★★ / ★★★★
When a bunch of furry alien prisoners escape from an asteroid prison, they make their way to planet Earth to get sustenance. A pair of shape-shifting bounty hunters (Terrence Mann and Don Keith Opper) are hired to collect the hungry fur balls and put them back to where they belong. Meanwhile, a family of four in the countryside of Kansas begin to encounter the strange creatures after a spaceship crashed in their farm.
“Critters,” based on the screenplay by Domonic Muir and Stephen Herek, reaches crests when it focuses on the circumstances surrounding the increasingly scared and desperate family, but it just as immediately reaches troughs when the camera turns its attention to the residents in town and their crossing paths with the alien bounty hunters.
The scenes just before we have a chance to see the critters’ bodies whole are effective. What better place to investigate something that sounds creepy than in a dark cellar. When Jay (Billy Green Bush), the head of the family, walks down the stairs and hears crunching noises, my curious brain wanted him to keep going but my gut wanted to yell at him to run away. The slow walk toward the hairy ball slightly hidden behind the shelf amps up the tension, coupled with the lack of light which suggests it will likely not go well for the father. The picture is at its most enjoyable seconds before the little creatures attack, from the way the camera shows us the hunger behind those red eyes to the menacing shark-sharp teeth.
I also enjoyed that the Crites are not turned into some sort of typical evil creatures. For instance, there is no plot to take over the world. Sure, we root against them because they wish to feast on human flesh, but for them it is about survival. People are food to them as chickens are food to us.
Furthermore, I found it interesting that their modes of attack have variation. When one is by itself, it is more willing to attack head-on. However, when they are in a group, a semblance of strategy is often involved. As we and the family learn more about the aliens, the latter also learn about humans. Notice that they tend to attack the human body’s weak spots: shoulders (control of limbs), necks (blood flow), feet (escape). Watching the Crites is fun because they are given a chance to adapt.
However, with every attack that is shown, the townspeople panicking is also given time. I found the shape-shifters too flashy to be in a movie like this. Given the importance of their mission, one would think they would be more sleuth. Also, given their knowledge about the universe, one might expect that they were more tolerant or patient. Instead, they somehow find themselves in a sort of bar brawl with not many interesting people to talk to. This gives way to special and visual effects for the sake of demonstration instead of an additional tool to enhance the story.
Directed by Stephen Herek, it is apparent that “Critters” is not supposed to be too scary. The subtitles that appear when the Crites communicate are amusing and Brad (Scott Grimes), the farmer’s only son, is fun and mischievous given his current interest in slingshots and firecrackers. But the difference in tone and texture between the family and the town’s experiences is too wide of a gap to feel like a successful whole.