The episode of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? covering Critters 2: The Main Course was Written by Matthew Pejkovic, Narrated by Tyler Nichols, Produced by John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.
Viewed by many as a low-budget rip-off of Gremlins, the 1986 sci-fi horror film Critters was a box-office success that spawned a film franchise. Critters 2: The Main Course (watch it HERE), could not repeat the success of the first film, yet has gone on to become a cult favourite that marked the directorial debut of Mick Garris, the legendary horror filmmaker who took on the task of continuing the adventures of small yet deadly carnivorous aliens who eat their way through small town America. This time, however, box-office expectations were placed on the shoulders of the young filmmaker who found his first foray into directing a challenging yet educational experience, resulting in what Garris would later describe as “a space porcupine movie with sentiment.”
Set two years after the events in the first Critters, the small yet murderous alien creatures known as the Crites once again make their presence known in the small farm town of Grover’s Bend, causing chaos and bloodshed as the munch their way through the populace. Returning to face-off against the flesh eating furballs is 15-year-old Brad Brown (a survivor from the first Crites attack), and the alien bounty hunter Ug who has unfinished business.
Stephen Herek, the director of the original Critters who garnered strong notices for his directorial debut, passed on directing Critters 2: The Main Course and along with it the potential to capitalise on the box-office success of the original. Said Herek in a 1990 interview with Starburst: “I never expected it to do as well as it did. I was proud and pleased I’d pulled it off, yet I never saw it as anything more than a fun little movie. I was offered the sequel by New Line, but they only wanted to spend the same amount of money. I had a whole different idea of where the story should go too, but New Line couldn’t agree. I wasn’t sure I wanted to repeat myself anyway.”
Brought in to direct and work on the screenplay for Critters 2 was Mick Garris, a then burgeoning screenwriter who made his bones working on the Steven Spielberg produced TV series Amazing Stories, in which his scripts were directed by Marin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis, and Joe Dante. Garris also wrote the screenplay for the classic sci-fi movie Batteries Not Included. For Garris, making his directorial debut on a low-budget effects driven movie was not his ideal first choice. The difficult shoot on Critters 2 proved Garris’ trepidations to be correct, although the gung-ho first time director soldiered on.
During a post-screening Q&A for the 30th anniversary of Critters 2, Garris reflected on how “one of the first things sent to me when I first established myself as a screenwriter was Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and I thought ‘God! I can’t do an effects movie like that the first time out’. (Critters 2) had animals, kids, special effects, visual effects, puppets… everything that’s really, really difficult… yet we were treating it like Shakespeare, like it was the next major motion picture because you have to give it all every time out. You have to love it from beginning to end.”
Already in place was a screenplay by David Twohy, who would go on to co-write The Fugitive and direct the Riddick series starring Vin Diesel. In the March 2000 issue of Starlog magazine, Twohy would state that “Critters 2 is something I’m still not terribly pleased is on my résumé.”
While Garris kept the structure of Twohy’s script intact, he took the opportunity to go darker, goofier, gorier, and more sentimental with the material, with Garris tapping into a Frank Capra-esque tone in his portrayal of smalltown Americana overtaken by flesh eating aliens. Said Garris: “Basically I wanted it to be Norman Rockwell goes to Hell. It was kind of a theme that I like, this idyllic small town setting, which is middle America, that people think of as an imaginary America that is beautiful and wonderful and nostalgic, and just kick it in its teeth.”
Along with the technical difficulties of pulling off a low-budget special effects movie, Garris also had to contend with delivering a film that fit the restraints of a PG-13 rating. The producers of Critters 2 were convinced that Garris’ work on Amazing Stories would transfer some of that Spielbergian magic onto their film, resulting in a demented cousin of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. While finding that sweet spot between violent yet not-to-violent wasn’t a struggle for Garris, there was another element to Critters 2 that made his job slightly more difficult. “I couldn’t see how I was going to get that Playboy playmate thing in there,” said Garris. “For some reason because it did not involve sexuality, we were cool with it, which was great… it was walking a line with the violence and the nudity and the like, but somehow we made it.”
The Playboy playmate in question was Roxanne Kernohan, who made an impression as bountiful alien bounty hunter Lee, alongside a returning Terrence Mann in his memorable role as Ug, the nemesis of the Crites who Mann would portray in the first four Critters movies. Kernohan would unfortunately die in a car accident several years after Critters 2 was released.
Playing the role of Sheriff Harv in Critters 2 is legendary Texan actor Barry Corbin, who replaced original actor M. Emmet Walsh. According to Garris, the producers of Critters 2 warned him that Walsh was a handful during the first Critters movie, which led to the recasting. Alongside Scott Grimes who reprised his role of Brad Brown, Critters 2 also featured memorable performances from horror icon Lin Shaye as local police station dispatcher Sal; Don Opper as town drunk turned space adventurer Charlie; and Eddie Deezen as the manager of local fast-food restaurant the Hungry Heifer, which the Crites gleefully destroy. Garris would also have a starring role in the movie as the voices of the Crites.
Perhaps the biggest stars of Critters 2 were the Crites themselves, who were designed and brought to life by The Chiodo Brothers, a trio of special effects artists from New York who are also known for their work on Team America: World Police and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, and who Garris affectionately refers to as “the Three Stooges of makeup effects.” In order to bring one Crite puppet to life, up to five operators had to rehearse and coordinate the varied movements – including the hands, arms, gross body, and remote-controlled facial expressions – to create a convincing alien killing machine. The spinning effects used to portray the Crites while they are in rolling form was done using rods and wires connected to an ATV vehicle.
The big special effects scene in Critters 2, in which the Crites form a large ball and plough through Grove’s Farm, was achieved through the use of two enormous balls; the first was a giant beach ball with Crite pelts sewed all around that two stagehands would push from behind; the second was a much heavier ball with automated Critter heads mounted all over and that was dragged by an ATV.
Shot on a $4 million dollar budget in the southern California town of Santa Clarita, Garris would describe the days shooting Critters 2 as “hellishly long”. To make matters worse, Santa Clarita was hit with the coldest winter in 100 years, hardly ideal weather during a scene where Kernohan, the trooper that she was, had to walk nude across a field. Said Garris: “It was really rough, seeing everybody’s breath, working with all these puppets, running back and forth between the second unit and the first unit, and dealing with things I’d never dealt with before.”
Garris, thankfully, had a great cast and crew to help with the stressful shoot, which included Forbidden World director Allan Holzman whose work as a second unit director in Critters 2 included the scenes of Crites getting decimated in the Hungry Heifer; and cinematographer Russell Carpenter who go on to win an Oscar for his work on Titanic.
Released in theatres on April 29, 1988, Critters 2: The Main Course would fail to recoup its budget during the domestic theatrical run, making only $3.8 million, resulting in it being the last Critters film to be released in theatres. The reviews weren’t any better. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert, who was a fan of the first Critters movie, gave Critters 2 a one star review in the Chicago Sun-Times, where he wrote: “It lacks all of the style and sense of fun of the original Critters and has no reason for existence – aside, of course, from the fact that Critters is a brand name and this is the current model.”
Said Garris in an interview with MovieHole: “When I went to see it opening day there were three people in the theatre. I felt like my career was over before it started.”
Time, however, has been much kinder to Critters 2, as well as to Garris who since his feature film debut has situated himself as a respected figure in the horror genre through his films, TV programs, and his Post Mortem podcast. Unlike filmmakers such as James Cameron and David Fincher who have disowned their feature film debuts, Garris has openly embraced the warts and all experience of making Critters 2: The Main Course.
During the films 30th anniversary in 2018, Garris attended several Q&A screenings where fans of Critters 2 asked numerous questions about the making of the 1988 cult classic. When Garris was asked about what lessons he learned in making the film, he said: “(Critters 2) was a small movie but it was a big movie for what I was used to doing and what I was trying to do, which was to take everything seriously and trust your instincts because people are gonna try and talk you out of it into doing something easier… what I carried with me and still do is to trust my instincts, let myself be talked out of the bad ones because I have those too, but trust yourself on the good ones and if it works then you have done something special and new and unique, and if it doesn’t work, well, better luck next time. Everything’s an education and don’t stop learning.”
Now that is something worth feasting on.
A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/critters-2-wtf-happened-to-this-horror-movie/