For the last four years, Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson has hosted a late-night horror movie celebration called Terror Tuesday and if you are a lover of horror, both esoterically brilliantly and obscurely awful, this night was invented just for you. The Terror Tuesday Report will dissect the movie shown as well as provide a barometer for the audience's reaction; as many of these films demand to be seen with an audience, this proves a vital component to the evening.
This week's film: 'Critters' directed by Stephen Herek, 1986
A happy rural family in Tinysburg, Kansas (not the actual name, but it should be) have their lives changed forever when they receive visitors from way out of town. The visitors happen to be escapees from an orbiting space prison. They are endlessly hungry little monsters known as the Crites (tracking the verbal gymnastics to get from there to the title of this film should be no difficult task). The powers that be dispatch two vicious bounty hunters to either return the Crites to the intergalactic penitentiary or vaporize them. Hopefully, they will be able to accomplish this task before the Crites have eaten the entirety of the Sunflower State.
How 'Critters' had not entered my universe until now is beyond me. It is awash in the various 80s tropes that make the horror films of that decade so irresistible. There are hints of 'Night of the Creeps,' 'Troll 2,' and 'I Come in Peace' dotting the landscape but obviously assuming derivation would be a fallacy considering their wildly different release dates. It has been touched upon a lot in relation to this film, but I do find it fascinating how monster movies in the 80s regressed in terms of monster size. It seems that, prior to 1984, the trend was to make the monster as big as possible, and then Joe Dante came along with 'Gremlins' and proved the maxim of of big things in small packages. If not for 'Gremlins,' at the very least, there would be no 'Critters' and no 'Ghoulies.' I find it funny that 'Critters' seems the knockoff of the cuddly version of the gremlins while 'Ghoulies' borrows more heavily from the post-midnight feed gremlins.
The thing that really elevates the material in 'Critters' is its characters. There is honestly not an unlikable character to be found which, as much as I love the genre, is no small feat for a horror film. The father embraces his bumpkin status with glee and judges every vehicle in existence based on its capacity to tow hay. The mom is genre goddess Dee Wallace Stone who, though she seems strong and independent, goes from zero to crazy in mere moments where appropriate. The daughter is sassy and dating none other than a baby-faced Billy Zane. She spends the whole movie awkwardly trying to get into his pants as he inexplicably resists; gender reversal date rape? If nothing else, it is a hoot watching Zane fail so epically at comedy. The son is a pint sized movie geek with a knack for making pipe bombs disproportionate to his age. Top that off the great M. Emmet Walsh as the sheriff and the town cook who looks remarkably like Michael Richards' character from 'UHF' and you've got a cast too fantastic not to enjoy.
Like any great '80s horror film, 'Critters' is not without its cheesiness. The aforementioned town cook keeps talking about radio signals being received on his teeth and is routinely fooled by the police radio into thinking aliens are contacting him. The alien bounty hunters are shape-shifters and the fact that one of them uses MTV to adopt his disguise makes me endlessly hairband happy. I also love the fact that the little critter monsters can roll like Sonic the Hedgehog and look like an army of miniature Billy Ray Cyruses. But what really amps up the cheese in 'Critters' is the final shot of the family farm being put back together with space magic after being blasted to bits. Not a bad practical effect, but one that makes the film err more on the side of 'Peter Pan' than 'Aliens'.
This week the Terror Tuesday shenanigans were presided over by superfan Garin Sparks. Garin, in addition to being a Critterologist, is also a manager at the fabulous Highball Lounge; the greatest bar ever conceived by man that happens to reside right next to the Alamo Drafthouse in South Austin. Garin was able to perfectly nail down what makes 'Critters' such a vital part of New Line's heyday and the 80s in general. This film is pitch perfect for Terror Tuesday and was greeted with wild enthusiasm. I am sorry to say it was my first time seeing 'Critters,' but then again what better place to make a cinematic discovery?