Sunday, May 5, 2013


Everyone has a story to tell when it comes to the first time they ever saw a memorable movie (whether it be enjoyable or deplorable). Art is dependent on the experiences we bring to the table, and these are mine. Some are funny, some are sad, some are good and some are very, very bad. Hopefully, they'll all be worth a read.

The Film: Critters (1986)

Let Me Set the Scene: In my very early years (let's call it ages 3 to 6), I was something of a scaredy-cat. I loved going to the video store (remember those?), but I couldn't even walk down the horror aisle because I was frightened by the box art. My mother once grew out her fingernails and tried to appeal to my love of Batman by saying, "Look, Drew! I have claws like Catwoman!" This sent me running behind the couch because it reminded me of Freddy Krueger, even though I had never even seen a single frame from any of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Long story short, kid Drew was a puss. The only movie that I enjoyed that had some connection to the horror genre was Jaws, but that leaned more into adventure so it wasn't as terrifying. And even though I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida, it was easy to avoid the scary element of Jaws: don't go in the damn water.

Then, by some random happenstance, a VHS copy of Critters made its way into my little cabinet of tapes.  When I started writing this article, I began seriously racking my brain for the memory of how it came to be in my possession. It was either given to my mom by her friend Sherrie (who also gave me a similar film, Gremlins), or my aunt personally gave the film to me. I blame my aunt for sewing the seeds of my film obsession, since she was the one who gave me a letterbox (old school term for widescreen) copy of Jaws and sealed my movie nerd fate. She also had a huge collection of VHS tapes, including what I assume was the entire run of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was always in awe when we went and visited her, since she had three cabinets full of movies to choose from. I remember she had all of the Friday the 13th films, all of The Godfather films and even the original VHS releases of the Star Wars trilogy. I would kill to have her entire collection now that I'm an adult, even if the format is outdated. It was a wonder to behold when you were five years old.

Anyway, my parents were not what you'd call "horror lovers" and probably thought the movie was garbage. That meant it got pawned off to me. Now, my parents were never big sticklers about a lot of the content I watched (I have great memories of watching Tales from the Crypt episodes with my dad), but they did take notice of what ratings films had. It pretty much only applied to horror films, since they were probably worried about me seeing something that would... I dunno, traumatize me or something. Since they were aware of my skittish nature, I think they just wanted to look out for me. Luckily, Critters came with a PG-13 rating, and that must have assuaged any of their reservations because I was allowed to watch it completely unsupervised. Let this be a lesson to parents everywhere: watch everything with your kids. This was the movie that clued me in (even at an very early age) that ratings didn't mean jack, especially when it came to scaring your pants off. Thanks a lot, Mom and Dad.

"Hi, I'm a Crite and I'll be your nightmare fuel for this evening."

The First Viewing: Critters didn't get immediately watched when I received it, due to my laughable tendency to be spooked by cover art (the art for the Critters VHS is at the top of this article). I kept it in my movie cabinet for a few days with only the spine visible. Every time I'd open up the cabinet to choose something to watch, those bright red letters would scream at me. Eventually, my curiosity won over my childish trepidation. I took the tape into my living room and popped it into the VCR.

Looking back, I had unknowingly started the movie at the perfect time of day. It must have been around six or seven in the evening, so it was still fairly bright out. The movie starts during the day and takes place over the course of a night. By the time night had fallen in the movie, it had become dark outside my window as well. I had unwittingly given myself the appropriate atmosphere in which to become properly immersed into the story.

At the beginning, I remember finding the movie wasn't as scary as my brain had conceived it to be. The opening bits in space with the faceless bounty hunters lulled me into thinking this would be more of a science fiction adventure film, not the monster movie I had imagined. The sunny and endearing introduction to our family of heroes, the Browns, gave me a similar false sense of security. "This isn't so scary," I told my unsuspecting self.

Well, things wouldn't stay that way for long. After crash-landing on Earth, the Crites (such a clever name for the little beasties, innit?) first knock off a deputy. This scene was suspenseful (for a five year old) but didn't outright terrify me. It wasn't until a bit later, when we see dutiful housewife Dee Wallace Stone washing dishes. She drops one on the floor and bends down to pick up the shattered pieces, when she hears a strange noise outside. Slowly, she peeks over the sink and looks outside her window, and then this happens:

Those are the glowing red eyes of a thousand childhood nightmares. It is impossible for me to accurately articulate how much this single moment petrified me. In retrospect, it seems pretty tame, and my attempt at capturing it doesn't do it justice. I still get a bit unnerved if I see anything similar to it in a movie. From here on out, I was on edge. Even so, there were moments of levity spread throughout that kept me from shutting the movie off. Though I was incredibly scared of the Crites (their toothy design is truly inspired, courtesy of the very talented Chiodo brothers effects team), the filmmakers did something that instantly made them easier to accept. As the Browns are being attacked and they retreat into their home, this golden moment of cinema occurs:

And my little self couldn't help but laugh. This may very well be the first PG-13 film I saw that dropped the F-bomb in such a glorious manner. Although I still was frightened by the villains, the fact that they could be humorous and have personality gave me a better grasp on my initial fear. Put that together with the bitchin' bounty hunters strolling around town and blowing up everything in their path, I knew that this was a movie that was going to stick with me for the rest of my life. I'll say it again: Thanks, Mom and Dad.

Lasting Effects: Along with Jaws (which will assuredly make its way to this column eventually), Critters was definitely one of the first films that made me want to seek out all the other entries in its franchise. I remember being so excited when we went to our local Albertsons and in their movie rental section, there was a copy of Critters 3. My parents must have hated driving me to all our local video stores, searching for the other sequels. Strangely, both Critters 2 and Jaws 2 were the last movies I saw in each franchise. Huh.

Now, here comes some laughworthy material. For years, and I mean years, the Crites would show up in my nightmares. Even after I'd grown past being afraid of them (and afraid of horror movies in general), they'd still pop up to torment my subconscious. One vivid dream I can remember is running into a large warehouse, and all the lights were out. I said to myself, "I'll definitely be safe in here," and proceeded to light a match. I looked around me and the entire room was full of Crites. They plastered the walls and the ceiling, and they were all chomping their teeth and giggling in their distorted alien voices. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I had a dream where I made peace with a Crite (this one was more grey like the ones in Critters 2, not jet black like the originals) and proceeded to take him on as my pet. I'm sure all you psychoanalysts could have a field day with that.

I saw this film around the same time that I saw both of the Gremlins pictures, and it led me to look for more "little creatures run amok" movies. Not much came out of that, except maybe the bizarre Ghoulies franchise. Those are some nutty films.

And just to leave things on a cheery note, here's a deceptively cute baby Crite wishing you a very untimely season's greetings.

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