Slap together a modestly budgeted horror film with an unmistakable resemblance to a recent hit film (Gremlins) and a notable inversion of another popular film’s ending (Poltergeist), insert just enough Podunk camp to ensure Joe Bob Briggs would catch its scent and you’ll guarantee yourself the birth of a franchise. Critters as a franchise has nothing on the Nightmare on Elm Street films, but it’s proven popular enough with Gen X-ers who forward “You know you’re a child of the ‘80s if…” emails to all their office mates. The uninitiated, however, are only likely to come away with fonder memories of Gremlins, which is not only more knowing than Critters about the genres it plunders for satiric value (‘50s creature features and Spielberg archetypes), it’s also more refreshingly mean-spirited. Though grue is spilt, never once do the filmmakers tap into the malevolent impulses behind horror film audiences. Every character is presented wholesomely (the only utterance of “fuck” springs from the mouth of the antagonistic Critters). Billy Zane, in particular, portrays one of the most insufferably earnest, goody-goody renderings of the “dangerous boyfriend” role ever seen (which is especially disappointing seeing as how he’s become one of Hollywood’s finest hams). It’s hardly surprising that Herek’s career has since steered toward the easy sentimentality of Mr. Holland’s Opus.
Critters has undoubtedly looked better than this. Presented in either the original widescreen format (anamorphically enhanced) or a pan and scan version (which actually should prove more meaningful to the numerous fans introduced to the film via VHS), the print is clean, if perhaps a wee bit on the dark side. Like the video transfer, the audio presentation comes in vanilla (2.0 stereo) and Baskin Robbins (a new 5.1 surround mix). The latter has some wonderful effects, but some might feel more nostalgic for the original mix. Either way, the endless braying of Dee Wallace-Stone (as bad as Kate Capshaw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) will aurally rape you just the same.
Aside from the novelty of the hidden alternate ending, there's a collection of vintage New Line trailers for the entire Critters series. Anyone who grew up renting horror videos in the '80s will immediately recognize and revel in the studio's distinctive brand of chintzy-yet-effective teasers. (Notice how the trailer for the first film cleverly cross-references New Line's other titles by recycling the Nightmare on Elm Street's score.)
Apart from the nostalgic appeal to die-hard New Line horror aficionados, most are likely to share the eye-rolling sentiments of second-billed cameo star M. Emmet Walsh.