Critters is, with good reason, a cult classic of the mid-eighties. It followed on the heels of Gremlins and certainly has its similarities to Joe Dante’s little monster masterpiece, but Critters still manages to stand apart. It has a flavor all its own. Whereas the Gremlins remained much more mysterious in origin—unless you go by the novelization, which goes obsessively into detail over their backstory—the Critters are extraterrestrial from the first moment we’re introduced to them. The movie begins in space, watching them break out of their asteroid prison before crashing their hijacked spaceship into Grover’s Bend, Kansas, where the film begins in earnest. That’s not only where we’re introduced to our main characters, but where we set up the surprising siege movie that Critters actually becomes.
For as fun and goofy as it is, Critters takes to heart the inherently unnerving concept of a family in a small, isolated farmhouse being besieged by little monsters. And that’s very interesting, not just because of how well it works tonally and stylistically for the film, but also because of the fact that it was based on an actual, famous real-life incident in which a family in a small, isolated farmhouse was apparently besieged by little monsters.
I’m not the first to make the connection. A great writer named Matt Molgaard, who tragically passed last year, wrote a terrific piece for Blumhouse.com that was how I first learned of the incident and how it connected to Critters. But I thought it would be worth not just looking at the fact that Critters takes its inspiration from this encounter, but specifically breaking down how it takes inspiration and what moments from the encounter clearly made their way into the film.
The incident is now widely known as the Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter, though it has also been cited over time as the Hopkinsville Goblins Case and the Kelly Green Men Case. It is one of the most well-documented incidents in the history of UFO sightings and became famous because of that.
Said incident took place in 1955 in Kentucky, just between the towns of Kelly and Hopkinsville. Two families rushed into the police station claiming that they had been holding off vicious, small creatures for several hours, which they believed to have come from a UFO. Five adults and seven children apparently witnessed these events unfold over the course of the evening of August 21st. Elmer Sutton and Billy Ray Taylor seemed to take charge during the farmhouse siege, shooting at twelve to fifteen creatures that repeatedly attacked the group over the course of the evening.
It began around seven o’clock, when Billy Ray looked up while he was drawing water from the well to see what appeared to be a shooting star streak across the sky and disappear behind the tree line, somewhere behind the house. Taylor and Sutton went back out to investigate, running back into the house when they saw a creature outside, kicking off an apparent invasion that would last for the next three hours. At one point, Taylor’s hair was grabbed by a huge, clawed hand. At several points, family members would leap back, startled, from the glowing eyes and twisted faces of the creatures staring in at them through the window.
Although the creatures were shot at several times, none were killed, otherwise the incident would have become much more famous. Once they had a clear shot, the two families piled into their cars and drove to the police station where they reported the entire thing. The police responded, not because they believed the claims, but because they were legitimately worried about a possible gun battle erupting between local citizens. Four police officers raced out to the scene, alongside five state troopers, three deputy sheriffs and four military police from the nearby US Army base. They searched the property, but found nothing but evidence of gunfire; bullet holes were found in the trees, the side of the house and through the screens of the doors.
They found no monsters. No evidence that it was a hoax, either.
The case became one of the most famous possible alien encounters of all time. It chilled people to hear about and captured the imaginations of writers and even filmmakers, particularly Steven Spielberg. While knee-deep in researching UFO phenomena for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg was struck by the Kelly-Hopkinsville incident and wanted to tell some version of it in his next feature. The movie would be called Night Skies and would center on a family at a farmhouse besieged by vicious aliens while one of the children would befriend a gentler alien who was different from the others.
Ultimately, it never came to fruition and the idea split into two. Spielberg would of course make his movie about a child befriending an alien only a few years later with E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. He would make his movie about a family besieged by otherworldly forces at the same time, only the aliens would be swapped for the paranormal and the movie would be called Poltergeist.
These ideas would even merge later on, when Spielberg produced Joe Dante’s Gremlins. Chris Columbus’ original draft was a much meaner, darker horror movie, but Spielberg sought to make it more fun and ultimately more commercial. The movie became more of a tonal roller coaster, but the Gremlins themselves look very similar to the way that the Hopkinsville Goblins (as they’ve been named over time) were described. The addition of Gizmo certainly mirrors what Spielberg had initially wanted to do with Night Skies. But while there are echoes of the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter in those three movies, they’re incredibly faint.
That’s definitely not the case with Critters. Especially compared to the other three features, the similarities of Critters to the actual accounts are absurdly concrete. Like the encounter itself, the events of the film truly kick off when two members of the family—in this case Brad Brown and his father, Jay—see a shooting star streak across the sky and go off to investigate, only to first be attacked by the critters and then rush inside back to the farmhouse where the attack begins in earnest.
That’s a very specific beginning that both the incident and the movie share. Even other, very specific things mentioned in the reports make their way into Critters. Several members of the families mentioned being frightened and startled by glowing eyes peering in at them through the window. This is a powerful image and it manifests itself in the movie in a moment when Dee Wallace’s Helen is startled by two red eyes looking in at her from the darkness outside the window.
The moment when Billy Ray Taylor claimed to be grabbed by a large, clawed hand can be seen in the third act, when the hand of a previously unseen, much larger critter comes out of nowhere and grabs hold of April. This is one of the more startling images in Critters, which was lower on visceral scares due to its PG-13 rating. In the film, this serves as our first glimpse at the lead Critter, a giant that towers over all the others, a concept that—while vaguely referenced in Critters 2—is completely abandoned in the sequels. Overall, the incident as a whole, in which terrified people huddle together in a farm house and hold aliens at bay with shotguns, is exactly what plays out in the second half of Critters.
There are changes, of course. There are no asteroid space prisons, or mullet wearing, shape shifting bounty hunters in the original incident, at least not that we know of. The two families of the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter are scaled back to one, for narrative and likely budgetary reasons. But the similarities are certainly there, and they’re striking. While the incident has become famous in the UFO community and the community of Kelly celebrates “Little Green Men” days in the third weekend of every August, Critters is without a doubt an enduring part of this incident’s legacy, especially in pop culture.
Whether or not it was intentionally based on the incident is a little less concrete, but it’s been loosely confirmed over time. Bruce G. Hallenbeck’s book Comedy-Horror Films: A Chronological History, 1914-2008 even explicitly states the connection and notes that the movie was loosely based on the incident. Even if Night Skies never came to fruition, there’s something a bit Spielbergian about the Brown family when we’re first introduced to them, before things take a much more embracing, ‘50s B-Movie approach when the action begins.
Intentional or not, there’s a great reference in Critters to Spielberg’s Kelly-Hopkinsville connection, in which a critter bites the head off of an E.T. doll. It’s good-natured and could even be in reference to Spielberg’s connection to Gremlins, as Critters was widely seen as a rip-off of that movie despite truly being its own beast, so to speak.
Ultimately, that’s what it remains: its own thing. For all its connections, Critters forged its own path and cemented its own place in the B-Movie hall of fame. It embraced its own weird mythology and while they might draw from a very strange real-life incident, the Crites are their own wholly imaginative creatures. Yet even still, Critters might be the closest thing we have to what Spielberg wanted to accomplish with Night Skies. It has that charm, that feel of lived-in Americana, but just like the supposed events of that night in 1955, that picturesque ideal is threatened when something crashes out of the sky into the backyard.
Goofy and ridiculous as it is, Critters has always been an impressively lean and mean little movie with a wry sense of humor and its real-life inspiration should, if anything, only strengthen its place as a true cult gem of the eighties.