Critters and 'condas and crocs, oh my!
CRITTERS 2 (1988)
I was only four years old at the time, but I remember when Critters 2 came out in theatres. I didn't get to go see it, but I can recall seeing the image of its poster art on the theatrical listings page of the newspaper. It wasn't long before I did get to see the movie, rented on VHS or aired on cable, and I have seen it many times since.
Subtitled The Main Course in promotional materials, the sequel to 1986's Critters marks the feature directorial debut of master-of-horror-to-be Mick Garris, who also wrote the screenplay with future Riddick mastermind David Twohy, who went by the name D.T. Twohy on this, his first produced screenplay.
Garris and Twohy's story picks up two years after the "space porcupine" creatures called Crites wreaked havoc in the small town of Grover's Bend, Kansas and on the farm owned by the Brown family in particular. The ending of the '86 film showed that there were Crite eggs on the farm property, and although the Browns have moved away to Kansas City and the farm has stood empty ever since, those eggs have been found by teenage troublemaker Wesley. Wesley gives them to junk shop owner Quigley in exchange for beer and issues of Playboy, and Quigley in turn sells them to the local church for their annual Easter egg hunt.
Yes, Critters 2 is one of the horror genre's few great Easter-themed films.
The Crite eggs have been brought to town at the exact same time as Brad Brown (Scott Grimes reprises his role from the first movie) has returned to Grover's Bend to visit his grandmother. Brad's return is a big deal for former classmate Megan Morgan, played by Liane Curtis in a very likeable, endearing performance. The pair might have had a simple Easter break romance if not for the horror and monsters that are to come.
Brad isn't the only one who's back, either. Formerly Grover's Bend's town drunk, Charlie (Don Opper) has found his place in life by joining shapeshifting bounty hunters Ug (who still takes the form of Terrence Mann/rocker Johnny Steele) and Lee (whose face remains blank because the alien can't find a form that suits it) on their intergalactic bug hunts. Now the trio have been sent back to Earth by a big-headed alien who serves on The Council, a group that is very concerned that traces of residual Crite life have been found on Earth.
Incubated by a space heater in Quigley's store, the eggs finally hatch after two years, and the Crites, whose existence has been doubted and denied, emerge to cause more death and destruction in the Kansas countryside.
Critters 2 is a sequel I enjoy even more than its predecessor, because it retains all of the elements that made the first movie so great and then enhances them. The Crites are still awesome, and they get more screen time, more to do. Everything plays out on a larger scale, with more action. The same sense of humor is present, this time with more jokes.
The antics of the Crites provide a good amount of laughs, as does the way Charlie assists Lee in the constant search for a suitable form. The bounty hunters replicate images they look at, so when they arrive on Earth, Lee first attempts to transform into a clone of Charlie, but Charlie shields himself with a Playboy dropped by Wesley. Lee becomes the centerfold (Roxanne Kernohan), nude and with a staple stuck in her abdomen. Charlie likes this Lee, but the bounty hunter keeps changing. Later Lee copies the image of cinema's ultimate dweeb Eddie Deezen, who plays the manager of the local fast food joint the Hungry Heifer. Soon Lee is attempting to become Freddy Krueger, a cardboard standout of whom is outside the video store...
This is such a tease. The Critters and Nightmare on Elm Street movies were both made by New Line Cinema, they could have had a bounty hunter who looked like Freddy walking the streets of Grover's Bend and killing Crites and it would have been glorious. But Charlie blocks Freddy's face with the centerfold.
In my write-up on the first movie, I praised the complicated, bloody effect that was used for the bounty hunter transformation. Here the transformation is simply done with some glowing blue light, which is a step down from part 1, but it makes sense since it happens so many times.
Another humorous character is former sheriff Harv, who was played by M. Emmet Walsh in the first movie but was recast with Barry Corbin. Corbin is hilarious in the role, and although Harv's initial reaction is to abandon the town that voted him out, he ends up joining in the Crite fight for the big climax.
Like a creature feature sequel should, this also expands on its creatures' abilities. It's been established that Crites curl up like pill bugs and roll to get around. Here, those rolling Crites join together into a huge ball of gnashing teeth that can instantly reduce any living thing it rolls over into a pile of bone, which is a fantastic concept.
If you're in the mood to watch a monster movie this Easter, you can't go wrong with Critters 2.
When the first character to die in a film is played by Danny Trejo, you know the rest of the cast is going to have a hell of a time. That's exactly what happens in Sniper director Luis Llosa's nature-run-amok film Anaconda, which was scripted by first-timer Hans Bauer and Top Gun screenwriting team Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr.
Trejo's death comes in the opening scene, where we see him, frightened out of his mind, desperately calling for help from a broken down boat in the Brazilian Amazon. Although unseen at this point, the title creature starts tearing the boat apart to get to Trejo, who climbs the ship's mast and chooses to shoot himself in the head rather than face the anaconda. We're dealing with a badass snake here.
We then meet the rest of the cast. Eric Stoltz plays anthropologist Doctor Steven Cale, who is leading a documentary film crew down the Amazon river in search of a mysterious rainforest tribe known as "The People of the Mist". The crew consists of director Terri Flores (Jennifer Lopez), camera man Danny Rich (Ice Cube), production manager Denise Kalberg (Beastmaster 2's Kari Wuhrer), sound man Gary Dixon (Owen Wilson), and on screen talent/narrator Warren Westridge (Jonathan Hyde). The group's trip into the depths of the Amazon on a boat captained by local Mateo (Vincent Castellanos) has barely begun when they come across stranded Paraguayan snake poacher Paul Serone (Jon Voight) and rescue him from the elements.
It's said that the river can kill you in a thousand ways, but the group's biggest threat is Serone, whose helpful and knowledgable facade hides a villainous ulterior motive. Serone says he has seen the People of the Mist, but he wants the boat to stray off course, to go down a different branch of the river... and he sabotages things, getting Cale badly wounded in the process, to make sure it will take his route. The fact that a tribe has blocked his route with a wooden barrier doesn't even deter him, he just dynamites it out of their path.
I'm afraid of snakes, I've had recurring nightmares about them all my life, and while the anacondas are brought to the screen with a mixture of animatronics and CGI, they don't unnerve me. The scene with the dynamited barrier, however, really freaks me out. The barrier had snakes slithering all over it, and they rain down on the boat after the explosion. The snakes in this scene are played by real ones. Being on a boat covered with snakes, that's like something out of one of my nightmares.
With Serone calling the shots, the group has gone from being documentary filmmakers to being his unwilling (for the most part - Gary is keen on the idea) assistants in a hunt for a full-grown anaconda, a prize which could net him up to $1 million. As we'll see it play out, this is essentially a suicide mission.
They do find giant anacondas on the river, and proceed to get picked off by them. The snakes, and Serone, whittle down the cast one-by-one.
The cast is very solid for something like this. Eric Stoltz isn't given much to do, but makes an impression before he's sidelined by his injury. Ice Cube is Ice Cube, the prissiness of Jonathan Hyde's character provides some laughs, I've been a fan of Kari Wuhrer's since childhood, Danny Trejo is always welcome, and Jon Voight chews the scenery. I haven't been a fan of most of Jennifer Lopez's output, but she made a decent enough heroine in this, back before her music overshadowed her film career. The cast member I was most glad to see was Owen Wilson, who was only known at this time for the low budget Bottle Rocket, which he was brilliant in. I thought it was very cool to see him getting a Hollywood gig. As it turns out, those gigs have kept on coming.
Anaconda has a low score on IMDb and was nominated for a bunch of Razzies, but I have always enjoyed it. I was there to see it on opening weekend, and it delivered exactly what I wanted from it - 89 minutes of people having to contend with snakes that want to crush the life out of them and gulp them down. I'm a fan, and as far as killer animal movies go, I would rank it high on the list.
LAKE PLACID (1999)
Whoever named Black Lake in Maine originally wanted to call it Lake Placid due to its calm waters, but found out that the name Lake Placid was already taken. So Black Lake it became. Black Lake is the setting for this nature-run-amok killer animal tale, which shows what might happen if a massive crocodile were to somehow migrate all the way up into New England.
What happens is that this croc starts feasting on any living thing it pleases to in the area, both in water and on land. When it kills a person, that really captures attention, and soon Black Lake is swarming with characters determined to figure out what exactly killed the victim (some find it hard to believe the theory that it could be a crocodile) and how to make sure nobody else will fall prey to it.
The primary players in this croc hunt are local Sheriff Hank Keough (Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, who keeps getting hired to do American accents even though he's not very good at it), Fish and Game officer Jack Wells (Bill Pullman), paleontologist Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda) and eccentric mythology professor Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt), who believes that crocodiles are divine conduits.
The most popular non-croc theory is that it's a bear killing things around Black Lake. This builds up to a moment in which the characters are about to be attacked by a bear on the shore line... and then the crocodile lunges out of the lake and grabs the bear.
Screenwriter David E. Kelley is one of television's greatest success stories, the guy has created a ton of popular shows from L.A. Law and Doogie Hoswer, M.D. in the '80s to Ally McBeal in the '90s and more recently Boston Legal. Director Steve Miner got his start with horror movies, his first two directorial credits were for Friday the 13th parts 2 and III. Starting with episodes of The Wonder Years in 1988 - '89, Miner segued into directing mostly TV, although he has returned to movies a handful of times (Halloween H20 being the biggest example of that.) Miner directed some episodes of the Kelley-created shows Chicago Hope and The Practice, but their worlds really collided with this horror-comedy, which leans heavily on the comedy side of the equation and is packed with amusing lines.
Somewhat to the movie's detriment, however, is that Kelley and Miner's TV pedigrees shine through. It looks and feels like a TV movie, and at 82 minutes is just barely long enough to be one. Lake Placid got a theatrical release in 1999 and I really wanted to catch it on the big screen, but ended up missing it. Ultimately, I'm glad I did, because I think I would have been disappointed if I had seen it in the theatre. It's better suited for home viewing.
Lake Placid isn't a bad movie, I find it to be decently entertaining, but it's not one that I feel an urge to revisit very often. If you want to watch a croc eat some people, it's a way to kill 82 minutes. The characters and performances are fun, with a stand out being Betty White as a foul-mouthed, off-kilter little old lady who lives by the lake and sees the crocodile as her pet.