When it came out in 1984, Gremlins was a surprise smash hit. It was released at a time when combining horror and comedy was still part of a burgeoning genre. And, with its combination of solid storytelling, and excellent puppetry, it went on to gross $212.9 Mil against a tiny $11 Mil budget. That's the kind of return on investment that everyone, not just the studio that made it, would notice. Thus, as soon as Gremlins dominated the Box Office, other studios came along to produce their own, me too productions.
The next year saw Ghoulies, Troll and Munchies came long soon after. The genre very quickly hit its worst note with Hobgoblins. But perhaps the most successful (for a certain definition of "success") was Critters, the sci-fi mini-monster movie released in 1986 as an obvious attempt to capitalize on "Gremlins fever".
The film doesn't go anywhere near the same route for its story as Gremlins and many of its copycats. Going the route of sci-fi, Critters eschews fantasy elements for its little monsters. Its not hard sci-fi, mind you, with a very loose, very low-budget feel to everything. The sci-fi story, of monsters from space escaping captivity and taking an escape pod to Earth to cause carnage, is really just there as an excuse to get the little beasts in the adventure without, in any way, treading on the copyright of Warner Bros. It works, but only as much as the rest of the film (which isn't very well).
In the film the Krites (aka, the Critters) are being transported to a prison facility when they managed to pull a fast one (off-screen), blow up their containment unit, and escape. They grab a space pod and fly off, leaving their wardens to try and find a way to get them back before they cause too much carnage. This leads to the hiring of two bounty hunters, Ug (Terrence Mann) and Lee. These are green-faced aliens who can take on the appearance of anyone they see, allowing them ostensibly, to blend in with the locals on any planet to they head to. Ug takes on the appearance of rock star Johnny Steele, but Lee struggles to find a face he likes, bouncing between multiple over time.
Meanwhile on Earth, the Krites land in rural Kansas, near the farm of the Brown family -- father Jay (Billy "Green" Bush), mother Helen (Dee Wallace), sister April (Nadine van der Velde), and younger brother Brad (Scott Grimes). Brad is the troublemaker of the family, making explosives in his room and getting their farmhand, Charlie (Don Keith Opper) into trouble. But when the Krites arrive, it's Brad that's able to think fast and fight back. Between Brad, and the bounty hunters, the family might just be able to survive the night against this ravening horde of critters.
Now, credit to the film, it wasn't meant to be a Gremlins clone. The script for the movie was written even more Gremlins went into production and, after that film was a success, the script was drastically rewritten to tone down any similarities. At the same time, though, you know this film was finally made because Gremlins was a success and some suit somewhere saw this script and said, "hey, this could be our Gremlins". It wasn't, and it honestly was never going to be.
The simple fact is that, produced on a $3 Mil budget with a cast of TV actors and only one mid-grade star -- Dee Wallace, of E.T. fame -- the film was destined to be a B-level budget mockbuster. There was no way around that, not when it was produced by New Line Cinema who, at the time, was best known for slasher flick retreads and budget schlock. I'm not sure there was a way this film could have actually been good, but a better budget would have absolutely helped.
Thing is that the film, as written and directed, just isn't all that funny or interesting. It wants to be a horror comedy, something that taps into that same Midwestern, small town nostalgia that Gremlins found, but it has neither the skill nor talent to do so. That's not a knock on the production team. The director, Stephen Herek, would go on to direct one of the best comedies of the 1980s, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, but Critters was his first major film and it shows.
By the same token, the cast is good, even if they're kind of green and not given much to do. Standout star is a young Scott Grimes, the lead kid of the film. He's fine here, but I really only paid attention to him once I realized he was Scott Grimes of eventual The Orville fame. I also noticed a young Billy Zane (who was in the A-list for a short time), and Ethan Phillips (eventually Nelix on Voyager). The cast, again, is fine, and do what they can with underwritten characters and a middling script, but there was only so much they could do.
What really hurts is that budget, though, and that's because it holds the monsters back from being really scary or interesting or, well, anything. The puppets are very simple, just basic fur-balls with faces. They can do some minimal expressions, and simple movements, but they aren't the detailed, lifelike creations of Gremlins. They lack the articulation, and the skilled puppeteers, to really make them look right. Their interactions are simple, their monster attacks are goofy, and none of it really works. For a film called Critters, more than anything it's the titular Critters that hold it back.
I'm not sure a better budget would have helped this film, but it couldn't have hurt at all. Better puppets, more talent in front of and behind the screen, maybe all of that could have gotten asses in seats. Critters was a success, pulling in $11 Mil against it's small budget, but that's hardly anything against what Gremlins could do. And for a film that (intentionally or not) draws its own comparisons to that Warner Bros. film, that feels like a real failure.