Critters Attack! (2019) at Fantasia 2019
“What is this, 1986?”, teenager Trissy asks Drea (Tashiana Washington). College-age Drea is babysititng Trissy and her younger brother Jake (Jack Fulton), with Drea’s own younger brother Phillip (Jaeden Noel) in tow – and these words were Trissy’s horrified response to Drea’s proposal that they while away their time together playing a card game.
1986 was of course the year that Stephen Herek’s original Critters was released. Its first sequel, in 1988, was the directorial debut of one Mick Garris, who has since become regarded as a Master of Horror; its second sequel, from 1991, introduced the world to a young Leonardo DiCaprio, who has since risen to stardom; and the third and final sequel, from 1992, itself actually traveled into space, leaving the franchise with nowhere else to go. Critters Attack! is a series reboot, set in the present day – although in many ways it also remains a throwback to 1986, from Russ Howard III’s synth score to its practical creature puppetry and effects (director Bobby Miller showed past expertise with these in his 2016 feature debut The Cleanse) to the return of Dee Wallace – who starred in the original Critters – here playing a mysterious operative called Aunt Dee. What is perhaps the film’s greatest signifier of our own times – the smartphone to which mute Jake is glued and through which alone he is willing to communicate – ceases to work when the power and wifi are cut out, forcing these kids to act in ways entirely in keeping with a pre-internet era.
After two objects come crashing out of the sky one night into the woods, the small town where recently orphaned Drea and Phillip live with their police chief uncle quickly becomes overrun with ‘Krites’ – alien toothy furballs who create deadly mayhem as they eat whatever comes in their path and rapidly reproduce, all with a mischievous snigger. Yet where the original Critters was frequently deemed a Gremlins rip-offs (despite the fact that Domonic Muir wrote his screenplay for Critters before Gremlins went into production, and then had to bring in rewrites specifically to differentiate it from Joe Dante’s successful horror comedy), Miller’s revisit (scripted by Scott Lobdell) seems to embrace the association, introducing a benign female Krite who is clearly inspired by the good gremlin Mogwai. Other influences – the sonically sensitive alien invaders from Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996) and the alien strapped to a human’s back from Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block (2011) – are duly acknowledged by the second word in this film’s title.
If the overall tone here is one of arch fun, Critters Attack! does not entirely lack subtext. Its most prominent theme concerns mothers: Drea’s sense of hopeless freefall in the wake of her mother’s death, her renewed sense of purpose when stepping up to take responsibility for the children under her own care, and the eventual replacement of her mother with the take-no-prisoners Dee. This theme is also reflected among the Krites, who are presented as an unruly rabble of naughty boys needing to be brought into line by their queen. So Miller serves up his cutesy, silly alien invasion flick with a side order of girl power – and where a gun-toting male cop and an overconfident musclebound jock fall terribly short against the onrushing juggernaut of extraterrestrial aggression, these women, at least when they work together, prove an unstoppable force all of their own.
© Anton Bitel