Movie Battles: Gremlins vs. Critters vs. Tremors

In this edition of Movie Battles, three nasties go head to head in an all out battle to the theatrical death. Who wins? Find out here.

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For the latest battle between iconic and definitive examples of a certain type of film, The Movie Sleuth tried something a little different this time around. As before, we focused on classic sub-genres of the 1980s, whether they be kids' adventure, sci-fi cyberpunk or in this case, the creature-feature horror comedy.  What separates this battle from the others involves the amount of contenders for the best example.  Instead of just picking two of the best movies of a genre’s era, why not go with three?  Beginning a trend of special effects driven horror comedy creature features with Gremlins before the torch was eventually passed onto Critters and Tremors, The Movie Sleuth presents a unique arena for which these three movies will duke it out for our choice as the best of the creature-feature horror comedies of the 1980s.

Gremlins (1984 – directed by Joe Dante)
Lying somewhere between a science fiction horror thriller and a screwball Looney Toons inspired comedy, writer Chris Columbus (Home Alone) and director Joe Dante’s career defining classic Gremlins continues to enthrall moviegoers to this day with its goofy, unpredictable mixture of laughter and terror.  Utilizing the Christmas season for maximum dark irony, Gremlins concerns a young bank teller in small town Kingston Falls named Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) who receives a strange Christmas present in the form of a pet called a Mogwai.  A cute, furry little creature nicknamed Gizmo (voiced with great hilarity by Howie Mandel) is the perfect pet and companion for Billy with a small catch: Mogwai are averse to bright light (particularly sunlight), multiplies with water and has the capacity to transform into an evil, destructive creature if fed after midnight.  Naturally, Billy has trouble sticking to the rules and inadvertently unleashes pandemonium on the helpless town.  Playing the rom-com aesthetic of the small town décor and carnivalesque fixtures inhabiting it against the grotesquerie and gross-out gags of its titular mischief makers, Dante has created an endlessly fun roller coaster ride where the tone can shift from giggles to screams at the drop of a hat.  It also established with Gizmo one of the most beloved icons of the 1980s and with E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial set the standard for the children’s cute movie heroes.   

"I wonder who is gonna win?"
An enormous success with both critics and the box office, Gremlins spawned an ongoing merchandise chain with Gizmo as a popular plush toy, an Atari 2600 game with many sequels and the outlandish direct sequel in 1990, Gremlins 2: The New Batch.  It was also one of three Steven Spielberg productions (Poltergeist and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom among them) that led to the eventual creation of the PG-13 rating, which was put into effect within two months of the film’s theatrical release.  While not necessarily for kids with its occasional moments of nastiness including a still grisly scene of a gremlin being cooked in a microwave until it explodes, Gremlins achieves for adult viewers that often sought after feat of being made to feel young again.  When the gremlins aim for laughs, they achieve a kind of childish innocence with their ability to transpose Bugs Bunny into Alien.  When the local town miser Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holiday of Columbus’ Mrs. Doubtfire) threatens to throw water on Christmas carolers to discover a lineup of singing gremlins, you can’t help but chuckle at the silliness.  Always a fan of 1950s sci-fi/horror flicks, Dante even makes room for a cameo by Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet.  Arguably the most successful special-effects laden horror comedy of its era since Ghostbusters (released alongside it, incidentally), Gremlins would soon pave the way for many other films concerning little monsters including Ghoulies, Hobgoblins and the next film on our list, Critters. 


Critters (1986 – directed by Stephen Herek)

While superficially similar to Gremlins, and undeniably made because of the appetite for monster movies that followed its release, Critters is actually something rather different. While Gremlins was largely a very modern dark comedy, this film is a slyly comic throwback pastiche to 1950s alien invasion movies like Invaders from Mars, and the pulp comic book tales of the same era. The visuals – an idyllic farmhouse, a spaceship crashing in a rural landscape – are deliberately old-fashioned, and the tale of aliens invading a small town could have easily been a straight-faced vintage Red Scare allegory, like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. But straight-faced it definitely is not. Critters has its tongue firmly in its cheek all the way, poking fun at that naïve bygone age of cinema while at the same time paying loving nostalgic homage to it. Tobe Hooper's remake of Invaders from Mars (also from 1986) tried to do this same thing, but Critters does it way better. All the tropes of that era in sci-fi are here: the kid who becomes the town's only hope, the gruff sheriff who won't have any monsters messing up his beat, the town drunk who knows the truth but who no one will believe. But as soon as it hits all the right nostalgic notes, it turns them on their heads, in distinctly mid-80s fashion.

"I really need to see a dentist."
First of all, the creatures themselves are very much a product of the 1980s: snarky, foul-mouthed, furry anarchists who were obviously inspired by Gremlins, but are a bit less family-friendly. With piranha-like rows of teeth and the ability to roll and bounce around, they are not the rubber-suit shamblers of decades past, but creatures designed for fast-paced mayhem, like pint-sized Freddy Kruegers. While they have their share of Gremlins-style comic mischief, their attacks are bloodier than their PG-rated predecessors, upping the ante to suit the decade's taste for blood (although still within the restraints of PG-13). And then there are the faceless bounty hunters who come to track them down: comically trigger-happy with a taste for wanton destruction that almost matches that of their prey, they basically function as over-the-top parodies of The Terminator and John Rambo. Plus, in a wonderfully-'80s sub-plot, one of them borrows his appearance from a rock star he sees in an MTV broadcast (the awesomely-named Johnny Steele), whose hair-metal-ish single plays constantly throughout the film. This pairing of retro nostalgia and '80s bombast makes Critters a hugely fun time; all at once recognizable and unpredictable. Its legacy as a franchise unfortunately did not live up to this original: Critters 2 is a very dumb and un-funny rehash of the same formula, while Critters 3 and 4 and fun but disposable straight-to-video entries most notable for the presence of a young Leonardo DiCaprio. But this first movie stands on its own as one of greatest moments of the 1980s monster craze. While Gremlins was the first, Critters is every bit as much fun, and has a few more teeth.

Tremors (1990 – directed by Ron Underwood)

While it came a bit after the '80s monster mania that gave us Critters and Gremlins (it was made in 1989, but released two weeks into 1990), Tremors easily joins their ranks as one of the most fun flicks from that glorious time when really good practical effects reigned supreme, and pervasive CGI was still a few years off. Like Critters, this is a snarky throwback to vintage monster movies – although this one has a very different feel, thinly veiling its ridiculousness behind a straight-faced facade. A tale of giant monsters invading a tiny redneck town in the desert, Tremors is a deceptively smart movie that plays very dumb, with hilarious results. The script – by the writers of Short Circuit – knows exactly what it's doing, and mixes a well-balanced cocktail of genuine suspense and sarcastic humor that goes to just the right level of over-the-top. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward star as two endearingly dim-witted ranchers who decide to leave their 14-person town “just one damn day too late,” and instead end up leading a fight against some giant sandworms that appear to have dropped in from Dune.

"Ummmm.....I think I have
some kind of serious STD."
The immediate hook that makes Tremors so cool is its unique breed of very formidable monsters: giant, tentacled, subterranean beasts that hunt by sound and vibration. The dilemma of how to evade – let alone fight – a monster that homes in on your every movement makes for some genuinely tense and suspenseful sequences, and gives the film a cat-and-mouse edge that sets it apart from typical monster-on-the-loose flicks. And the creatures themselves are very well-realized thanks to Stan Winston protege Tom Woodruff Jr, whose prestigious monster-making skills have extended from The Terminator and Aliens to Ender's Game. But what really makes the film work so well is its ensemble cast of eccentric small-town denizens – particularly one very memorable supporting character who pretty much steals the show from Bacon and Ward. Michael Gross – literally filming one day after he left the set of Family Ties – runs away with the movie as a massively over-the-top, but oddly very likeable, survivalist whose home is a concrete bunker full of every imaginable weapon. While the none-too-bright Kevin Bacon may be the brains of the operation, Gross brings the muscle – not to mention an equally intimidating mustache, and the movie's best sense of humor. It's no surprise that he more or less took over as the star of the franchise in the subsequent three sequels and one-season Sci-Fi Channel original series. While the sequels have exponentially diminishing returns after the solid Tremors 2, this film (and arguably its first sequel) has rightfully earned its reputation as a cult classic of the highest order. These worms are definitely the spice.


The Winner

Measuring these films against each other initially seems tricky, since the latter two are partly responses to the first, or at the very least were greenlit because of the appetite for the genre that Gremlins sparked. While that easily makes Gremlins the most pop-culturally significant and influential of the three, does that mean it should win the battle? I would say no; being the influential film that started the trend does not necessarily make it better than those that followed in its footsteps, even though it does deserve its special place in movie history. While Critters has a very different comedic style from Gremlins – less overt and more snarky tongue-in-cheek – it is very nearly as funny, and has a much more consistent tone. While Gremlins veers jarringly from silly comedy to horror to possibly the darkest scene in any ostensibly family movie ever (that scene where Phoebe Cates explains why she doesn't celebrate Christmas anymore...  good lord that was traumatizing to watch as a child), Critters knows exactly what sort of a film it wants to be, and realizes it extremely well. It doesn't have to shift gears between horror mode and comedy mode, because it strikes a balance where it is funny while still being effective as horror; a genre mash-up done right.

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But then Tremors does a similar thing, only better. Coming at the tail end of the '80s monster-mania craze, it sends that decade out in top form with a deceptively smart, well-written, and original horror/thriller/comedy. While all three films are pretty well-made, this one has perfected the formula, with just the right humor-to-horror ratio. It also has easily the strongest characters of the three, with Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward's double-act and Michael Gross's career-defining spectacle of scene theft overshadowing the much more standard small-town inhabitants of the previous two films. But the real thing that makes Tremors so great is that even after six years of '80s monster mania, it comes up with a very fresh, unique take on the formula – and makes it genuinely suspenseful rather than just formulaic. The scenes in which the characters are being hunted by the movement-sensing graboids are legitimately very tense, well-done thriller sequences, and bring something to the monster-movie table that we had never really seen before; no small feat after half a decade had seemingly beaten the genre to death. As such, we happily declare Tremors the winner of this movie battle. And let's be honest: there's no way that either gremlins or krites could escape a hungry graboid.

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-Andrew Kotwicki (introduction, Gremlins)
-Christopher S. Jordan (Critters, Tremors, verdict)