The Whole Box o' Critters (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Sometimes you buy a movie because it's a masterpiece or a personal favorite you just need to have in your collection.  And other times you just throw something in your cart because it's fun.  Although, compared to the other small creature films being issued on blu-ray recently, like Munchies, Hobgoblins, or Ghoulies, Critters is a minor masterpiece.
Boiling Critters down to one thing that sets it apart from all its fellow Gremlins-inspired brethren, I think it would just be care.  Instead of some quick juvenile humor and little rubber monsters, 1986's Critters is actually rather ambitious.  From its interstellar opening (reminiscent of Night Of the Creeps, which came out the same year) to its well-rounded cast, which includes ET & The Howling's Dee Wallace Stone, M. Emmet Walsh, Insidious fan favorite Lin Shaye and a young Billy Zane, this film just clicks.  You've got some fun gag and puppetry courtesy of The Killer Klowns' Chiodo Brothers... I mean, no, this film isn't as wild and consistently inventive as that film, but some of the spirit carries over.  And yet it also maintains a darker, more serious tone because these creatures can actually be quite vicious, giving the drama some stakes its peers sorely lack.  Then there's more to the story than just a family versus tiny space monsters thanks to the larger than life bounty hunters who come to town to collect them, even if that means blowing everything up in the process.  The first film, at least, manages a rather artful balancing of tones throughout a clearly tightly woven and carefully constructed script.  Again, it's that care factor.  You can tell everybody put in a lot of off-the-clock hours to make this film as good as it possibly could be, whereas you know nobody ever got home to dinner late from the set of Munchie Strikes Back.
New Line first released Critters on DVD in 2003.  They since repackaged it a few times over the years (as recently as 2017), usually in 4-packs with its three sequels, but I never bothered with those.  A decent, inexpensive cope of the first film was all I was ever in the market for.  But Scream Factory finally turned me around with their packed (and still pleasingly inexpensive) boxed set, which gives us the whole series together across four blu-ray discs, giving each of them worthy special editions for the first time ever.  The one thing about the 2003 DVD, though, which I don't believe can be said for all of the subsequent 4-packs, is that includes both fullscreen and widescreen versions of the film.  So that should make this comparison even a little more interesting.
1) 2003 New Line DVD widescreen; 2) 2003 New Line DVD fullscreen;
3) 2018 Scream Factory blu-ray.
So to start with, that 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer is open matte, which is good because it means they didn't cut much of the sides off, and it gives us extra little insight into the film (now we can see that church attack happens just after 9pm).  But it's obvious from all the unused vertical space, that this film was always intended to be matted down, and it looks a lot more attractive at 1.85:1, as the other versions have it.  Scream gives us a new 2k scan from the "original film elements," which looks a heck of a lot cleaner than the old, blotchy DVD.  New Line's disc was anamorphic and un-interlaced, so it felt pretty good for its time.  But seeing them in direct comparison, it's undoubtedly time to upgrade.  Besides the boost in clarity and detail, you'll also notice a big shift in the color timing.  Just looking at the first set of shots, it almost looks like a day for night tint was left off, but no, that scene's supposed to take place in the daytime, and actually the whole DVD is prone to hues cast over the entire picture, which the blu cleans up nicely.

Both the DVD and blu offer us nice audio options, giving us the choice between the original stereo mix or a slightly gussied up 5.1 track, and optional English subtitles in both cases.  Of course, the blu delivers both of its tracks in lossless DTS-HD.
1) 2003 New Line DVD widescreen; 2) 2003 New Line DVD fullscreen;
3) 2018 Scream Factory blu-ray.
Still, as evident as the picture upgrade is, what really sold me on this box was the special features.  All the DVD (or any other DVD edition) had was the alternate ending and trailers.  Thankfully, Scream kept those, but they added so much more.  I'll start with actually the weakest, and more disappointing entries, the audio commentaries.  There's one by Barry (producer) and Don (co-star) Opper, which starts out promising, but runs low on energy pretty fast.  You can feel the moderator sweat as he asks question after question, and just keeps getting a disheartening "I don't remember..." in reply.  Then the second commentary has a different but similar issue.  This one's with the Chiodo brothers, who I was excited for because they were so much fun on the Killer Klowns features.  But the problem here is they didn't write or direct Critters, they just did the creature effects, so when they're not on-screen, they don't have much to say.  In fact, they settle into such abject silence, I feel like they were told they were just doing a partial commentary that was going to be edited into something else (i.e. the Oppers' commentary), but then that didn't wind up happening at the last minute, so we get a track that's about 50% dead air.  Bummer.
Now, to be fair, both of those commentaries do have good content in them... funny anecdotes, inside information fans probably never knew, etc.  But just about everything of value from those commentaries are also repeated (often just about word-for-word) in the awesome, feature length documentary.  And this is just great.  In fact, the documentaries in this box might out-value the films themselves by the time you get to the later sequels.  Besides the Oppers and the Chiodos, they talk to Dee Wallace, Terrence Mann, Lin Shaye, critter voice actor Corey Burton, effects artist R. Christopher Biggs, second unit director Mark Helfrich, "prop supervisor" Anthony Doublin, composer David Newman, miniature effects artist Gene Warren Jr. and a vintage interview with writer Brian Muir (R.I.P.) from 2009.  Then, there's a 20-minute tribute to Muir, which is really just an extension of the documentary, with the same people telling more of the story.  He's such a key figure in the creation of this film, being the first to originate the concept and project, that the two really just feel like one longer piece: the definitive Critters story.

There's also a featurette editing together some fun behind-the-scenes footage the Chiodos shot puppeteering the critters, plus TV spots and a stills gallery.  Scream really did this one up.  Interestingly, the case also promises an interview with star Scott Grimes, which never turns up.  But you can't be disappointed considering how much they put together.
Critters 2: The Main Course is interesting.  I remember first seeing it as a kid when it came out in 1988 and thinking it was every bit as good as the first one, if not better.  Over the years as I got older, I now recognize the disparity and the step down in quality, but it still has its unique strengths that sold me on it back in the VHS days.  It's clearly a higher budgeted film, allowing for more critter and bounty hunter mayhem to be unleashed over a broader swath of town.  The big final act twist is pretty darn cool, and some of the best characters are back including Mann and Opper.  I mean, of course Opper's back since he's the producer's brother... but it's just lucky for us that he's also quite good and manages to give the series a heartfelt through-line.  Lin Shaye is also back (yay!), and so is Scott Grimes (meh).  Most of the new cast, though, despite an earnest attempt at another endearing ensemble, don't quite live up to the first crew.  Barry Corbin's a great character actor, but having him play M. Emmet Walsh's character was a mistake because nobody else can be Walsh; they should've just made him a brother or something.  And adding Eddie Deezin to the mix, well, is just emblematic of what went wrong with this entry.
Upping the comedy and dialing down the horror was probably a mistake, but I can at least accept that was a direction they chose to go in.  But this was actually Mick Garris's first film, and until the final act, he just can't quite bring this film to life.  There's a flatness to everything, performances are stiff and dialogue scenes are stale.  This is a more expensive film, but until they show it off in the effects and set pieces, it feels like a smaller, made-for-TV cash-in.  There's still good times to be had with the bounty hunters and more we get enjoyable critters gags by the Chiodos, but where Critters 1 was a consistently entertaining film, this one just has some cool parts.

So I never bothered with this one or any of the sequels on DVD, but I can just tell you real quick, they all had pretty much identical releases to the first one.  New Line put them all out in 2003 with full and widescreen versions, and then later put them out as 4-disc sets every couple of years after.  But for me, this is Scream box is now my first time owning any of them.
2018 Scream Factory blu-ray.
This is another 2k scan from original film elements (don't get too used to that), and again looks pretty great.  It's matted to 1.85:1 and looks very terrific with soft but natural film grain and strong colors, which after all play a bigger part in this brighter, Easter-set entry.  Sure, a 4k scan of the OCN could probably sharpen things up a bit more, and really clarify it down the individual speck of grain, but this is a really attractive, crowd-pleasing transfer.

This time we don't get a 5.1 mix, just the original stereo track (the only important one, anyway) in DTS-HD, again with optional English subtitles.
The extras package here is pretty similar to the first one.  We get two more audio commentaries and the first one is actually quite good, by Mick Garris and Red Shirt's Michael Felsher.  Garris is a great one for doing commentaries, and he has some good memories.  Then the second is the Chiodos again, and is the same story as in Critters 1.  They do have some cheerful stories to tell, but they're all replicated in the documentary and there you don't have to wait through long stretches of radio silence to find them.  And yes, it's another great doc, this time a little shorter, but still over an hour, talking to all the recurring players from the first doc, plus Mick Garris and Liane Curtis (and again, Grimes is listed but not present).  This time, instead of an alternate ending, we get a collection of deleted and extended scenes from the TV version (including a clean alternate take of Lee's famous nude scene).  Then there's another collection of Chiodos' behind-the-scenes footage, this time including a bonus local access cable news show interview.  And there's the trailer, TV spot and stills gallery.
Now, even as a kid I could feel the life was drying out of the series by Critters 3.  I was optimistic because I saw David J. Schow's name in the credits (fun fact: he's the only celeb I ever wrote a fan letter to; and yes, he wrote me back from the set of The Crow).  But the budget was a lot lower, the series now having gone direct to video, with the story taking place mostly all in one confined location, and almost none of the cast returned.  We got a new family of worse actors who somehow manage to bring some critter eggs with them into their big city apartment building (which actually doesn't seem that big once they get inside).  A pre-fame Leonardo DiCaprio is amusing to point at now, but you won't spot any of the talents he exuded in Gilbert GrapeFrances Bay (In the Mouth of Madness, Twin Peaks) and Don Opper are the only performances to watch, and they both have small parts here.  In fact, with the Chiodos no longer on set, the critters have a lot fewer bits themselves.  The film is padded out with an extended flashback to the previous films, including plenty of clips that have no bearing on this entry since most of those characters' stories were dropped.  Oh well.
2018 Scream Factory blu-ray.
Remember when I said not to get too used to those new 2k scans?  Yeah, now we're just getting an older HD master supplied by the studio.  To be fair, though, it's not that bad and the colors still pop.  It's matted to 1.86:1 and the grain is mostly visible.  But when you get in close, you can see the deficiencies.  Look at the green in the kid's hat.  It looks like I saved the screenshot as a .gif; but no, that's how it looks on disc.  Still, that's a rare example.  Mostly, it just looks a little less filmic than the first two, with slight loss of detail.  And in motion, you might not notice the difference at all.  It's there, though.  But hey, it's just Critters 3, right?  And once again, we get a strong stereo mix in DTS-HD with optional English subs.
The special features are shrinking now, too.  Although I don't blame Scream at all, and actually the amount they do provide is more than satisfying still.  We get another audio commentary by the Oppers, which is just like their previous attempt.  They start out enthusiastic, but soon it's the poor moderator desperately trying to fish a good story from a sea of "I don't remember"s.  And this time it's just the one commentary.  There's another terrific doc, but now it's shrunk to under half an hour (and no, Leo doesn't participate).  Highly recommended, though.  Schow is now on hand, as is this film's DoP, Thomas J. Callaway.  But you'll definitely be burning through these later discs quicker, which is just as well.  Because yeah, that's about it, besides a gallery, trailer and VHS spot.
Critters 4 is a bit of a return, but just barely.  Made back-to-back with part 3, it's still low budget DTV, and still missing the Chiodos and most of the critter action we come to this series for.  But it returns to its horror roots, which is nice (parts 2 and 3 literally got to the point they were adding Looney Tunes sound effects to the attack scenes); and Terrance Mann, who was conspicuously absent from part 3 makes a triumphant return.  But it's still just flatly performed drama with another batch of weak, new characters.  There's some interesting casting, including Brad Dourif, Angela Bassett and another Twin Peaks alumnus: Eric DaRe, and setting the whole film in space, instead of just a brief prologue, is ambitious.  But still, most of the film boils down to the small cast sitting down and bickering, with the main plotline being a milquetoast teenager who just wants to return to Earth to see his dad.  And the critters don't kill him because they're barely in the movie at this point, relegated to extended cameos in a plot that isn't really about them anymore.
2018 Scream Factory blu-ray.
This is another older master, a la Critters 3 rather than a fresh 2k scan like the first two.  Again, it's matted to 1.86:1 and looks generally fine.  But it's soft and light on detail.  Grain is there but inconsistent.  Again, the colors are attractive, and you're a lot less likely to find anything to gripe about in motion.  It's definitely in HD and lacks any of the compression issues you'd get with a DVD.  But I'm sure more detail and distinction could be drawn out if anyone really wanted to spend the money.  It's fine, just not the level of disc you'd want to use to show off your brand new home theater.  And yep, another fine stereo track in DTS-HD with optional English subtitles.
The star of the show again is the documentary, though it's even closer to 20 minutes this time, and with all the same interviewees as part 3.  We do get to hear from a new voice in the final audio commentary, though, which enlists the director Rupert Harvey.  It's not the greatest commentary either; in fact, you could barely call it a commentary, since they never actually comment about what's on screen.  It's one of those where the moderator starts out, "so tell me how you got into film," and they do a drawn-out overview of their career while everything you're curious about in the movie passes by unmentioned.  I wonder if it was originally recorded as a straight-up interview, but it ran so long they decided to just stick it on as a commentary track instead?  Either way, it's the only time we hear from Harvey, despite him having produced all of the series, so fans will want to check it out.  There's also a stills gallery and the trailer.
Each film in the set comes with reversible cover art (though one of the covers for part 2 is a bit of a spoiler), as it's four distinct cases in a nice, solid box.  Pre-orders direct from Shout's site also got two limited edition lithograph posters.  So I have to say, as someone who only really cared about the first film (and even then, not that much), Scream Factory has made me pretty happy to have gotten the whole run.  Revisiting these films back to back does make me appreciate even the weakest entries a little bit more.  Every film at least makes an earnest attempt to create an ensemble of endearing characters, and it's fun to track Don Opper's story through the series.  And the documentaries tell a parallel narrative that might be rewarding than most of the films themselves, in the same way that I prefer re-watching Halloween: 25 Years of Terror to most of the actual Halloween sequels now.  So if you're a big Critters fan, this is of course the definitive edition for the whole run.  But if even if you're just casually interested, I think you'll get a kick out of this box.

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