Critters might be the first horror franchise to take its action off planet. Hellraiser took to space in 1996, Leprechaun followed a year later, and Friday the 13th sent Jason Vorhees into the black in 2001. Incredible as it seems, Critters 4 might be a groundbreaking film.
From 1992, Critters 4 was shot at the same time as Critters 3, but this isn’t a case of breaking a single film into two parts when things began to sprawl. Critters 4 was always a separate film from the third, with a different director in Rupert Harvey. Much of the production crew, including the Chiodo Brothers, remained the same.
Critters 4 begins with a recap of the last scenes of the previous film, where we see series stalwart Charlie McFadden (Don Keith Opper) load the last remaining critter eggs into a capsule ready to be launched into space. Like the bumbling idiot the series needs him to be, Charlie gets locked into the capsule with the eggs and hits the stars.
Fast forward to the future — the once-distant year of 2046. There, a spaceship is on its way to Earth from somewhere. The crew are typical of what one will find in a space horror flick on a budget. There’s the captain, Rick (Anders Hove, playing a part that would have been reserved for Richard Brake had this flick been made in the 21st century); verbally-abusive druggie lowlife Bernie (Eric DaRe, channeling the character he played in Twin Peaks); Al Bert (Brad Dourif, and his character really is named Al Bert); young protagonist Ethan (Paul Whitthorne); and tough girl Fran (Angela Bassett in an early film role).
It turns out that the capsule containing Charlie and the critter eggs was lost before it reached its destination, and it has been floating around in space for the past 50 years, right up until our heroes stumble on it. They get ahold of the owners, evil future capitalist conglomerate TerraCor, and make a deal to deliver the capsule to one of their space stations in exchange for a salvage payment. When the crew arrives at the space station, they find that it has been abandoned for many years, and is on a slow countdown until its nuclear core explodes.
Why is the station empty? Because this film couldn’t afford more than a handful of cast members.
Why is the core going to blow up? To increase the stakes of the film without having to do any heavy lifting.
Yes, that’s the cynic in me speaking, but I’ve seen way too many shitty movies to not be aware of stuff like that. Anyway…
It doesn’t take long for the capsule to be breached, the eggs to hatch, and Charlie to wake up to provide needed exposition. What follows is an Alien ripoff, right down to the narrow escape at the end.
What’s most odd about this film is the tonal shift from Critters 3. That film was very much a Gremlins ripoff, as the critters were into mischief as much as murder. This film is much more serious, doing away with the slapstick. The critters in this film are devious, and intelligent enough to use the station’s technology. This is a return to the critters viewers saw in the first film, which were anything but mindless eating machines. Removing all levity, surprisingly, does not hurt this film. It provides needed separation from the Gremlins franchise.
Veterans of space-based shitty horror will recognize all the notes this flick hits. The sets are cheap, dark, and marginally convincing. The effects are also cheap, but have an endearing quality, evoking faint nostalgia for the works of Roger Corman, believe it or not. Every character is something of a rogue, and some exist for no other purpose than fodder.
There’s blood, not nearly enough gore, and a much lower body count than I was expecting.
Critters 4 is a low-effort direct-to-video schlockfest, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. Harvey kept things moving right along, which is impressive for a film that took place in about four different rooms. What kept the film engaging for me is that it met my very modest expectations. It displaces The Boz and Mach 2 at #151 in the Watchability Index.