Color, 1986, 85 mins. 43 secs.
Directed by Stephen Herek
Starring Dee Wallace, M. Emmet Walsh, Billy Green Bush, Scott Grimes, Nadine Van der Velde, Billy Zane, Terrence Mann

Color, 1988, 85 mins. 43 secs.
Directed by Mick Garris
Starring Scott Grimes, Liane Curtis, Terrence Mann, Roxanne Kernohan, Don Keith Opper, Tom Hodges, Cynthia Garris, Lin Shaye, Eddie Deezen, Frank Birney, Barry Corbin

Color, 1991, 84 mins. 46 secs.
Directed by Kristine Peterson
Starring John Calvin, Aimee Brooks, Christian and Joseph Cousins, William Dennis Hunt, Nina Axelrod, Leonard DiCaprio, Don Keith Opper, Geoffrey Blake, Frances Bay, Terrence Mann

Color, 1992, 94 mins. 28 secs.
Directed by Rupert Harvey
Starring Don Keith Opper, Paul Whitthorne, Anders Hove, Angela Bassett, Brad Dourif, Anne Ramsay, Terrence Mann
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), New Line. (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

What Crittershath Gremlins wrought? A major hit in the summer of 1984, Crittersthe Joe Dante-directed mischievous monster saga was destined to spawn more imitations than the progeny of a water-doused mogwai, and one of the most successful came from New Line in the form of Critters. This one was actually the brainchild of writer (Brian) Domonic Muir and first time writer-director Stephen Herek well before Gremlins appeared, but box office success opens many gates and soon this sci-fi tale of voracious furballs from outer space was given the green light. Critters in turn went on to produce three more PG-13 sequels (one featuring an infamous early appearance by a future Oscar winner) and paved the way for New Line's next interstellar manhunt film, The Hidden, while Herek would quickly move on to other pastures including Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and The Mighty Ducks. The series also turned into a big calling card for creature designers and brothers Charles, Edward, and Stephen Chiodo, whose imaginations would run wild soon after with Killer Klowns from Outer Space.

When a band of dangerous, fluffy aliens known as the Crites hijack a ship as they're about to be transported from their asteroid prison, it's up to a pair of shape-shifter bounty hunters to track them down on Earth. Ug (Broadway theater legend Mann) adopts the hair metal look of a singer called Johnny Steele, while his partner remains blank faced and able to imitate anyone in sight. GCrittersround zero for the alien invasion is the small Kansas farm community of Grover's Bend where the Browns -- Jay (Green Bush), Helen (Wallace), and Critterschildren Brad (Grimes) and April (van der Velde) -- are besieged by the Critters who will eat anything around be it a cow or a cop. Soon it's up to the scrappy family and the bounty hunters to stop the munching, rolling menace from taking over their home and, they fear, the world.

Though featuring a modest budget, Critters benefits from a wry sense of humor for its puppet villains including sparing but funny subtitled dialogue for their gibberish language. There's an undeniable charm in the plentiful practical effects here, be it the Critters themselves, explosions, and even a brief music video sequence that will give viewers of a certain age intense flashbacks. There's also an early, bouncy score provided by composer David Newman, his first feature film assignment and one that would lead to My Demon Lover and The Kindred the following year on the way to a major Hollywood career. Of course, casting Wallace was a nice coup since she brings associations of her roles in The Howling, E.T., and Cujo, and she's appealing as always here in her one entry in the series.

CrittersOf course, Grimes and Don Keith Opper (who plays town crank Charlie) would go on to appear in Critters 2: The Main Course, Critterswhich was quickly put into production after the first film became a solid box office success with unusually positive reviews. This time the director's chair went to first time Mick Garris, who had penned several episodes of Amazing Stories and would go on to helm several Stephen King adaptations starting with Sleepwalkers. This time Ug (Mann again) and Lee (who takes on the form of a centerfold model, played by the appealing Kernohan) are called into action again along with Charlie when a stash of Crite eggs unleashes a new round of mayhem at Easter in the town of Grover's Bend. Brad (Grimes) is visiting his grandmother at the time and proves to be a valuable resource as the Critters find new ways of amassing and terrorizing the hapless townsfolk.

In addition to inaugurating Garris into the horror film world, this one is also notable as the first screenplay credit for writer-director David Twohy, who would also write Warlock and The Fugitive before striking gold with Pitch Black and its Riddick sequels. Expanding on ideas from the prior film onto a larger canvas, it doesn't go to Gremlins 2 levels of insanity but definitely amps up the surrealism including the memorable giant Critter ball (source of most of the film's promotional art) and one of the most Crittersmemorable nude scenes in any PG-13 release. While the first film played safely within the confines of its rating, this one really pushes as hard as it can at times Crittersincluding a gory Easter church service attack that probably would've caused more controversy if prudish parents' groups had been paying attention.

The second film would be the last to go theatrical for the series, which swerved instead to cashing in on the lucrative direct-to-video market in a fashion familiar to followers of the Leprechaun, Hellraiser, Children of the Corn, Tremors, or Child's Play series. That definitely means a dip in quality from this point on, though the remaining two films do have their goofy pleasures and points of interest. Of course, Critters 3 will always be most famous for featuring a very young Leonardo DiCaprio in his big screen debut just before his recurring role on TV's Growing Pains and a few other film you might have seen. Having survived another Critter attack, Charlie (still Opper) is still on the hunt for the surviving Crites and crosses paths with a family of three - Annie (Brooks), Johnny (Cousins), and dad Clifford (Calvin) - after their truck is waylaid by a blown tire. Via a handy flashback reel, Charlie tells them about the destructive aliens blighting the area, and soon there's a stash of Crite eggs secreted underneath the family truck when it's back on the road. Their destination is a run-down apartment building run by the Crittersdomineering and corrupt CrittersFrank (Blake), whose stepson, Josh (DiCaprio), had met up with the kids during their pit stop. Soon the building is a breeding ground for a new Critter outbreak.

Pulling back the scale from the second film, this one is a decent, good-natured programmer in the hands of director Kristine Peterson, a former assistant director for Roger Corman who had helmed the interesting 1988 shocker, Deadly Dreams. It was also written by splatterpunk author David J. Schow, who of course would go on to write The Crow and had just come off of Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. The deal with New Line at the time basically meant that the third and fourth films could be done back to back for a lower cost (essentially what it cost to just make the first film by itself) with this film's ending directly dovetailing into the plot for Critters 4. Anticipating the direction of Leprechaun 4: In Space, Jason X, and Hellraiser: Bloodline, this final outing for the saga takes place fifty years in the future ("Somewhere in Saturn Quadrant 2045") as a salvage space ship picks up a pod containing Charlie and the last two Critter eggs, with untrustworthy Captain Buttram (Subspecies' Hove) in charge of the crew and potential Crite meat including a twitchy engineer (Dourif) and no-nonsense pilot (Bassett). An offer to bring the pod to a nearby station for a huge sum of money puts them all in the path of the Crites, whose background becomes clearer as the survivors must decide whether to wipe the species out of the universe forever. Filled with padding and mostly shot on dark, cheap sets, this is easily the least of the four films despite its odd cast (including Anne Ramsay, Martine Beswick as the voice of the ship's contrarian computer, and dual small roles for Mann). CrittersCrittersThe Critters are severely underused, only showing up nearly halfway into the story and even then appearing in sparing doses a couple of times. They're still scene stealers though, and the new twists given to their characters result in some fun images if you stick it out.

All four films in this series first hit DVD in 2003 with no extras aside from trailers (with a 2010 collection later gathering them together), so anyone hoping for special editions will be more than satisfied with the lavish treatment extended by Scream Factory's 2018 Blu-ray boxed set, The Critters Collection. The first two films are touted as 2K scans from "original film elements," which is rather vague but does deliver pleasing results that go far beyond the old DVDs. They both look extremely solid from start to finish with more natural colors than before and a nice normal level of film grain. The other two are from older HD masters likely dating a bit to the film's preparation for digital streaming and broadcast premieres a few years ago; they aren't terrible but do look more dated with less defined detail and more blown-out whites. The first film features a DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track (as do the sequels) in keeping with the theatrical presentation, plus a slightly more expansive and gimmicky 5.1 option in keeping with the way it was treated on DVD. As with the other three Blu-rays in the set, the theatrical trailer is included for Critters (entirely scored with very recognizable music from A Nightmare on Elm Street) along with a still gallery. Two new audio commentaries have been added, the first with the two Oppers, Don and producer Barry, and the second with the Chiodo Brothers. The big new extra for Critters is Critters 4"They Bite!" (71m5s), a mammoth making-of doc featuring Wallace, Opper, Mann, Lin Shaye, Newman, producer Barry Opper, writer Brian Muir, the Chiodo Brothers, make-up artist R. Christopher Biggs, special prop supervisor Anthony Doublin, second unit director Mark Helfrich, Critter voice Critters 4actor Corey Burton (a real scene stealer), C. Courtney Joyner, Shane Bitterling, and miniature effects supervisor Gene Warren Jr. (Both Herek and Grimes are busy on current TV shows and were presumably unavailable; hopefully they weren't uninterested.) It's truly exhaustive as it covers every aspect of the production from its much darker, R-rated original screenplay incarnation through the conception and execution of the titular creatures (with a little extra blood on display, too). "For Brian" A Tribute to Screenwriter Brian Domonic Muir" (21m57s) brings back several of the participants (plus Thomas Callaway, cinematographer of the last two in the series), for an affectionate portrait of the late scribe who died too young in 2010 and went on to write a slew of Full Moon titles. A batch of production footage (11m52s) focuses on how one of the Critters was brought to life, while a jerky-looking alternate ending features a different edit of the climax (for reasons explained in the main doc). Four TV spots are also included, and the last one (featuring candid interviews with audience members) is a real keeper.

Critters 2 can also be played with a pair of new audio commentaries, the first with Garris and Red Shirt Pictures' Mike Felsher and the second with the Chiodo Brothers again. Both are quite different but entertaining as they cover the increased budget (and increased Critters), the higher presence of comedy, the demands for more articulated puppets, the Norman Rockwell vibe of the setting, and plenty more. "The Main Course: The Critters 4Making Of Critters 2" (63 mins.) features Garris, actors Liane Curtis, Mann, and Shaye, the Oppers, the Chiodos, and Biggs for another incredibly thorough document of the film's creation, explaining how most of the cast was switched out (Wallace also appears briefly to note she wasn't asked to do a second film) and the studio was aiming for a ramped-up ambitious approach to the material. A batch of Critters 4additional footage from the film's extended TV version (13m9s) is included from a VHS source, and it's interesting to see how it fleshes out the character development a little bit (and adds in a Smurf joke). A narrated reel of production footage (23m49s) is lot of fun with plentiful shots of the furry stars preparing for some of their big scenes (and hamming it up for the camera with subtitles) as well as the very young Garris and Chiodos being interviewed by a local reporter. A trailer, TV spot, and still gallery are also included. Critters 3 features the two Oppers for another new audio commentary with Buzz Wallick, explaining how the last two films were done concurrently in the early '90s, where the shooting locations were scouted not far outside L.A., and how DiCaprio's family was a local fixture with the actor a familiar presence even when he was in diapers. The Oppers turn up for another new doc, "You Are What They Eat" (26m27s), along with Schow, Mann, the Chiodos, and director of photography Thomas J. Callaway. Again they touch on how the dual productions got off the ground at the same time, essentially shot like one giant film with different directors and plenty of money saved in the process. The anecdote about the sprinkler mishap while shooting in an abandoned supermarket is also indicative of the compromises that had to be made on the production. A video promo for this one is included in addition to the usual trailer. Critters 4 features a surprisingly expansive new audio commentary with Felsher in discussion with producer-director Rupert Harvey, who had worked as a producer on the prior three films and had a background with Roger Corman. That background fuels as the main talking point for the track, which features some funny stories about making Android and lots of tales about working at New Line during its rapid ascent in the Hollywood pecking order. The featurette "Space Madness" (22m39s) once again brings together the Oppers, Schow, Mann, Callaway, and the Chiodos for a breakdown of how this, the darkest and moodiest of the series, came together in such a ramshackle fashion with so much of the budget being spent on the creatures in the third film. The section on the Critter babies is worth checking out as is the candid admission that the Chiodos were available far less than before, which may have taken a toll on how much the creatures could dominate their last big screen outing. All of the film are housed on separate Blu-rays in individual cases within a sturdy box, and orders through the company site (the first 1,000 placed) also get two exclusive lithographs. Definitely a must for any Critterphile.

Reviewed on November 29, 2018.