The latest in the horror-comedy franchise is a cynical, half-hearted dud.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.)
Look, the Critters franchise was never the most sophisticated saga in horror movie history. Capitalizing on ’80s culture’s collective love of little toothy puppets that would rip our guts out (though the makers of the first Critters dispute the idea that they ripped off Gremlins), the four films in the Critters series were full-bore gooey schlock that leaned into their inherent silliness, for better or worse.
Of course, in our nostalgia-fueled present, we’re desperate to recapture that sense of devil-may-care wonder; the ’80s aesthetic has been revitalized thanks to tongue-in-cheek throwbacks like Kung Fury and Turbo Kid. Just about every beloved cult movie from the decade is getting a twenty-year-late sequel (what Matt Singer has dubbed the ‘legacyquel’), and it was only a matter of time before Critters got theirs. Unfortunately, Critters Attack! feels like a pale imitation of the original films, a hopelessly dated throwback desperate to recapture that schlocky magic but can’t quite get over the finish line.
In essence, Critters Attack! feels like a stealth remake of the first two Critters movies in basic skeleton — sleepy American town is beset with tiny, furry aliens called Krites, who love to chomp and chew helpless human beings, and who can roll up into little balls and chase you down, with one or more bounty hunters from space and a group of helpless teens to fend them off. This time, our hero is Drea (Tashiana Washington, Skate Kitchen), a college-aged teen haunted by the death of her mother and who lives with her alien-obsessed brother Phillip (Jaeden Noel, The Expanse) and delivers sushi to make ends meet while she works to get into the prestigious Leroy College in town.
To help her prospects, she takes a job babysitting the kids of one of Leroy’s professors; on their first outing, however, Drea and the kids (Jack Fulton and Ava Preston) discover an injured white female Krite, which they name Bianca. She’s cute, and friendly, and seems to mean well; unfortunately, she’s just the vanguard for a new host of roly-poly murderballs. Before the night is out, Drea, Phillip and the kids might just have to fight off an alien invasion – with the help of a swaggering bounty hunter named Aunt Dee (Dee Wallace).
No true legacyquel is complete without the return of an older actor from the original franchise; but this time, Wallace isn’t playing her original Critters protagonist Helen Brown. Here, she’s just “Aunt Dee,” a new character who spends most of the film’s runtime answering phones, holding plastic gadgets and driving to the action. Director Bobby Miller (a former BuzzFeed video producer whose major claim to fame is discovering Kid President) is clearly going for a “Linda Hamilton in Terminator: Dark Fate” vibe with her army jacket, steely gaze, and oversized plastic gun, but Wallace is barely given anything to do. She’s more meme than character, which makes her inclusion particularly cynical, especially as she doesn’t really do anything of note until the last ten minutes of the film.
The rest of the kids don’t fare much better. To her credit, Washington makes for a fun, capable lead, and she succeeds more than others at mining some mirthful chuckles from Scott Lobdell’s derivative, clunky script. Like many ’80s throwbacks, Critters Attacks! wants to affect the mood of a comedy, without actually backing it up with decent jokes. Undeveloped as they are, Drea’s concerns at least feel realistic and grounded, thanks mostly to Washington’s innate charisma. Phillip, though, collapses under one too many lines about how much he totally loves aliens, and the kids are too wooden for their brattiness to take a more interesting shape.
The script itself is particularly aimless; the characters do a lot of waiting, talking and quipping while we wait for the action to happen. Every twenty minutes or so, we’re treated to a minor scare or blood-spurt courtesy of a minor character biting the dust, but otherwise, the main characters get little to do but tread water until the big showdown at Leroy College in the climax. So much of Critters Attack! feels like a not-particularly-funny Funny or Die video stretched out to feature length.
What little joys can be found in Critters Attack! come from the titular nasties themselves — there’s still a silly, tactile charm to the sight of little furry hand puppets wiggling around on a poor victim’s ankle or neck, and the Critters themselves are well-designed. Some of the film’s actually-successful gags revolve around critters inadvertently playing a bagpipe as they chew through it to a victim’s stomach, or surprise someone in the shower by pretending to be a loofah. For the most part, though, the critters spend most of their time offscreen, and we don’t really get the flesh-eating kill count that would elevate a schlocky work like this. The dynamic between Bianca and the evil critters is especially underserved, she and Aunt Dee feeling like vestigial elements of a more ambitious draft.
Critters Attack! is stupid, but not in the way it really should be. Every synth hit and nostalgia-grabbing cameo feels like a desperate, cynical attempt to replicate the atmosphere of a Critters movie without making any changes to it. At this point, legacyquels need to stop languishing so much in the past and do something new with their material.