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Critters Attack! tries to revive the spirit of a horror franchise at Fantasia Fest 2019

There’s room for subtext in this self-aware schlock

critters attack 2019 Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

The Krites, like most things that terrorized unsuspecting horror movie victims in the 1980s, are back. This year’s Critters Attack!, which had its world premiere at the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival, finds a new director, Bobby Miller (The Cleanse), the return of a franchise original actor, practical puppets, and a diverse cast should have revitalized the series for an audience that’s long forgotten the series. But a meandering script, however, dismisses the nuances of Generation Z and keeps the film cemented in 30-year-old stereotypes.

The throwback plot of the new Critters feels like well-worn territory after three seasons of Stranger Things. Drea (Tashiana Washington), having just been rejected from her college of choice, again, lives with her little brother Phillip (Jaden Noel) and her alcoholic cop uncle. When an opportunity to cozy up to one of the members of the admission’s board arises, Drea ditches her mall sushi gig to become a babysitter. While taking the two children and her brother for a walk in the park, they discover Bianca Princess of the Krites, and the horror begins. Critters is less of a stroll down horror cinema’s memory lane than an excuse to have fun with puppets. To be fair, they’re cool puppets — including a 14-foot high ball of Krites.

Washington (Gimmie the Loot) does her damndest to bring the humor out of the script. Chewing the scenery doesn’t come naturally to the actress. Washington brings the funny with many of her adlibs, but the camp element that made early Critters films so enjoyable does explode out of Attack!. Instead, dry and sarcastic humor heavy-handedly guides the film further from the core properties that sold fan on the original franchise. Washington’s transition from scream queen to a kick-ass bounty hunter, however, works well for the story.

critters attack 2019 cast Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

There’s also a weird racial undertone to much of the story that does not feel intentional but is nevertheless irksome. Drea and Phillip are Black siblings living in rural America, a setting that, at a Fantasia Fest Q&A, Washington said was one of the factors that made her want to play Drea in the first place. The story goes that their mother got pregnant in college and was forced to drop out. Drea wants to go to the same college her mother left as a way of completing the journey, but the school keeps rejecting her. Dialogue continually confirms Drea is smart, but she literally has to become the help to have a chance to get into school. The logic feels iffy.

To be fair to the creators, they cast using a colorblind method. Miller explained that he, “...wanted to cast the most talented person...” for the role. Such a decision is admirable, but given the global political climate, and the underrepresented nature of the leads, small tweaks could have made some of the real-world experiences more relatable.

A social dialogue about the cost of school, the inherent racism of admissions, and the difference between Gen X and Gen Z’s college options could have made this storyline a perfect subtext for solid B-horror. One of the kids Drea babysits refuses to speak directly to anyone. Instead, he texts. This condition plays for laughs, but the audience has no idea what he’s looking at in his phone. He could be obsessed with a video game, a potential love interests, or a Tumblr user. Without knowing, the boy, who’s present for at least three-quarters of the runtime waifs around in the background, rather uselessly. Again, an opportunity to explore the youth’s relationship with their phones, the way they alienate friends and family in pursuit of internet fame, could have been good fodder for the film. Instead, all of that’s swept to the side leaving the human narrative bereft.

Legendary horror actress Dee Wallace makes her return to the Critters franchise in Attack!, but this isn’t Helen Brown all over again. Instead, Wallace plays Aunt Dee, a tea-sipping, gun-toting, bounty hunter. There’s a Sarah Connor-like feel to both Dee and Drea, but not enough time is spent with either character to explore their killer instincts, motivations, or to all their skills to develop. Costuming did most of that narrative story-telling. How and why Dee got into the business is a mystery to the audience.

B-horror cinema is meant to have a level of cheesiness to it. The homebrewed props, inventive creature design, overly dramatic performances, and deep lore have long been hallmarks of the genre. In Critters Attack!, the prop design and puppets sell those characteristics. But, without knowing the history of Dee, the only interest she stirs up is the actresses history with the franchise. That seems a waste of Wallace’s considerable talent.

Still, there’s lots of potential to Attack!. There’s room to flesh out Dee’s and Drea’s work as bounty hunters in a sequel. Though one has not been announced yet, both Miller and Washington said they would be willing to return for a sequel, excited at the prospect of being in a box set of a legacy series. If another film should come to fruition, hopefully, the writer and director will work in small moments that defined Critters, like the subtitles explaining the critter’s plans.