Retrospective: 35 Years Since ‘Critters’ Invaded Theaters By Jesse Striewski

The ’80s were no doubt full with an abundance of creature feature flicks to choose from. Being younger at the time, Freddy and Jason were usually off the table unfortunately while I was growing up (though I still managed to sneak them in whenever and wherever I got the chance to). But slightly tamer, more “family-friendly” horror/Sci-Fi films like Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins (1984), and Critters (1986) were still fair game in our household, and I can vividly remember watching many of these titles on a couch with my siblings (and/or the other kids in the neighborhood) and a tub of popcorn, often times in awe.

Critters was originally released in the U.S. by New Line Cinema on April 11, 1986, and almost instantly drew comparisons to the previously-mentioned Spielberg romp Gremlins (although Director/Writer Stephen Herek has maintained that he and co-screenwritter Dominco Muir had the script in the works long before either of them had ever heard of or seen Gremlins). The film stared veteran actress Dee Wallace as Helen Brown, who was already known for her appearances in a sleuth of horror films including The Hills Have Eyes (1977), The Howling (1981), and Cujo (1983). M. Emmet Walsh, Billy Green Bush, Scott Grimes, Nadine van der Velde, Don Keith Opper, Terrence Mann, and a young, then-unknown Billy Zane also rounded out the main cast.

The plot was simple enough; vicious creatures from another planet land in the middle of rural Kansas and wreak havoc on the Brown family farm. But two out-of-this-world bounty hunters (played by Mann, and eventually Opper as well in future installments) throw a monkey wrench in their gears, ultimately saving the day from the destructive vermin. In October of 2020, I interviewed Wallace on behalf of Rewind It Magazine, who declared of the film, “It was just such a simple, but harmlessly fun movie to be a part of. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Multiple follow-ups continued the original series, with only Opper and Mann reprising their roles in all of the next three films (although Grimes did return as Brad Brown in the first sequel). 1988’s Critters 2: The Main Course (which was one of the first times I can recall ever seeing so much, ahem – female anatomy – on screen while watching it on cable TV at a friend’s house) was the last film of the series to be released theatrically after a disappointing $3 million box office return (the first entry had grossed over $13 million on a budget nearly equivalent to the sequel’s intake), but remains a cult/Easter classic among many to this day. The next two additions to the franchise, 1991’s Critters 3 (notable for starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio in his first film role) and 1992’s Critters 4 (which featured Brad Dourif and Angela Bassett), promptly received straight-to-video treatment, and saw the titular monsters taking on the big city, and outer space itself, respectively.

It would be nearly three decades until the franchise would be revived, with a reboot film titled Critters Attack!, and a web series Critters: A New Binge, both dropping in 2019. Wallace returned for the former (in a role that may or may not have been the same as her character Helen Brown from the original). Regarding her return to the series, Wallace told Rewind It Magazine in the same 2020 interview; “It was a lot of fun. My first question for them was, ‘Are you doing the critters CGI?,’ because if they were I wouldn’t have done it, and I think the fans would have been disappointed. But I read the script, and met with the director, and I got to go to Cape Town, South Africa, so how bad could it be?!”

Critters have even found themselves as the punchline in random pop culture; the 1990 film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles features a scene where one of the turtles, Raphael, is seen walking out of a movie theater (with the film’s poster displayed in full view) and proclaiming in disgust, “Where do they come up with this stuff?!” The song used in the original film, “Power of the Night” by the fictional Johnny Steele (also played by Mann) has also taken on a small life of it’s own as well in some underground circuits and online (had it been released as an actual single at the time of it’s original release, it could’ve possibly even been a hit).

No matter where the franchise goes from here, there’s no denying the lasting impact this campy series has had on multiple generations of Sci-Fi/horror fans for well over three decades now. Thirty-five years on, the original still remains the perfect film for late night viewings as it ever has.

Interview with Actress Dee Wallace By Jesse Striewski

By all accounts, actress Dee Wallace should need little to no introduction. In the world of horror films, she’s regarded as one of all-time top scream queens, appearing in such classics as The Howling (1981), Cujo (1983), and Critters (1986). But of her nearly two-hundred acting credits, she will perhaps forever best be known for her role in the 1982 Steven Speilberg blockbuster E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Last week, I had the chance to speak with Dee over the phone from her California home, where I was honored to ask her about many of said previous films, as well as her more recent, inspiring work in the self-help field.

And I was lucky enough to catch her just at the right time; at the very start of our conversation, Wallace informs me with glee; “I’m heading out to do a film, so you’re my very last, good little thing I get to do before I hop on a plane!” I also wanted Dee to know how much I had learned about her prior to our interview while doing background research, to which she delightfully chuckled before proclaiming, “That’s funny, everybody says that! Well thank you for doing your research!”

One of the first things I wanted to know was what made Wallace decide to step into the world of motivational speaking. She tells me; “Well, when you’re called, you have to answer that call! That’s the best way I can put it. Really when I look back on my entire life, it’s all lead up to this. I used to get messages when I was a little girl – which a lot of kids do. Then later in life when I met Christopher (Stone, Dee’s late husband), he and I got involved in a philosophy called conceptology, and we studied that for a couple of years. Cut to later in life; when he died, I basically dropped to my knees and said, ‘I don’t want to be a victim or angry.’ And the first message I got literally within seconds was to ‘use the light within you to heal yourself.'”

She continues; “So I’ve kind of been expanding on that ever since. I had the largest acting studio in LA at the time, and I would start getting downloads about stuff, and they were always right-on. So then families began wanting to work with me once they saw my students lives’ were changing, and now here I am 30 years later with clients all over the world. I’m quite an oxymoron, actually; half my life I do horror films, the other half I try to teach people how to deal with fear (laughs)! But it’s pretty empowering work, I can tell you that. It’s definitely changed my life!” Dee also hosts a worldwide radio call-in show discussing many of these subjects, which airs online every Sunday at 9am PST.

By now I felt like it was as good a time as any to finally segue into her film career, and I wanted to know if the horror genre was something Wallace had pursued personally, or if it had more or less ‘found’ her. She tells me; “It definitely found me! That genre is one of the easier ones to get started in when you’re beginning your acting career. Ironically, the first film I ever did was a religious one called All the King’s Men – and then I booked The Hills Have Eyes – which again, it sort of explains the dichotomy of Dee, here! (laughs). But I love doing emotional work, and the horror genre gives you the opportunity to do that better than many others. It found me, and then I found out that I loved it!”

I was curious what it was like stepping back into the Critters film series last year when Dee appeared in the fifth entry, Critters Attack! (her first time returning since the 1986 original). She informs me; “It was a lot of fun. My first question for them was ‘are you doing the Critters CGI?,’ because if they were I wouldn’t have done it, and I think the fans would have been disappointed. But I read the script and met with the director, and I got to go to Cape Town, South Africa, so how bad could it be?!” (Laughs). I was also curious if Dee had kept up much with the various other sequels in the series, as well as the other long-standing horror franchise she had kicked off the original with (The Howling). She says; “Yeah, I was kind of like, been there, done that (laughs). Especially with The Howling series, they just had a different quality that didn’t really fit with who I am.”

I also wondered if it was odd for her at all to step into the role of a villain for the 1996 film The Frighteners. She says; “Oh God, I had so much fun doing that! I love to explore all of the different sides of me, and the psyche, and I just loved that arc of going from the little victim, to becoming the killer towards the end!”

Dee has also done a number of films with director Rob Zombie (who, coincidentally, I had also interviewed when I first got into journalism), and I always wondered how that relationship had originally developed. She explains; Well, “Rob loves to work with older, established, actors. He came after me for Halloween, and then he wrote the part of Sonny for me in Lords of Salem. And more recently he wanted to know if I would do this tough gal-type for 3 From Hell. He just always brings me interesting things, and doesn’t lock me into the same cubby holes a lot of people want to put me in.”

Knowing by now Wallace has probably been asked every question under the sun about her legendary role in E.T., I wanted to ask her something that perhaps she hadn’t heard before. So, I simply inquired what it was like to re-visit such a classic film all these years later. She tells me honestly; “I still cry, I still laugh. As we all know it’s just a magical movie, and has become a part of our consciousness. I never get tired of it, or talking about it – and I can’t say that about all of my movies (laughs). It opens hearts and reminds people of what’s really important, and we just need a lot more of that these days.”

And lastly, with Halloween just around the corner, I wanted to know if Dee considered E.T. a ‘Halloween’ movie. She replied; “It’s an everyday movie! It crosses all of the years, and all of the holidays, no matter what time of year it is!” Oh, and as far as that movie Dee was setting off to film? She leaves us with a cliffhanger; “I wish I could tell you what it is, but I can say it’s part of a franchise that hasn’t been visited in awhile, and I think fans are going to be very excited!” I can however say to check out the short film Stay Home, which Dee produced during the quarantine (check it out on Bloody Disgustings website today!).