Next up for Dee Wallace Week, a look at CRITTERS. If you want to watch GREMLINS, I suggest you watch GREMLINS. Because a knockoff will never be as good as the source, even with Dee Wallace in another turn as an awesome mom.
You may think that CRITTERS is just a silly, cheapjack horror movie from the 80s, but it’s actually an example of a tried and true Hollywood tradition: the knockoff. New Line Cinema released the flick in 1986 solely to cash in on the people who made Joe Dante’s GREMLINS an astounding success a few years prior. But as with any knockoff, it’s inferior to the source material, and unlikely to please GREMLINS’ fans. Taken on its own, it fares better as a silly, cheapjack horror movie from the 80s. But that defeats its only purpose for existing.
The film starts with a long scene in outer space, and introduces us to Crites. Or more like the idea of Crites. A handful of them are on their way to a space prison when they find a way to escape and end up on Earth, in Dee Wallace’s backyard. But that takes the first 30 minutes, and leaves us with a whole lot of Scott Grimes before we ever get to see a Crite. When the movie finally reveals them, they’re cheap hand puppets that look like a Mogwai mated with a hedgehog and gave birth to a Gremlin. There’s also a subplot involving bounty hunters who can change faces. They fire lots of ammunition, and one takes the face of a rock band singer.
If all this sounds goofy, it is. Domonic Muir and director Stephen Herek clearly intended this to have the same nutzoid tone as GREMLINS, with gonzo comedy set against a backdrop of Middle America. I’m sure Dee Wallace’s role in E.T. had everything to do with her casting here, and Grimes is a lightweight Zach Galligan. Oddly, those comedy scenes play against some really mean spirited violence, as the Crites attack Dee, the family’s dad, and fully coiffed Billy Zane. The changes in tone are so severe, it’s jarring. Sure, GREMLINS plays the same card, but Joe Dante casts violence of the Looney Tunes variety. And his film is so irreverent that it all works. In CRITTERS, it doesn’t.
CRITTERS’ cast is its main strength. Dee Wallace played a lot of moms in the 1980s, and as in CUJO, she’s solid here. When her husband gets torn up, she doesn’t act like some silly horror character would, but like a real woman whose husband of many years is hurt. And when she picks up a shotgun, it’s epic. Character actor M. Emmet Walsh is good as the smalltown sheriff, and Lin Shaye is great in another small role as his goofy secretary. As for Grimes, he got a lot of 80s mileage, and watching him last night, I don’t quite understand why. He’s not a great child actor, nor is he particularly handsome. But hey, Billy Zane has a luxurious head of hair, even if he’s got a small role.
As far as knockoffs go, if you want to watch GREMLINS I advise you watch GREMLINS. If instead you’re in the mood for a goofy 80s flick that’s nowhere near the quality of Dante’s film, check out CRITTERS. I can’t think of any other reason to watch this knockoff… unless you’re running Dee Wallace Week on your website. Hey, she made it worth another watch for me.