Critters came around at an interesting time. It’s often cited as being a total rip-off of Gremlins—and you can kind of get that from the title. But other than a montage of the little monsters engaging in random hijinx—somehting that seems incredibly tacked on—the two movies really couldn’t be more different. Gremlins is a family comedy that keeps shifting in tone between horror, comedy, drama and adventure while Critters is much more firmly rooted in science fiction.
It’s a call back to ‘50s monster invasion movies with the interesting premise that, while those movies were typically about giant monsters, the creatures in Critters are obviously very small. The characters, for the most, part feel right at home in the typical setting of a ‘50s B-Movie. These are small town people. They may feel realistically crafted, but they still all fit certain archetypes. The sheriff. The nosy receptionist. The town drunk. The priest. They’re all there.
But these are our periphery characters. Interestingly enough, the bulk of the town don’t actually have much to do with the action that goes on in Critters. They have much more to worry about from the bounty hunters who come to earth tracking the renegade Crites than from the little monsters themselves. The action is centered on the Brown family and their small farmhouse and while we see plenty of the other people in Grover’s Bend, the action never really shifts from this location.
Even though I’ve been watching it all my life, I’d never really noticed how small in scope Critters truly was. The critters aren’t interested in terrorizing the town—they’d save that plan for the sequel—instead they want one thing: the Browns. This family spends most of the film huddled together inside their own house trying to keep these creatures from getting in. While there’s an element of comedy to the feature, most of these scenes are played for straight horror.
Once the threat is discovered and the attack begins in earnest, it’s not dissimilar to Night of the Living Dead, except that in that film those characters did not actually know each other and did not live in that house. Here we have an actual family attacked in their own home, which is much more common for true home invasion horror.
Like many of the horror features I grew up watching, one of the elements I most responded to in Critters was a child protagonist. This was a kid not to older than I was at the time, who was kind of mischievous but genuinely cared about his family and looked out for their best interests.
He didn’t necessarily show it at first. In fact, there are definitely steps taken early on to show that Brad does not necessarily fit in with his family and their way of doing things. He’s a bit of a brat, a proto-Bart Simpson in some respects, so his love for his parents and—especially—his sister is not made overly clear at first.
But as they night goes on, his parents are incapacitated and his sister is kidnapped, so it falls on Brad to save his family. Looking at it in that respect, there’s actually a sweet kind of Spielbergian optimism to Critters.
Even before he has to seek outside help to save his family, Brad is the one who truly knows how to handle himself as the attack begins. He climbs in to the house to unlock the door and let his family inside, risking facing off against what’s already gotten in there alone. Scenes like this, with one family member risking themselves while the others continue to bicker or attempt to fight, these are standard among the traditions of home invasion horror.
Of course, given that it is a mash-up with high camp and sci-fi, they wind up having some pretty impressive help in the form of shape-shifting bounty hunters. While they would be portrayed more as heroes in the sequel, the bounty hunters of the first Critters don’t seem to care who gets hurt as long as they get what they came for. They walk the line between third-act heroes and secondary antagonists, which actually makes them very interesting to watch. You can also see, by the end, that they start to develop the soft-spot for humanity that becomes much more obvious in the sequel.
Growing up with Critters, it never occurred to me to think of it as home invasion, because when I think of that genre I think of films like The Strangers and Funny Games. I don’t think of carnivorous space porcupines. But anything in horror really comes down to style. The different mixtures of style and tone will allow a single concept to be told a thousand different ways.
Ultimately, what makes Critters a home invasion thriller is that it acts like one. When the family is in peril, when we’re witnessing them being besieged and being forced to fight back, those scenes are not played for laughs. Because of that, I can almost see how the critters got their own Gremlins-esque montage and even their own subtitles. Without those elements, it would have played a little too straight.
The campy aspects of the creatures themselves allow us as an audience to enjoy a story that takes itself seriously, but not too seriously, which strives for high camp but also manages to contain a few genuinely creepy moments.