Review: Critters (1986)

Composer: David Newman

Label: Intrada Records  

Catalogue Nr.: MAF 7044 D

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Sometimes it can get really weird if you realize with what kind of flicks some Hollywood careers started. So was Director Stephen Herek's very first film basically just a well made rip-off of Gremlins (1984) with tiny, hungry creatures that are more mouth than body escaping from a penalty asteroid, landing on earth, invading a little town somewhere in the USA and terrorizing a farmer and his family. Intergalactic bounty hunters are sent after these Critters and team up with the farmer's young kid Brad to destroy the creatures. Truly unoriginal and trashy but still fun to watch especially because of several side slaps at the genre like critters eating an E.T. doll, a cat named 'Chewie' or the usually nasty creature voices ('oh-oh!'). The acting was good as well, mainly because of the performances from Dee Wallace-Stone as the mother and Scott Grimes as Brad. What's really missing is some background for the creatures. Why are they growing while eating and what's their life cycle like? Okay, this would probably add too much depth to a creature-trash film like that. Oh yeah... there are several sequels but they are not half as fun as this one.

The score:

Critters wasn't only David Newman's second film score after Frankenweenie (1984) but also the project that started his fruitful working relationship with director Stephen Herek from where both would continue working together over the course of three more films. Comparisons to David Newman's latter score for a similar creature film called The Kindred (1987) seem only natural since Critters really formed the foundation for that latter score. First of all, the music is mainly focused on creating a mood with a very small ensemble and some crazy passages thrown in whenever the monsters go mad just like in his score for The Kindred (1987) but unlike in his latter work, David Newman's otherwise strong musical voice is rather muted here. Certainly because it was just his second outing in the world of film music and therefore you really have to look for typical trademarks of the composer - blink and you'll most certainly miss them! A major drag is the absence of a main theme but there is a tiny motif for the creatures lurking around from time to time. Even though his second score is rather subtle and still lacked of a distinctive voice, it showed that he was able to handle his small ensemble with care and that he could nail the emotions with an overall well-crafted score.

The score begins rather unspectacular with an electronic arrangement imitating primitive  orchestral sounds for the first 4 minutes into the "Main Title" as we see the penalty asteroid from where the creatures escape. This opening music is really a lackluster because the asteroid scenes and the introduction of the bounty hunters in particular called for bigger orchestral statements that would ultimately have been more satisfying to listen to on CD. Only the last few minutes of the cue with its warm Americana tones for woodwinds, strings and piano serving as the introduction of the family farm can convince. "Charlie's Accident" offers a rudimentary David Newman trademark in the form of a wacky and light-hearted progression of tones as the basis of a lovely but yet crazy dance for woodwinds, strings and synths. The composer would later move deeper into this territory for his many comedy scores. From now on, the music becomes mysterious when "Jay And Brad Look For The Critters". Newman's woodwind architecture feels already pretty matured here and fits perfectly for a night search in the fog.

The mysterious feeling continues into "Jeff Is Dinner" where the woodwinds start building up until they are joined by the horns, leading to a dissonant ending before one of the Critters attacks a cop. When father Brad is "Looking In The Cellar", the music becomes all suspense with a thin layer of whispering string effects and a nervous Critters-motif for woodwinds quietly sneaking around, creating the paranoia of creatures lurking around in the dark. Part of these gentle, yet disturbing woodwind acrobatics surely go back to Jerry Goldsmith's landmark score for Poltergeist (1982). The ensemble cries out near the end of the cue when the Critters attack the family father. "The Bounty Hunters; Critters Get Steve" doesn't offer too much during its first two minutes besides some suspense-strings but the last minute brings some funny insane music for another critters-attack. Things get a little depressive now with strings and harp as the family is trapped inside the house before "The Critters Hunt For Lunch" again and the strings build tension in another rudimentary David Newman trademark way over the woodwinds that bounce their way to the family together with the Critters. A trumpet is bouncing amok as "Brad Burns A Critter" while "They're Growing" brings back some warm, almost sad tones for strings with some impending undertones as a little musical act break.

"Meanwhile Back In The House", the family continues the fight with the ever-hungry little biests accompanied by more of Newman's bounce'n'bite music. By now, the formula certainly has worn out a little since there is barely enough variation in these passages to keep the listener interested. "Brad Goes After April" just follows in the same vein with some whirling woodwinds over subtle synthetics but there is a passage with a childish nature that makes this cue a little more interesting. Just as "The Critters Are Destroyed", David Newman responds with an insane build-up before "The House Returns" and brings back the nice Americana from the beginning as peace is restored in the small community. The departure of the bounty hunters is accompanied by nice fanfares suggesting that this finale cue contains the most entertaining material of the score. Sadly, the small orchestra prevents this nice passage from being able to shine in full glory. The last cue "Critter Skitter" that plays over the end credits is a rather forgettable attempt to re-create the "Gremlins Rag's" but it ends up as rather uninteresting arrangement of dated 80's synths.

 

RATING:

Score as heard in the film: 59%

Score as heard on CD: 63%

TOTAL: 61%

 

The presentation:

The Intrada CD of the score was released in 1993 and comes as a slightly expanded re-issue of the old soundtrack LP. Thankfully, the CD leaves out the dreadful 80's trash-song "Power Of The Night" that was thrown on the LP back in 1986 and instead offers the extended opening cue of the film with the electronic music for the asteroid-scenes. The cues were re-arranged into the chronological film order but apart from the opening and closing Americana music you will barely remember the correct places of many cues anyways so the chronological sequencing really does not make a difference in this case. A nice bonus comes with the booklet. Even though it is just a two-pager, we still get some nice liner notes by Roger Feigelson about the film, the CD and the composer. The artwork on the other hand does look too cheap and the orange-coloured track names on black ground on the back of the CD are too small. Still a quite decent presentation but sadly this disc is OOP and becoming harder and harder to find as you read this.

Presentation by the Label: 63%

 

Summary:

The music for Critters first seems like nothing special, follows the typical formulas for creature films just like the movie itself, doesn't offer any strong themes and otherwise sounds really thin compared to Jerry Goldsmith's enthusiastic and colourful score for the Gremlins (1984). But if you look at the music as one of David Newman's earliest film scores available on CD, the music becomes a whole new weight. While his stylistic trademarks exist only rudimentary in his second score, the music shows that even in his earliest career stages he was able to nail emotions musically and with well-crafted music. Especially noteworthy are the moments of Americana beauty at the end of the "Main Title" or during "The House Returns" but beyond that, the music is just an ordinary stop'n'go experience with horror music on the light-hearted side and performed by a rather small ensemble. If you have absolutely no interest in hearing the solid, but otherwise predictable earliest work of a composer who is mainly typecast in comedies these days then don't get into the trouble of finding a copy of this long OOP Intrada CD but David Newman fans surely have to have this collectible.

Review by Andreas Creutzburg

 

                   Tracklisting:

01. Main Title (06:46)
02. Charlie's Accident (00:43)
03. Jay and Brad Look For the Critters (02:38)
04. Jeff is Dinner (00:59)
05. Looking in the Cellar (04:25)
06. The Bounty Hunters; Critters Get Steve (03:51)
07. Critters Hunt For Lunch (03:56)
08. Brad Burns a Critter (03:13)
09. They're Growing (02:09)
10. Meanwhile Back at the House (02:08)
11. Looking for Chewy (01:41)
12. Brad Goes After April (02:17)
13. The Critters Are Destroyed (03:50)
14. The House Returns (05:06)
15. Critter Skitter (03:27)