Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Unnecessary Retrospective, #1: The Critters Quadrilogy

Hello People of the Internet, and welcome to the first of what I hope will be a long running series that I have decided to call Unnecessary Retrospectives, wherein I take a look at a not-so-classic movie franchise and provide the sort of in-depth critical analysis that no one asked for, and that people who aren't me might argue is not needed, nor really deserved. Specifically, I intend to provide not simply a synopsis or review, which can easily be found elsewhere online or derived from simply watching the films, but rather a more detailed look at the mythology and story arcs established by an entire series (whether a cohesive mythos was intended by the filmmakers or not). The only self-imposed limiting principle is that the first entry in the series must have been released before the year 2000 and the series as a whole must have at least three films total.

As a disclaimer, I would like to say before I start that this is not designed to be a forum for taking bad movies and making fun of them for being bad. If you want that, there are about a million other websites you can turn to. I am not the Tommy Wiseau-so-bad-it's-good kind of cinephile, and I would not waste my time watching movies I don't like to prepare for an article solely for snark value. In many cases, the subjects of these essays represent formative experiences for my love of film, science fiction, horror, and so on, and I intend to treat the material with the respect that it deserves, and so rarely receives. So, with that out of the way, I'd like to jump right in to my first exegesis: The Critters Quadrilogy.

Critters (1985)

The original film follows the Brown family, residents of the small Midwestern farm town of Grover's Bend, as they fight to survive the night against the titular carnivorous aliens with the aid of two absurdly destructive shape-shifting bounty hunters, both of whom seem to have no problem destroying the town to find their prey. Often criticized as a cheap imitation of Joe Dante's Gremlins despite being written beforehand and altered to remove unintentional similarities, the film captures a lighthearted anarchic energy all its own very early on, attributed to the director Stephen Herek, who would go on to make the classic Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (though not its vastly superior sequel) as well as the original Mighty Ducks, before apparently deciding to make nothing but unwatchable garbage for the rest of his career.

While Gremlins was designed as more of a straight horror film with comedic elements, Critters can be placed more firmly into the realm of science fiction, with less of an emphasis on scares and more on developing a universe populated by strange alien creatures interacting with Earth for the first time. The Critters themselves, officially known as Crites, are more complicated than the typical stock B-movie monsters that no doubt inspired their first appearance. Designed by the Chiodo Brothers, famous for creating the Killer Klowns from Outer Space, they are physically small, about the size of a cat, and capable of rolling into a ball and moving at high speeds, often compared to a hedgehog. They have multiple rows of sharp teeth and projectile quills tipped with paralyzing venom, and have the ability to grow larger the more they eat, though this was largely ignored in later installments. More over, they are intelligent, smart enough to hijack a space ship and find the nearest habitable planet, and while they are consumed by an insatiable hunger that often distracts them and can prove their undoing, they are capable of working together and planning when it suits them.

Even more intriguing are the shape-shifting alien bounty hunters sent by the largely unseen Intergalactic Council to kill or capture the Crites. Though referred to as bounty hunters throughout the series, their role seems to be more analogous to intergalactic pest control, terminating infestations with extreme prejudice. Their natural form is humanoid with a glowing green feature-less face that melts away and regrows into whichever appearance they choose in one of the better effects of the movie (though later films will use a simpler version for the change). The leader, later named Ug, is played by Terrance Mann, who lends a seriousness and kick ass Man With No Name style attitude to the performance that elevates what could have been a much cheesier role in the hands of a lesser actor, especially considering the hilariously dated and silly music video for Johny Steele's "Power of the Night" from which he takes his physical appearance. His partner Lee is played by multiple actors throughout the film, unable to keep a stable form and transforming randomly into different people he meets, including a dead sheriff's deputy, a preacher, and finally the town drunk. These two cut a swath of mostly unnecessary destruction through town on their mission until finally crossing paths with the Browns and blowing the Crites away along with the family farm.

Apart from the youngest son Bradley who returns in the immediate sequel, the only main characters who continue throughout the entire series are Ug the Bounty Hunter and Charlie McFadden (Don Keith Opper), the aforementioned town drunk who joins the alien hunters in the end of the film. Charlie is introduced as a farm hand working for the Browns when he's not sleeping off a stupor in the local jail, and is the first to suspect something is amiss, believing that he receives signals from alien communications through his fillings. Whether this is true is never established or referenced again in the series, and is somewhat of a missed opportunity in my view, as developing this mysterious extra-terrestrial sixth sense in later films would have added a lot more depth to his character considering where he ends up. Still, it's a great performance that only gets better as the series progresses, and while it may not be suggested in the first film, it is really Charlie's story that makes up the bulk of the narrative moving forward, despite his not being the primary protagonist in any of the films.

Some notable appearances include Scott Grimes as Bradley, more recently known as the voice of Steve Smith on American Dad, Lin Shaye, who would later be known as a mainstay of the early Farrelly Brothers movies, Billy Zane (Titanic) as an oddly and refreshingly hesitant boyfriend of the Brown's oldest daughter, eschewing the typical overbearing sex fiend archetype normally used for that role, and finally Ethan Phillips, best known as Neelix, one of the worst main characters in all of Star Trek history, which is quite an accomplishment considering that list includes the Crusher family, Troi, Harry Kim, and half the cast of Enterprise.

Critters 2: The Main Course (1988)

Directed by Mick Garris, who would go on to direct The Stand and create the mostly good and sometimes excellent Masters of Horror series, Critters 2 picks up a year after the previous film, as the alien bounty hunters now with Charlie as their apprentice return to Earth to take out the last of the Crites left behind in the last movie. In short, Critters 2 takes everything great about the first film and makes it ten times better. In terms of increased quality and a greater comedic emphasis, it is the Evil Dead 2 of the franchise. Ironically, Joe Dante would later take a similar tack in the Gremlins series in another sequel better than the original, and later still went on to direct arguably the best episode of Garris' Masters of Horror.

The story is similar to the first, still taking place in Grover's Bend, but expands the scope of the invasion to the entire town, forcing the townspeople to band together to defend themselves after collectively deciding to pretend the events of the last film never happened. It is also notable for being one of the few movies at least marketed as a horror film that is set during the holiday of Easter, which makes good suspenseful use of the Crite eggs, mistaken for Easter eggs painted and held by children. This leads to one of the film's best known scenes, where the local sheriff, dressed as the Easter Bunny for a church function, finds himself unable to zip the bottom of his suit and winds up getting several Critters launched up into his crotch. Some might say that this is an indication of a sort of crassness that reduces the film to juvenile silliness. These people would be wrong. We learn a few more things about the Crites this time around, namely the confirmation that their hierarchy appears to be based on size, with larger Crites dominating smaller ones, and their previously unseen ability to form into a giant ball of death that strips the flesh off any living thing it rolls over.

Again, Terrance Mann's Ug is the highlight of the movie, and it is to the filmmakers' credit that he is given much more to do and much more room to grow the character. It is established here first that the reason Ug can retain his form while his partner Lee cannot is because Ug's form fits his personality, while Lee has yet to find a good fit, tying their shape-shifting ability to their self esteem and self image, which becomes important later in the film. This time around, Lee spends most of the film in the form of a Playboy playmate portrayed by the late, and judging solely by this film great, Roxanne Kernohan, briefly switching to the form of Eddie Deezen and then back again. Her character also provides the only nude scene in the series (not counting a few brief shots of Angela Bassett in Critters 4), thankfully before changing into Deezen. Some might argue that this scene is gratuitous and unnecessary. These people are Communists and only make these arguments because they hate America.

Perhaps now is as good a time as any to talk about the Bonerzooka, which is admittedly my name for it, but apt considering its usage in the series. The primary weapon of the bounty hunters in the first two films is a retractable laser cannon that is large, phallic shaped, rounded at the top, and in case you didn't get the idea before, extends in length, becoming fully erect before firing. This. Is. Fucking. Awesome. In the first film it could be argued that the resemblance was unintentional, though given the hunters' penchant for wanton manly destruction it seems unlikely, and in this film, all subtext becomes text. One wonders if the main reason for casting Kernohan in the role, apart of a generally interesting twist on the concept, was purely for the restaurant scene featuring her gloriously blasting away at the Critters with both hands wrapped around a loaded cock laser. I'm not complaining. Fuck am I not complaining. The only downside to all of it is that (SPOILER ALERT) they give the character such a beautiful, endearing personality to pull you in, just to make it that much more painful when they kill her later in the movie. Ug's discovery of his fallen partner in the alley is, without irony or hyperbole, an incredibly powerful moment and probably the best in the movie if not the whole series, though unfortunately it marks Terrance Mann's exit from the film, as the trauma causes his character to lose his grip on his form and revert back to his blank face.

Charlie's arc continues as he finds himself conflicted between his old life as a maligned town drunk, and his new life as a space faring bounty hunter. He is torn, knowing that he was a nobody on Earth, but still missing his own people and feeling that he hasn't been able to live up to the title of bounty hunter or prove his worth to his alien comrades. No one who knew him believes he's some big space hero, and while Ug and Lee never question his commitment, Charlie starts to doubt it himself. In the end he is willing to sacrifice his life to prove his mettle as a hero and take out the last of the Crites, though he ultimately survives via a well placed parachute, deciding to stay on Earth and take on the role of sheriff.

Other notable elements include the return of Scott Grimes as Bradley Brown who acts as the main protagonist. He does a decent job but does not move on into the later films, and Sam Anderson, perhaps best known as Bernard from TV's  Lost, as a sardonic newspaper man. Of particular note is Barry Corbin as the retired sheriff from the first film, replacing M. Emmet Walsh in the role. Every line Corbin has in the movie is delightful and he has a crotchety silliness that rivals John Vernon in Killer Klowns. At one point in the movie he decides to leave, setting up the cliche of coming back at just the right moment to save the day. He does of course, and his quip to mark the moment is literally just, "I'm Back," just stating the cliche out loud, but in such a way that makes it one of the biggest laugh lines of the movie, at least for me anyway.

Critters 3 (1991)

Oh my God, what a complete let down. After two solid movies with very little to complain about and so much to praise, the idea that this movie is at all associated with this franchise is an insult to everyone who made the first two movies great. This movie adds almost nothing to the mythology of the Critters universe and is completely pointless. You can literally skip it and not miss a beat, and if you are watching the series for the sake of the story, I might even recommend doing so, treating 1, 2, and 4 as a trilogy and only viewing this if you are a completist. That is how terrible this is.

Okay, to be fair, as a movie in its own right, completely divorced from the greatness of the first two, it isn't completely without merit. There are a few highlights, namely the Minges, an elderly couple who live in the apartment building that the Critters attack (by the way, that's the plot of the movie, you need know no more than that). Ms. Minges in particular, played by Frances Bay, the Marble Rye lady from Seinfeld and Happy Gilmore's grandmother, is good as always, but is only given a few choice moments to shine, as is her character's alien and conspiracy obsessed husband. Instead we get to focus on a rag tag group of what would be the most unlikable characters you'd ever want to see in a movie, if they weren't also the most forgettable.

The father of the family terrorized is so ambivalent and casually neglectful of his obviously struggling family through most of the film that you begin to wonder if it is a plot point and he's being drugged or something, but no, he's just that bad of an actor, and so badly written that his decision to get off his ass and save his child from certain death at the end of the film, what any parent is supposed to do, is treated as a heroic character turn. And the kids, including Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception) in his first film role, are horrible, which might seem unfair considering they are all child actors, but so was Scott Grimes, and he pulled it off twice, which I know because I just fucking watched that shit happen. Come to think of it, the only two characters I like apart from the Minges are the two comically evil ones that die way early in the movie; the smarmy land lord and the perverted maintenance man. And I only like them because their wickedness is so over the top as to be absurd.

The Critters in this movie are basically an afterthought and might as well be any swarm of movie monster. All we learn is that apparently they've now developed a high pitched sonic scream that can break glass and cause them to assemble, and now they have a sort of high speed revving ability, like Sonic the Hedgehog's spin dash from Sonic 2. Beyond that, there's a new addition of alien technology in the form of a crystal that glows green in the presences of Crites. Never seen before, never seen again, and only pivotal in one scene of the movie, and even then not really necessary. I guess when they first bring it out and reveal it's glowing, meaning the Critters are there, it is meant to convey the feeling that the shit is going down, but in this case, the only shit going down is the shittiness of this movie down my angry, bitter throat. Yeah, I'm not very good at metaphors. Sorry.

I can't describe the shallow travesty of this movie without describing what I can only imagine was what the director thought was an extremely important and crucial scene considering the time devoted to it, which itself almost defies description. Right in the middle of the movie, for no fucking reason whatsoever, the Critters stop chasing the apartment dwellers after losing them up an attic crawl space, and just start hanging out in the Minges' kitchen. They aren't talking or planning anything, just sitting around, chilling out. One starts to eat some beans and then farts a lot, because that's something we needed to fucking see. The others then proceed to laugh at the stinkiness of said fart. Another drinks some laundry soap and starts burping bubbles, and then they start throwing mini-pies at each other, and it's topped off with one in a cupboard, slowly showering them with flour. The scene is two minutes long intercut into two segments of roughly a minute a piece, which might not seem like a long time, but in context, it feels like an eternity. The scene is split up by a cut away to the main characters running away, even as we establish that they clearly don't have to, because the Critters have decided to take a fart break. I cannot adequately convey exactly what this scene reflects about the movie, except to say that I used to have a soul, an ineffable quality unique to the human spirit, and it died, somewhere in that two minute void.

Charlie makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the movie, now a freelance bounty hunter having apparently renounced his position as sheriff gained in the last movie, which it goes without saying would have been a much better story point to focus on. He's hunting the last of the Crites and warns the kids on their way back home to the city, then eventually comes in at the end to rescue them with his homemade fireworks shotgun, which, while effective, does not in any way resemble an erect penis, and therefore fails to impress. He tries valiantly but fails to save the movie, which ends on a cliffhanger featuring Terrance Mann in a cameo to set up the last film, which thankfully is much better.

Critters 4 (1992)

The fourth and final installment in the Critters saga starts out right where the last one left off, re-playing the cliffhanger ending from Critters 3 with a much clearer presentation, not interspersed with the credits like last time, thus rendering the only important element of the last film completely irrelevant (fuck that movie so hard). Apparently, Charlie has tracked down the last two Crite eggs in existence, but before he can destroy them, a hologram of his old friend Ug appears to tell him that he can't kill a life form if it means the extinction of the species. It's an odd though welcome environmentalist message that I wish they would have gone further into. It promises a twist to the formula with the series' enemies suddenly being protected, and while shades of this are present in the film later on, this noble intention is largely forgotten and ignored. Anyway, the Council sends a pod to extract the eggs, but Charlie gets locked in with them, cryogenically frozen and launched into space, to be picked up 50 years later by a salvage ship.

The first half of the film is devoted to introducing the new characters, which is hit and miss in terms of legitimately interesting performances. The obvious stand out is Brad Dourif as Al Bert (his full name, not Albert) who always brings his all regardless of how silly the movie may be, this being no exception. Like Terrance Mann, his commitment to taking every role seriously makes the whole movie that much more believable and enjoyable. An early Angela Basset (What's Love Got to Do With It?) appearance is a bit wasted on a character that doesn't get to do much, save for getting naked in the shower, and Eric De Re, the wife-beating Leo Johnson from Twin Peaks, shows up to play a character in so wooden a fashion as to demonstrate why you've never seen him in anything else. Rounding out the new cast is the forgettable teen protagonist who does protagonist things like run from bad guys and juggle, and the over the top greedy asshole captain, who is somewhat enjoyable and comes just close to overstaying his welcome before providing what is probably the one genuinely creepy death in the entire movie franchise, wherein a baby Crite leaps into his mouth and tries to eat him from inside his face.

Apart from the rules regarding their potential extinction and the aforementioned baby Crite, which is a little cuter than is should be considering how it dispatches the captain, little is added to the mythology at least in terms of our favorite alien monsters. There is a subplot concerning a genetic engineering lab that the Critters use to enlarge themselves, but its barely explored and only serves as a place to have them all conveniently in one room to eat the bad guys later on. It is an interesting idea that could have been used to create all sorts of different mutated Critters to menace the crew a la Gremlins 2, and its existence is linked to an even more interesting idea of a corrupt intergalactic government wanting to use the Critters' hyper reproductive rate to breed genetically engineered super predators as bio-weapons, but again, it is not given enough time to matter to the over all story. Continuing that theme of novel set ups leading to wasted potential is Angela, the AI computer that has lost 50% of its logic capacity, and only functions if you tell it to do the opposite of what you want it to do. A clever idea that could have led to a HAL-esque twist in the story that ultimately has very little point past the initial joke. The whole tone of the movie attempts to reintroduce horror elements more directly than previous movies, referencing the Alien franchise with many scenes clearly reminiscent of that series, but it never quite slows down enough to achieve the tone of gradually building dread needed for that to work.

The real meat of the story comes with the arrival of Charlie, awakened from cryo-sleep to find he is 50 years in the future and everyone he ever knew and loved is dead (or so he thinks). He's thrust into the role of Critter hunter again almost as soon as he wakes up and has a few cool moments blowing them away with an antique pistol before the arrival of an old friend complicates his new life. It seems that the Council that sent the pod at the end of the last film dissolved at some point prior to this one, to be replaced by one under the auspices of the evil Terracorp company, which cares little about environmentalist policy and wishes to use the Critters to make weapons of war. Their emissary sent to retrieve the Crites is the nefarious Counselor Tetra, a new name taken by the shape-shifter Ug, in what should have been a shocking reveal in the third act instead of a bizarre, off putting one in the first.

Terrance Mann is back as Ug/Tetra, this time in the role of the villain, and the character's turn is not fully explained, only addressed by a vague, "Things change." The showdown between Charlie and Ug, acknowledging their friendship at gun point, is tense, and after four movies should have been a much larger part of the story and not saved to the very end. The lack of back story for Ug's transformation is disheartening and without context seems to betray the legacy of the character simply to let Mann show off his skills as a bad guy. Still, the resolution is a powerful moment for anyone following the arcs of these two characters, which now come full circle, Charlie going from wretched to heroic, and Ug following the opposite path, starting out noble and becoming corrupted. If only they'd spent more time on this and virtually every other good idea presented in the story, it would have elevated the film as a whole to a classic worthy of the first two in the series, instead of a failed, though still enjoyable hodgepodge of disparate narrative threads.

Not quite the ending to the series most Critters fans including myself were looking for, but then again, that's what extremely sad and pathetic fan fiction is for (see below).

How I Would Have Continued The Series

Okay, here goes...

Critters 5 (Never)

It starts with a scene set on an alien world where a team of astronauts explore a dead planet in search of something they claim will save Earth, finding it in the green sludge of a broken Crite egg. The story then moves to where the last film left off with Charlie and the kid from 4 on their way to Earth. The ship's warp drive breaks down and the computer says it will take over 100 years to reach Earth at maximum speed, forcing the two to go back into cryo-sleep to survive the trip. Charlie awakens a century later to find his companion died in transit (because he's not important so fuck him) and he finds himself on a futuristic utopian Earth with shades of Demolition Man-style fascistic tendencies. He explores this new world, only to find that to his shock and horror, the Crites, thought extinct after the last film, ares still here, not as monsters, but as domesticated pets!

He learns from a hologram of Ug/Counselor Tetra (who became a martyr to society after the last film and immortalized as a holo-guide) that the discovery of the Crite home world, abandoned by the Crites after they ate everything on it, led to the synthesis of Crite DNA that could be used to clone the creatures and engineer them for the benefit of mankind. Their aggressive tendencies, quills, and sharp teeth are bred out of them and they are programmed to subsist on easy to produce synthetic gruel, and then selectively bred for various purposes. Most are made hairless, raised in tiny cages, and used for food, solving world hunger due to their rapid reproductive rate, while others are neutered and used for pets, starting out as albino versions, customized to whatever color their owners want, and taught to speak simply phrases like, "I love you." Even their waste is used, discovered to be a low cost clean burning energy source extracted from the traditional black Crites.

Charlie is naturally wary of this development, but his protests are unheeded. At some point earlier in the film, perhaps as a dream sequence, we show a flashback to Charlie and Ug in their time as partners in bounty hunting. Ug is wounded and almost dies, and the two share a moment of friendship, as some of Ug's blood gets splashed on Charlie's hunter outfit, which is still present as a dark spot to the current day. Unbeknownst to Charlie when visiting the cloning lab, the shape-shifter DNA on his clothes is aspirated by the lab filters and the cloning process is initiated, leading to a clone of the original Ug, his memories only going as far as the time of the flashback, stepping out of the chamber. The two friends are reunited and Ug is given a redemptive story as he learned what he eventually became and commits to never becoming Counselor Tetra.

The conflict arises when a terrorist group seeking greater civil liberties seeks to destabilize society by upsetting the production of clone Crites, inadvertently unleashing a genetically mutating virus that begins to revert all Crites to their former ravenous selves along with further mutating some into different forms (Flying Crites, Serpentine Crites, Metal Crites, etc). They form an army led by an albino pet Crite, rejected by his spoiled brat of an owner because her parents forgot to make him the color she wanted. The once peaceful society is thrown into the kind of wacky chaos only Critters can do, with Charlie and Ug suiting up again to stop the invasion like old times. They eventually manage to quell the uprising by releasing the additive that turns Critter waste into fuel in an aerosolized form, causing any Crite exposed to it to explode from the inside and leading them to retreat. The movie ends with the albino Crite leader revealing that he has learned to speak complete English as he rallies his troops for a final assault, setting up a sixth movie, Planet of the Crites, which I envision as a post-apocalyptic resistance movie, like what Terminator Salvation should have been, but with Critters. So, basically what Terminator Salvation should have been.

Ah, but that's an incredibly nerdy story for another day. You read it, you can't unread it. Thanks for sticking with me for all of this, unless of course you just randomly skipped to the end, in which case you missed all the super secret clues you'll need to win the grand prize in our contest - a fully functional replica of the Bonerzooka. See you next time, for evil puppets, boring psychics, Nazis, and eventual Corey Feldman (the best kind of Corey Feldman) in The Puppet Master series.
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