This one kind of demands to be observed and reviewed as a quadrilogy instead of four separate films because they flow into one another and so do many horror franchises that spawned a ton of sequels, but each of the Critters films are under ninety minutes and therefore easy to binge. Add to that the fact that there’s a handy DVD four pack floating around out there for extra convenience and you’ve got one cool little package. It would be easy to dismiss these films as a giant ripoff of Gremlins and indeed there are discernible parallels but there is both enough anatomical and characteristically different features to these creatures as well as narrative originality in the films themselves to make them a franchise worthy of distinction. Plus, ya know, Leonardo DiCaprio in his first movie, like, ever.
So what are Critters? They’re an extremely troublesome, destructive race of outlaw aliens that kind of resemble a hybrid between porcupines, gorillas and… basketballs. They arrive on earth and quite literally roll around like basketballs with no real plan other than to evade a couple shape shifting cosmic bounty hunters dispatched to exterminate them as well as bite, chew, maim and terrify every human being they come across. The first film would kind of have an Amblin/Spielberg vibe if the critters weren’t so savage and R rated in nature, which is a perfect example of why this isn’t simply a Gremlins rehash. The evolved Mogwai were nasty little shits, no doubt, but these things are positively murderous and inflict the kind of gore that Romero would be proud of. The first two films take place in wistful Grover’s Bend, one of those sleepy little American towns where nothing bad ever happens until it does and then the town is never known for anything else *except* that incident. An apple pie rural family headed up by the great Dee Wallace must confront them and defend their farmhouse from critter advances in super gory, chaotic fashion. Oh and Billy Zane shows up with a painfully 80’s ponytail too, before being quickly dispatched in a barn. The second film is more of the same although they thought they could sneakily recast the great M. Emmett Walsh with decidedly less iconic Barry Corbin as the town Sheriff, nice try. The third film is the most effective and not just for Leo Dicaprio but also because the setting change from rural county to dilapidated big city tenement building is way more spookily atmospheric, and allows for some hilarious hijinks with a laundry chute. The fourth film should be great because it’s that obligatory horror entry that’s set in space (like Jason X or Leprechaun In Space or.. wasn’t there even a Hellraiser in space?) but it kind of plods along in humdrum territory, the critters don’t even show up until like over halfway through and the only really memorable work comes from the ever awesome Brad Dourif and the luminous Angela Bassett.
The one character besides the Critters that holds these four flicks together is a town drunk turned intergalactic warrior played by Don Keith Opper, who is kind of a weird, aloof dude but provides each new film with eccentric gusto while new supporting players surround him. DiCaprio shows signs of his career to come and carries the highlight third entry nicely, while the first two feel very much akin to one another in a sort of Halloween and Halloween 2 kind of way. Low budget slapdash cheese like this is my bread and butter, I’m very fond of 80’s trash horror franchises like this and was beyond stoked to see the DVD at Walmart last second before going through the til and be able to binge all four films in one night. They’re great fare of this shit is your cup of tea, and they have this maniacal, almost Evil Dead style comedic sensibility to them that I greatly appreciated. My favourite scene of the whole thing: Dee Wallace brandishes a giant double barrel shotgun out her front door to ward off two Critters incoming up the driveway. Suddenly they speak to each other in some Furby gibberish with subtitles, one observing “They have weapons!” “So?”, his buddy retorts. Dee fires off a round that obliterates one of the two beasts into a puddle of fur and blood. The other one looks over and exclaims “Fuck!” in their weird little outer space creole dialect. I love that warped sense of humour gifted unto these scrappy little flicks, they’re a ton of fun.
Robert Zemeckis’s Contact is a periodically good film that suffers from over-length, clutter and sideshow syndrome, as in it doesn’t trust itself to stick to the effective core story without throwing in all sorts of other hoo-hah just for for the sheer hell of it. At two and a half hours it feels more stretched than Bilbo did before leaving the Shire, and would have been way better off slicing out a good half hour to streamline. What does work is really captivating though, especially a fantastic Jodie Foster in a performance of striking determination as a woman who never loses the sense of wonder she had as a child, and strives to make contact with anyone that may be out there in the vast universe. Of course her efforts meet budget cuts, skepticism and sneers from the government and fellow colleagues like Tom Skeritt’s prestigious researcher, a sadly one note character whose allegiance turns on a dime when she actually receives a message from a faraway galaxy. Speaking of one note characters, get a load of chest puffing James Woods as an obnoxious NSA prick with all the depth a kitchen sink has to offer. John Hurt fares better as an eccentric billionaire who offers Foster funding and support, as does always terrific David Morse as her father. Matthew McConaughey is sorely miscast as a spiritual man and love interest, William Fichtner is excellent as her loyal colleague and friend, Jena Malone great as nine year old Jodie Foster, while Jake Busey, Angela Bassett and a whole armada of unnecessary tabloid celebrity cameos show up too, leading right up to Bill Clinton, who I’m convinced is an alien himself. The thing is, so much of the film is just commotion and nonsense, geared towards wowing audiences instead of trusting the fact that they’ll be at ease with just Foster’s story, which is the connective tissue. The elaborate and drawn construction of a machine based on alien blueprints, pesky religious extremists, theological fanfare that falls flat and incessant faux tv newsreel footage that buzzes around like unwanted house flies and kills the atmosphere, there’s too much in the way. My favourite scene of the film takes place somewhere deep in the universe Foster has travelled to through a wormhole, in which a mysterious being tells her that “human beings are capable of such beautiful dreams, and such terrible nightmares”, a sentiment that parts the clouds and gives the story clarity, as does her arc, relationship with her father and desire to know what’s out there, who we are as a race and where we came from, and it’s in that wonder that the film finds its strength. Much of the rest is just lame earthbound noise.
I first became aware of the work of William Malone when I saw his movie CREATURE. For most, all they see is just some cheap imitation of Scott’sALIEN – but there is much on offer if you give the flick more than a sideways glance. There exists the same thrilling, eerisome mood generated that marks all of his movies and which culminated in his remake of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.
Growing up in Lansing, Michigan and going to the same high school as NBA legend Magic Johnson, it would be music and not sport that would eventually see the young Malone make his way west to Los Angeles. But the music soon died and William found himself looking for work. He took a job at Don Post Studios doing make-up and costume duties before attending film school at UCLA.
His first film would soon follow, the cult classic SCARED TO DEATH. This was the beginning of a storied career of other great features like FEARDOTCOM and PARASOMNIA as well as work on the small screen in series like TALES FROM THE CRYPT, MASTERS OF HORROR and FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES.
It was great talking with William about everything from directing Klaus Kinski, his non-existent role of TV’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK, having one of his scripts become a sequel toUNIVERSAL SOLDIER and the (I find it intriguing) story behind the making of the troubled SUPERNOVA, of which Francis Coppola mentioned to him that they should have stuck with Malone’s original script Dead Star.
Aside from being the world’s foremost collector of FORBIDDEN PLANET props and paraphernalia, William Malone is a fascinating movie-maker and a delight to chat with. I trust you’ll feel the same . . .