Entering theaters this week is Troy Nixey's fabled spook-fest, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, which has, every step of the way, been creatively shepherded by Mexican visionary Guillermo del Toro. And even though The Arrow found the film a disappointment, we thought what a great opportunity to use the release of the film as a time to reflect on some of the better examples of the subgenre Nixey and del Toro are reveling in. The creepy-crawly-critter variety! That's right y'all...we're about to get down with all things diminutive, dingy, and downright deleterious. Here now is our TopTen cinematic Critters. Let's run it...
WARNING: MINOR TO MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!
#10. CAT'S EYE (1985)
Who knew Drew Barrymore would be tormented by trolls her whole life (whoa, is that a Justin Long dig?) Anyway, in Lewis Teague's 1985 adaptation of Stephen King's CAT'S EYE, a pretty creepy stint occurs when a nasty little ghoul - the suddenly animated troll - climbs on top of the little girl while she's sleeping, and begins subsuming the life-force right out of the poor kid. With red eyes aglow, the dangling din of his belled-horns...when the cat flies into save the day, a full-on duel between the feline and the troll goes down. The ugly little beast pulls a blade, the cat swipes its mighty claws and all hell ensues. Sure, by the end the troll becomes a comic foil...comported in a cartoon style, but there's no denying the technical aplomb the sequence demonstrates. Teague gives a clinic in scope-and-scale, doing matte work with close-ups of the cat with far shots of the small-actor playing the troll. The result makes it seem like both entities coexist naturally in the same frame. A fun sequence!
#9. TROLL/TROLL 2 (1986/1990)
Has there ever been such a head-scratching lacuna between one film and its purported sequel? Dubbed THE BEST WORST MOVIE in its own documentary subject, Claudio Fragasso's 1990 riff on John Carl-Buechler's 1986 original is largely known for the absence of TROLLS altogether, instead focusing on the Goblins of Nilbog. And while I'm tempted to rehash my own personal experience watching TROLL 2 on HBO at the formative age of about 8 or 9, I'll refrain and simply applaud the Lilliputian terror of both flicks. Largely divided by tone and tenor - Buechler's film was more or less a sincere piece of fantasy-horror, Fragasso's an exercise in camp and kitsch of the highest degree. However, one thing remains a constant...and that's the ability to create an unsettling sense in the viewer at some point. The inescapable close-ups and dizzying frame-jobs Fragasso uses in TROLL 2 are just as eerie some of the more low-key images Buechler employs in the original.
#8. THE BOOGENS (1981)
Not until I bit off of Eric's 31 Days Of Horror last October (an offense I tend to repeat this year, mind you) had I ever heard of the lost 1981 creature-feature THE BOOGENS. But boy am I glad I did! In this obscure, slow-burning early 80s ditty, a throng of young adults become unceremoniously targeted by a subterranean breed of monster. While no masterpiece, the film certainly deserves to be seen more than it has (it's not even on DVD). I mean, come on...razor-clawed turtle mutants who dwell in a small mining town's interconnected sewer system? This shite has C.H.U.D-forerunner written all over it. And like most B-movies of its time, James L. Conway wisely keeps creature sightings to a scant dose, instead immersing us through a range of handheld POV shots of the monster (JAWS style). And while the comparisons to Spielberg's masterpiece halt there, I love the way the action in THE BOOGENS ratchets to a full-throat in the last 20 minutes.
#7. SLITHER (2006)
While James Gunn's hyperkinetic 2006 creature-feature SLITHER owes a tremendous debt of inspiration to NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, the not-so-subtle homage still ranks as a damn fun time to be had. I fondly remember clocking this film, by my lonesome, in one of London's Odeon theaters. Packed in a tiny theater, no more than a dozen patrons dispersed throughout, I vividly recall the smile plastered on my face. SLITHER is a film, while at times extremely graphic, has such a sure-handed grip on its tone - an absurdist comedic one - that I just couldn't help but have a good time. Of course, Michael Rooker slowly devolving into a giant, bloodsucking leach never fails to amuse...nor does the comic stylings of Nathan Fillion and a young Elizabeth Banks. But it's the slimy slugs themselves, created by Todd Masters and his team, that help elevate the film from mere comedic pastiche to something more alarming. If a palpable threat isn't conjured, the comedy won't work as well.
#6. NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (1986)
Although remolded two decades later by James Gunn, Fred Dekker's 1986 horror-comedy NIGHT OF THE CREEPS stills holds as an extremely fun, witty, blackly comedic party! With all the in-jokes of horror lore (each character named after a horror icon), the deeply entertaining laconicism of Tom Atkins' jaded sheriff, the cheesy 80s repartee spat by Jason Lively and Steve Marshall...and of course, black-alien-slugs that wriggle through the night looking for fresh brains to eat...all these facets congeal into a movie fully aware of its playful tone. For those who've never seen this undeniable gem, the alien parasites find their way into human brains...essentially turning their host bodies into mindless but murderous zombies. And truth be told, the way the slugs are shot, both from afar and with a rapidly moving POV, are at times very unsettling....definitely not for the squeamish. If you have a copy nearby, pop it in and see if you can spot F/X legends Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger in the background as zombies!
#5. GHOULIES (1985)
Sandwiched dead in the middle of GREMLINS and CRITTERS, chronologically speaking, Luca Bercovici's overtly silly 1985 film GHOULIES can actually be thought of as a progressive link between the two. Sure all three films are rated PG-13, but a decided move from more family friendly fare into darker, more irreverent territory is something GHOULIES gave way to CRITTERS with. And for that we're thankful! Of course, in terms of the film itself, GHOULIES is the inferior of the three...and despite the schlocky impression of the monsters themselves, the film is one that tends to weaken as the runtime continues. Still, these slimy little green bastards are not to be trifled with. And on a trivial side-note, not only is GHOULIES the film debut of Mariska Hargitay, the great Jeffrey Combs auditioned for the lead role of Jonathan Graves. An even more interesting what if? Originally set up in '83 as BEASTIES, the flick was going to be directed by Charles Band and the late great Stan Winston (both of whom worked together on the 1982 horror joint PARASITE).
#4. THE GATE (1987)
Remake talk be damned, whenever I think of malefic minions out to recruit humans to the dark-side, I always tend to gravitate toward Tibor Takacs' THE GATE to get my fix. Don't you? Sure the film is comported with a light air, essentially a PG-13 horror number for kiddies, but there's no denying how memorable the ruddy-eyed little ghouls have remained over the course of two decades plus. And the premise, about a trio of young tykes who discover a mysterious hole in their backyard is actually an underworld portal, is quite reminiscent to what Joe Dante just did with THE HOLE a year or two ago. Not sure I have a point there, but it's interesting nonetheless...especially considering Dante's own creepy-crawly 80s flick stills ranks as one of the all time greatest (more on that shortly). As for the diminutive demons in THE GATE, they were played by actors in rubber suits...shot in forced perspective in order to look as small as possible (much like the troll in CAT'S EYE).
#3. CRITTERS (1986)
No extra wheedling I need to see any movie starring great character actor M. Emmett Walsh, but when the man is placed smack dab in the middle of murderous-fur-ball-incursion...fuck me running I'm a happy boy! CRITTERS, Stephen Herek's bleakly comedic horror romp, is not only one of my favorite movies on this here feting, it's one of my all time most enjoyable. With a break-neck pace, assured tone, and some of the best FX seen at the time (courtesy of the Chiodo family), the movie does a wonderful job of exuding the same level of energy of the little spiky monsters themselves. The direction aptly mirrors the subject, always a sure sign of tight, concentrated filmmaking (even for a b-movie). I'm sure part of that also comes from Herek having co-written the script. Dubbed as New Line's answer to GREMLINS, it's also fascinating to think that CRITTERS is largely considered a darker, more hardcore film...but CRITTERS actually has one fewer death.
#2. GREMILINS (1984)
I know I harp on this a lot, but even though GREMLINS is co-responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating system (along with TEMPLE OF DOOM), Joe Dante seamlessly and admirably weaves a family-oriented tale with eye-popping visual F/X...the crux of which of course being some of the best creepy crawlers we've seen onscreen. Ever! And here we have two varieties, the benign Mogwai and its malignant counterpart. Made during the height of Amblin innovation, Spielberg's influence is all over this piece of mass genre entertainment...for good and worse. Good in that he kept the benevolent storyline of Gizmo intact, bad in that he instructed reshoots of the doctor being killed. Originally, dude caught a face full of hypodermics. Upon retakes, the doc caches a single needle to the ass. A small change, but certainly a calculated one meant to appeal to the broadest base possible. Still, coming up on three decades later, GREMLINS still holds up as one of the finest films of its ilk.
#1. ALIEN (1979)
With Ridley Scott's PROMETHEUS currently filming in the U.K., why not cast some love at his inimitable, highly durable gothic-horror masterpiece. And while the "critter" sequence we're thinking of in ALIEN- the infamous chest bursting scene with John Hurt - is only a small portion of the film...since it predates the rest on our list, one could argue its direct influence is as impressive as the visual marvel it splays. Add to that the always entertaining anecdote that Scott, in order to achieve full believability, kept his entire cast in the dark as to what would actually happen in the scene. They had not seen the puppet, nor the effect...so the reaction you ultimately see onscreen is 100% genuine. Notice Veronica Cartwright's feeble squeal as a swath of blood coats her pretty little grill...pure authenticity. Also, the scene was filmed in one-take, with four cameras, so there's an immediate vitality to the energy in the room...it was a totally fresh experience, not one laboriously rendered lifeless with multiple takes. Still, 32 years later, one of the all time best cinematic critter moments.