40 years ago, ‘Gremlins’ Spawned a New Breed of Horror Films Featuring Pint-Sized Terrors

Ghoulies, Gremlins and Critters Collage
Everett Collection; Critters: New Line Cinema/via Movie StillsDB

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were quite a few horror films so popular and so influential, they oftentimes sparked their very own subgenre, resulting in a wave of copycats and some blatant rip-offs. In 1975, Jaws famously made people afraid to go into the water and studios took notice, thus came the frenzy of aquaphobia-inducing horror flicks like Piranha and Barracuda. Halloween ushered in the golden age of the slasher with numerous wannabes as well as some good ones like Friday the 13th. Alien inspired knockoffs like Creature and Galaxy of Terror. Then, of course, there was Gremlins, which ignited a wave of movies featuring pint-sized monsters running amok. With Gizmo celebrating his 40th anniversary on June 8, we thought it was a good time to look back at the creature features starring micro-menaces that terrorized theaters and video stores in the ‘80s. Some are good, others downright terrible — but there’s one that unjustly gets accused of being a rip-off when, technically, it’s not.

(Editor’s note: This list will not include movies such as Child’s Play or Puppet Master. While those films do feature tiny terrors, we recognize those as the killer doll subgenre).

Ghoulies (1985)

Ghoulies is about a man who inherits a mansion from his deceased father. Unbeknownst to him, his father was a cult leader who performed satanic rituals in the basement. After discovering his father’s book on black magic, he performs a ritual and unwittingly unleashes a variety of little demons known as Ghoulies. The 1985 film received scathing reviews upon release, but has since grown a cult following. It spawned three sequels that got progressively worse (especially the fourth one), making the original look like a masterpiece. Many accuse Ghoulies of being flat-out rip-off, but it was actually in production the same exact time as Gremlins. But what it’s most famous for is its poster. If Jaws is famous for making people afraid to go into the water, then Ghoulies deserves credit for making kids afraid to go into the bathroom. Fun fact: The green Ghoulie popping out of the toilet on the main poster art caused such a stir, angry mothers wrote letters to the movie studio complaining that their kids were too afraid to go to the bathroom.

Critters (1986)

This creature feature is about a race of porcupine-like aliens called Krites that crash land on Earth and terrorize a local farmhouse. While it is widely believed that Critters was made to cash in on the success of Gremlins, the film was actually written well before Gremlins even went into production. As many fans are aware, the filmmakers have been very verbal about this fact and vehemently insist that it is not a rip-off—Gremlins just got lucky and beat it to the punch. Still, even Gremlin’s director Joe Dante recognizes it as the best of the films that allegedly copied his and has nothing but kind words to say about it. He once said, “I think Critters is probably the best one because it’s got the Chiodo Brothers and they’re very talented guys.” Critters went on to spawn a total of four sequels with Critters 2: The Main Course being the last to be released theatrically. Critters 3 (which starred a very young Leonardo DiCaprio!) and Critters 4 (which featured Angela Bassett!) were released direct-to-DVD in the early ‘90s. And after 33 years of silence, the Critters made a very disappointing comeback in 2019 with a web series titled Critters: A New Binge and the made-for-TV Critters Attack!.

Munchies (1987)

Probably one of the worst on this list, Munchies is about an archaeologist who discovers a race of mean little creatures in a cave in Peru. Remember how Gremlins multiply when getting wet? Well, these cheap-looking rubber-faced buggers multiply when chopped into pieces. Fun fact: this flick actually has connective tissue with both Critters and Gremlins. Actress Nadine Van Der Velde has a role in both films, and Gremlins editor Tina Hirsch went on to direct the very, very low-budget Munchies. Unfortunately, her former Gremlins director Joe Dante didn’t have anything good to say about her feature-film debut. He said, “Uh, talk about a low-budget movie. I mean, they couldn’t really afford any monsters. So the monsters are like clothing remnants. They don’t seem to have any heads or tails or anything. It’s just a bunch of clothing wrapped up and thrown at people. It was just not good.”

The Gate (1987)

The Gate is about a young boy who discovers a mysterious pit in his backyard. With the aid of his best friend, they crawl down the hole and discover an underground chamber and accidentally release a horde of pint-sized minions. On the night of a slumber party consisting of his sister and her friends, these demonic forces make their night a pure living hell. This is one of those horror films for kids, starring kids, including a very young Stephen Dorff. It’s pretty well-acted with some remarkable, stop-motion special effects. The villainous little demons never became even as remotely iconic as the Mogwai from Gremlins, but it’s overall a solid PG-13 creature feature with some decent scares. It also spawned one very lackluster sequel.

Hobgoblins (1988)

With creatures that look like literal sock puppets and a dismal 2.2 IMDB rating (that’s even worse than Munchies’ 3.9 rating!), Hobgoblins is probably the worst Gremlins rip-off of all. In fact, even Joe Dante thinks so. “Hobgoblins is pretty bad,” says the Gremlins director. “To be fair. Everybody was trying to do what we were doing on less money.” In case you’re curious, the flick is about alien hobgoblins who escape from a vault. They terrorize their victims by making their fantasies come true, but with very grim consequences. If you’re morbidly curious, you can track down Vinegar Syndrome’s out-of-print Blu-ray on eBay, but you’re probably better off watching this video of Mystery Science Theater 3000 ripping it to shreds.

Elves (1989)

Despite what its title suggests, Elves is an obscure schlocker about a lone evil elf that terrorizes three friends who are trapped in a department store on Christmas Eve. Even more ridiculous is that one of the victims discovers that she’s part of a Nazi experiment that involves elves mating with a pureblood Aryan virgin to create a race of supreme beings. Her only hope is renegade Santa Claus played by Dan Haggarty (The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams). Elves’ creature design and effects are laughable—the titular creature is virtually expressionless and runs around with the same mouth-agape look throughout the entire film. However, with its over-the-top acting, laugh-out-loud effects, and bonkers premise, you just might consider this to be one of those “so bad it’s good” C-list horror flicks. To no one’s surprise, Elves has never even seen a standard DVD release. If you got $80 to burn, there are a couple of nearly extinct VHS copies currently on eBay.


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