and center role for the sequel.
Just after Ghoulies came Critters in 1986. Critters was probably the most successful of the post-Gremlins creature features. While it didn’t have a huge budget, it was infinitely larger than that of Ghoulies and told an interesting and entertaining story about renegade alien monsters that crash land outside a farm house where they begin to attack a family until shape-changing bounty hunters arrive to put them down. Really, this one only takes the initial concept of Gremlins and completely does its own thing with it. That’s probably why it works so well. These aren’t mischievous reptilian beasts, these are mulleted space porcupines that eat everything in sight. Like Ghoulies, Critters spawned three sequels. Unlike Ghoulies, all four Critters movies are at least entertaining even as they drop in quality, after the second, with the sophomore installment probably being the best of the bunch.
Other than those two franchises, the only other movie to include a little demon around 1985-86 was the Stephen King anthology Cat’s Eye, which saw a little troll go after a young Drew Barrymore in the film’s third segment.
The late eighties were hit and miss, with movies like the nearly unbearable Hobgoblins. But in 1987, there was The Gate, which featured a number of little monsters and also had the wit and charm that made Gremlins work so well. This one was technically a kids movie, but nonetheless featured some pretty horrific scenes. Things sort of limped on from there. The gimmick had sort of played itself out and, with so many B-Movie companies jumping on the bandwagon, the entire concept had already been done to death only a few short years after Gremlins was released.
It’s fitting, in some ways, that Gremlins 2: The New Batch appeared to be the nail in the coffin for the not-quite-sub-genre. Not that The New Batch isn’t wonderful in its own way. But it was a deconstruction of Gremlins, and in places a full blown satire, which is a large part of what made it work so well. It was sort of the last word on Gremlins and everything Gremlins spawned. That’s why this sort of feature fizzled out after that, and also likely why Gremlins 3 still hasn’t successfully gotten off the ground.
Unlike most trends in horror, this one never really came back. A few of these movies had sequels into the 1990’s, but no new series were launched and the sequels got cheaper and cheaper each time because there was less and less of a return on investment. This is one of the few movements in the genre that simply came and went. In some ways, it’s a perfect time capsule. Maybe there’s something about the consumerism of these little monsters that was inherent to the 1980’s in a way that can’t be recaptured, maybe people simply stopped being interested. Even if we get a new Gremlins, I doubt it would spawn anything like what happened before. Tiny monster movies may pop up on occasion, but for the most part, they’re gone. Of course, it would never hurt to double check under the bed.