Essays · Movies

Mini Monsters Will Always Be More Terrifying Than Titans

We’re looking out for the little guys in this tribute to ‘Gremlins,’ ‘Critters,’ and other movies with tiny terrors.
Gremlins mini monsters
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on March 31st, 2021

As we’ve seen with the year-plus of COVID, the smallest things are what will kill us. Viruses, bacteria, and other microscopic menaces are unseen and so they’re particularly scary. Forget the towering, bigger-than-a-barn types of monsters, which will likely squash you beneath their feet or crush you under a pile of rubble. They’re at least seen coming a mile away. But while the smaller you go in terms of a deadly foe, the potentially deadlier they are, I’m not here to talk about the near-totally invisible threats, which are rarely personified — or even creature-ified — outside of movies with incredible shrinking protagonists. I’m here to recognize the other mini-monsters, those that are just big enough to see only after it’s too late to notice them leaping toward you.

Whether it’s Gremlins, Krites, Munchies, or Ghoulies, the commonality of little monsters is they’re just as scary-looking as any other horrible creature — big or tiny — when you actually can see them, but they’re also good at getting into small spaces and staying hidden, either to be more stealthy in their murderous missions or undetected while causing mischief. Mini-monsters can be like the genuinely-invisible poltergeist in their sabotage and shenanigans. Mythologically, gremlins have been unseen creatures blamed for malfunctions and other unlikely mechanical problems, particularly in aircraft, going back a hundred years. Such vandalism would possibly cause death by apparent accident, and movie mini-monsters sometimes do similar damage, meaning a lot of the time there’s no trace that a creature was even around and responsible for the deaths.

But many mini-monsters are quite vicious and will chomp on your meaty parts as if they were flesh-eating bacteria, and a number of them aren’t concerned with cleaning up the bloody mess they leave behind. Because they are small and easily concealed, they like to jump out at you and dig in, maybe leaping into your clothing and continuing to mostly remain unseen while clawing and biting. That can be extra frightening for others, to see someone flailing about in agony while they’re being eaten alive but not witness the culprits. Often mini-monsters will sneak away, still-undiscovered, and drop a mystery along with a body. While the monsters devised for movies and folklore are fantastical in design, they’re not that unlike real small creatures, such as venomous spiders, who act similarly — and occasionally get great movies of their own that align well with the more imaginary kind.

Don’t they seem more vulnerable for their diminutive size, though? You can just kick them away, right? One misconception about mini-monsters might be that they’re always just wee creatures. But numerous movies have shown us that they can come in a larger size as well. Gremlins in great numbers — oh, and the fact that they and other minis multiply themselves is also pretty horrifying, by the way — can appear as an overwhelming wave of horror. Krites, the aliens from the Critters franchise that roll up into a ball when swiftly traveling, will band together in the form of one giant ball of terror, like a ravenous Voltron comprised of spiky fur and teeth, making an even quicker meal out of anything or anyone in their collective path. And Ghoulies can be conjured in super-size, though those monsters can actually be helpful to humans if they only desire to eat their smaller cousins.

The mini-monsters trend of the 1980s came at a booming time for horror in general, but I think it’s interesting to compare the wave with the same decade’s films about killer toys, killer pets, and killer kids because the trendsetter of mini-monster movies, Gremlins, relates to all three of those. The originating creature, Gizmo the Mogwai, is technically a pet but also kind of like a toy by being a Christmas gift, and it comes with strict rules for survival, which is also like a pet, yes, but is extreme in its responsibilities and repercussions in the way that parents will understand more so than mere pet owners (sorry not sorry to the pet owners who think they’re parents). There is a connotation with small things to be cuter, but not only can small things hurt you — in a way that is minor but lasting, as opposed to Godzilla stepping on your house — but so can cute things turn ugly and deadly.

Consider the killer rats and dogs or the cats and kids coming back to life in Pet Sematary or the puppets and dolls and toys in Puppet Master, Child’s Play, and Joe Dante’s own Small Soldiers, which is essentially a Gremlins remake with plastic in place of body tissue. The antagonistic entities in these movies are also mini-monsters but have a more familiar and relatable — and therefore presumably scarier — quality to them. You can think of Gremlins and Ghoulies as metaphors for any of those other categories, especially when they’re represented with children’s clothing or personalities or come across as playthings or are in the possession of or are the responsibility of a human character. When you become the parent of a toddler, you understand better than ever why anything of that size coming up behind you or up to you while you’re sleeping is plenty startling.

Considering how much scarier mini-monster movies can be compared to giant creature features, I’m surprised that we don’t see more of them. A lot of horror trends go in cycles, but outside of the ’80s wave, there hasn’t been a lot of other good Gremlins followers. Is it because Gremlins is so iconic that everything else would feel like a knockoff? That doesn’t stop Hollywood from milking other ideas, for better or worse. Every now and then we do get a Slither or a Grabbers with small deadly creatures, though they’re not quite the same without personalities likening them to kids or pets and are instead more related to bugs and sea animals — not that they aren’t still great and plenty creepy and scary for all their burrowing and infecting and bloodsucking. But so are leeches and squids. I’ll still take the lot of them over any massive monstrosities, however.

Sure, the last decade has brought us Chubbies, Weedjies, Slimoids, and Ghastlies, but they’re not good enough. Instead, these comedy-horror cheapies seem content with being cheesy throwbacks, yet they feel more intent on being ironic than scary (they’re more like Troll 2 than even Ghoulies). The original and peak duo of mini-monster movies, Gremlins and Critters (and their arguably better sequels), came about so well so suddenly — and coincidentally! Was it somehow a one-time occasion? Are we to settle on resurrections of each of them, in whatever form we can have them? Does there need to be a Gremlins vs. Krites movie? I’d watch it, no lie. But I would love more quality mini-monsters overall, with a variety of little creatures — or they can even technically be based on the gremlins myth a la Shadow in the Cloud for all I care — in a variety of situations.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.