The Killer Shrews
All that was left after...
Year of Release: 1959
Genre: Horror/Science Fiction
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 69 minutes (1:09)
Director: Ray Kellog
James Best ... Thorne Sherman
Ingrid Goude ... Ann Craigis
Ken Curtis ... Jerry Farrell
Baruch Lumet ... Dr. Marlowe Craigis
Gordon McLendon ... Dr. Radford Baines
Alfredo de Soto ... Mario
Judge Henry Dupree ... 'Rook' Griswold
A horde of outsized rodents run amok on an isolated island. Created by mad scientist Dr. Marlowe Craigis, the monster shrews escape the lab during a hurricane and devour nearly every other animal on the island before seeking human prey - including Thorne Sherman and girlfriend Ann Craigis, who are stranded on the island by the same storm. The survivors manage to escape to safety, thanks to some goofy contraptions constructed from trash cans.
The Killer Shrews, remindin' us that you can't teach an old dog shrew tricks.
And speakin' of people who shoulda been committed to an asylum instead of celluloid, if I've warned Skunky Hernandez once I've warned 'im 272 times to never, ever lift his arms above his head unless somebody's pointin' a shotgun at 'im, and equally important: do not invite the press to the drive-in. 'Course if Skunky ever listened to me he wouldn't be facin' charges of misappropriated PPP loans since A) the Grime Time never closed durin' the pandemic, and B) replacin' a barbed wire fence to "keep illegal immigrants from spreadin' COVID to the audience" isn't considered an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.
I spoze you prolly all seen the paper by now, but I'll recap what happened for the foreign and/or remedial readers just this once. I dunno if it was government red tape or Skunky havin' to grease somebody's palm to pass inspection, but last week his application for a liquor license finally went through and gave us the right to sell draft Pole Cat at the concession stand. I tried talkin' sense to 'im about this, but by the time I found out about it he'd already sunk two hours into locatin' the phone book to inform the Chickawalka Talka and there really wasn't much I could do to stop 'im.
"Skunky, let's discuss the pros and cons of your decision to invite people who make their livin' publishin' the highlights of Chickawalka County's greatest follies for public consumption, shall we?" I suggested.
"Fine! Pro - free advertising! Cervezas breeg een more bucks and expand drive-in demographic to include chronically unemployed alcoholics who cain't afford cooler ane ice," Skunky gloated.
"Con - assuming this is the ONE week where there's not a fistfight, unauthorized public sex act, or child goin' missin' in the back forty to overshadow your great triumph, they'll bury the article between the pond stockin' schedule on Page 8 and the 'Bigfoot expedition seeks menstruating women for wilderness excursion' classified on Page 10 and nobody'll even see it," I countered.
"Uh... Pro - people like seeing selves een newspaper! Beeg turnout for chance to be peectured een article!" Skunky asserted.
"Counter argument - half the people in attendance have warrants out on 'em, secret girlfriends they're hidin' from the wife, or a church pastor who'll excommunicate 'em for showin' up to see mutant rodents gnaw people to death. They're probably not gonna share your enthusiasm for bein' part of a public spectacle," I challenged.
"Okay, fine. Thees what we do - admission free, make patrons promise to be on best behavior, and valhalla! Fresh start weeth newspaper staff," Skunky suggested.
"You remember when Nan Barnabas got up on the concession stand and told everyone we were corruptin' the youth of America by showin' these flicks?" I asked.
"Ceety Council race, yah. Oh! And you and Heelyar' blast her weeth septique truck doodie from outhouse! Beeg ween for Grime Time, 'course I remember," Skunky beamed.
"Right. Well, the paper was here coverin' that speech, and there was a little, um... collateral splatter on their photographer," I mumbled.
"Thees why we cain't have nice theengs," Skunky frowned.
Naturally, Skunky goes ahead and invites Harvey Yoder to cover the event anyway so Harvey can get some stills of Juanita pourin' the first beer for Buzz McCulloch (who'd camped out in front of the concession stand Thursday night to make sure he'd be the first guy in line and have somethin' to tell his grandkids about), and things were mostly under control until Juanita hadda run to the house to take a long-distance call from 'er aunt Consuela back in Juarez. Unfortunately, Juanita neglected to lock the door on 'er way out, and four chunkheaded teenagers led by Skink Taylor snuck in, filled up a five-gallon bucket with Pole Cat, and proceeded to shotgun the whole thing in the space of about two minutes. Next thing ya know they've commandeered the ladder I use to squeegee magpie squirts off the big screen, stripped nekkid, and ascended to the top of the projection screen where they proceeded to drunken kickbox for the amusement of the crowd.
I dunno how they even made it up the ladder, let alone maintained enough balance to keep from fallin' off, but after about five minutes the novelty wore off and people started throwin' things at 'em till Dale Whelchel nailed Skink right in his newts with an old spark plug and that was all she wrote. Skink took a header into the lawn chair section and landed spine first on an Igloo water jug that prolly woulda paralyzed 'im if he hadn't been hammered enough to ragdoll. Fortunately, he survived with only five broken ribs and some soft tissue trauma caused by an unfortunately placed Maglite. I'm not gonna get into the details, but this incident has confirmed the existence of illuminative alternatives for that place the sun don't shine. You may be wonderin' how he broke all those ribs after landin' on his back, but that didn't actually happen until the three bares leaned over to check on 'im and ended up windmillin' each other off the screen and into a nekkid redneck dogpile directly on toppa Skink.
Come Monday mornin' the Chickawalka Talka's top story read: "Homosexual Orgy Temporarily Halts Screening at Local Drive-In," complete with a discreetly blurred color photo of the supposed carnal carnage. Skunky issued a statement the followin' day assurin' the public that "thees behavior ees not representative of typical evening at drive-in," and he's right, 'cause I hadn't seen anything that funny since Buck McGurk lost his grip durin' a game of horseshoes and accidentally fired a shoe through the wall of the outhouse where Val Winthrop and Marla Ostman were makin' the sign of the pneumatic bun truncheon. Anyway, Skunky got his publicity and the public got a show, so I really don't see what the sheriff's so hacked off about. Probably all those nubile male hinders got an unexpected rise out of 'im or somethin', but I haven't got time to speculate on Sheriff Hardassian's repressed urges, and besides that, I like my teeth where they are.
The only thing that really pinches my pastrami is that they hadda pull their little stunt right when the shrews started gnawin' through the drywall and gettin' chalk dust all over their noses till they all looked like rodent cocaine addicts 'cause that's prolly the tour de force scene of the movie. It's either that or the part where the Swedish supermodel breaks off 'er engagement to Deputy Festus from Gunsmoke 'cause his booze problem's gotten so outta hand that his blood alcohol level rounds up to a whole number, I can't decide. Regardless, you've prolly seen this one on Mystery Science Theater so you can empathize with a guy when such a cerebral flick gets interrupted by inbred shenanigans, but we're not gonna let that get in the way of our prescribed dose of unconventional wisdom which I will now dispense for your intellectual pleasure. First, if your conservation efforts lead to the engineering of a creature that wipes out the entire ecosystem in a matter of days, you may experience a sharp reduction in research grants. Second, if you're formulatin' a plot to run away with the stable boy the same day your engagement falls through, you might be on the rebound. And third, before you check the "guaranteed overnight delivery" box on Amazon, do spare a thought for the poor SOB sent to courier your precious fondu pot via Glastron in the middle of hurricane season.
The movie begins with Rosco Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard drivin' a bass boat fulla supplies out to the Island of Dr. Boreau where this bleedin' heart enviro-scientist (Dr. Craigis) is conductin' experiments on animals tryna find a way to shrink humanity down to the size of Sky Low Low to make the planet's natural resources last longer and increase sales of Shriner-sized automobiles. Rosco don't care much for the elephant gun-toting welcomin' committee (Jerry, Ann, and Radford) given that his first mate's black and he's not sure the recluses livin' here've gotten word that the South lost the war, and things get even shadier when he notices the only people on the island feel the need to maintain a 9' privacy fence. To make matters worse, Rosco and Rook (the first mate) can't turn around and go home 'cause there's a hurricane comin' in and they don't wanna risk endin' up shipwrecked on the shores of some uncharted desert isle and havin' to deal with Bob Denver, so they decide to crash with the doc even though his considerable supply of alcohol isn't quite enough to dull the pain of Radford's zoological psycho-babble and his bizarre insistence on cosplayin' the Gregory Peck role from To Kill a Mockingbird. Then Craigis starts talkin' about animal eugenics in his creepy European accent while Rosco sits there eyeballin' 'im tryin' to remember what happened to Josef Mengele after the war until the wind picks up and Ann hasta go change into a skirt that looks like the saddle blanket seat cover out of a 1968 Ford pickup so she'll be hideous enough that even the hurricane won't wanna touch 'er. Next thing, Jerry starts givin' Ann the business for paradin' around in a Mexican blanket like a Class-A strumpet till she gets P.O.'d and reminds 'im that their engagement is over and that she don't hafta take crapola from the dimwit who left a cage unlocked and unleashed the B plot of an H.G. Wells novel on 'em.
While that's goin' on Rook's just mindin' his own business out in the dark securin' the boat to land in the middle of a hurricane, when all the sudden he's attacked by the Rats of 'Nam who chase 'im up a tree like a common park squirrel and wait patiently until his rotundity causes the tree to dip and eventually snap, resultin' in a fresh batch of chocolate chip Rookies for the ravenous rodents below. Meanwhile, Rosco's tryin' every excuse he can think of to get outta the house before his bladder explodes from the 17 screwdrivers he's tossed back, but Ann ends up pullin' a gun on 'im and explainin' that he can't leave 'cause there're man-eatin' mega moles outside and that if he goes out there they're gonna nibble his kibbles 'n bits before she gets a chance to. Then Jerry consults the experts at the firm of Beam, Daniels, and Cuervo and determines that there's really nothin' to worry about given that the shrieks of the barnyard animals bein' eaten alive should keep everyone bright-eyed and alert until mornin' when the verminators return to their dens to hide from the sun like hungover college students on athletic scholarships. It's reasonin' like this that makes it clear to everybody why Jerry's gonna get stuck workin' for James Arness for the rest of his pitiful life, so Rosco assigns a staggered night watch crew until Stephen Pearcy tunnels his way in and tries to climb out of the cellar,givin' Mario rat scratch fever in the process, and forcin' Rosco to splatter shrew goo all over the water heater. Mario dies moments later and Craigis' autopsy reveals that all the d-CON they left out to poison the shrews just got absorbed into their saliva glands and that they're gonna start spreadin' the plaque plague around unless somebody's able to blast 'em right square in the grill with a firehose fulla Tartar Control Crest.
Eventually dawn breaks and the survivors decide to toss the greasy grimy gopher guts over the fence to distract the remainin' snappybaras while they make a run for the dock, only nothin' shows up for their dinner party and so Rosco and Jerry go to check on the boat and duke it out to determine who gets to raise the children sired by Ann and the milkman. Rosco emerges victorious when a thunderous blow to the air 18" from Jerry's face sends 'im reeling, but about that time the Christopher George deficient Rat Patrol shows up and Jerry beats Rosco back to the compound and locks 'im out like a wet dog plottin' to shake off on the Barcalounger. Rosco is P.O.'d, so he climbs over the rear fencing and pummels Jerry's face into soft serve and purt'near dumps 'im over the fence, but decides not to 'cause Radford has the look of a playground snitch about 'im and Rosco don't wanna survive the attack of the wolves in cheaps clothing only to end up on death row in West Texas. Then everybody heads back inside to mole over their options, only by now the turrible gerbils've broken outta the cellar, and when Ann tries goin' into the kitchen to do some womaning one of the untameable shrews blows by 'er and clips Radford with a gnarly toenail and he hasta spend his final moments at a typewriter detailin' the depths of his agony like Edgar Allen Poe in fast forward. Craigis skims through the paper but there's no time for peer review, 'cause next thing ya know Chinchilla the Hun and his troops start gnawin' through the drywall till their noses come pokin' out lookin' like they just left a cocaine party at John Belushi's house. It's gonna take some serious MacGyverin' to weasel their way outta this pickle, but I ain't no rat, so if you missed this one on Mystery Science Theater you'll just hafta check it out on your own at the link provided.
Alrighty, so I guess everybody expectin' a First Wives Club style slasher flick based upon the title probably wants their 99 cents back, but that's what happens when you don't read the synopsis. Killer Shrews, like many low budget regional offerings from the '50s, owes its life to late-night cable in general and Mystery Science Theater in specific, though it should be pointed out that both it and its double feature counterpart, The Giant Gila Monster, both turned a respectable profit on the drive-in circuit during their original runs. It was filmed back to back with the aforementioned Giant Gila Monster as part of a double bill by Ray Kellog (whose primary job was creating matte paintings for just about everything being released by 20th Century Fox at the time), and Ray musta been a pretty personable guy because he managed to land the gig directin' John Wayne in The Green Berets about a decade later despite his two creature features makin' up two-thirds of his body of work. Say what you want about the production values, but the longevity of these two movies is pretty impressive, and the guy never shied away from showin' his monsters even at the risk of elderly theater patrons throwin' their backs out as a direct result of uncontrollable laughing fits. The man promised us giant killer shrews, and by God we got... well we got a pack of bloodhounds outfitted as giant killer shrews, which in some ways is better than the real thing since the dogs'd work for a package of Armour hot dogs a day and had a significantly lower chance of infectin' the crew with bubonic plague. The point is that they were tryin' - kinda like how they were tryin' to be mildly progressive by castin' a black man as Best's first mate on the supply ship. That didn't really work either on account of the writer insistin' on havin' Best refer to the guy as "boy" and then not bothering to write in the tiniest shred of concern for him once it's revealed there're giant mutant rodents roamin' loose on the island while he's alone in the dark, but I guess they meant well. Its many faults aside, there's still a lot of fanfare for the flick 60+ years after its original theatrical run, evidenced by the film's recent digital remastering, colorization, and a sequel produced in 2012 that saw the return of James Best to the role of Thorne Sherman. Whatever else you may think about it, it's a movie that sticks in your memory and has a cult fanbase that refuses to let it fade into obscurity, and for that reason, people'll probably still be talkin' about it on its centennial anniversary.
Thankfully, I'll have the excuse of bein' dead by the time that round table discussion happens in the year 2059, but in the meantime, every movie I cover gets the same respect, time, and attention due a hobo puttin' on a performance of Usher's "Yeah!" with armpit accompaniment, so let's see if these rambunctious rodents have the kinda cheese stores necessary to make the grade. The plot is fairly original in the sense that most people woulda taken a hard look at it and tossed it into the nearest wastebasket rather than making it into a movie. Speaking from a purely sociological point of view, endeavoring to make humanity hobbit-sized is going to be met with 1000x the level of resistance you'd get from something as necessary as a COVID vaccine, so the doctor's reasoning is just too flawed to follow here. I mean, I can buy the hyper-breeding of mutant rodents that escape captivity to feast on human flesh, but if you expect me to believe that a country of people drivin' around in trucks whose size increasingly rivals that of a Carnival cruise ship are gonna embrace a reduction in personal stature, you're askin' too much.
The acting is a lot better than the budget and plot would lead you to believe, anchored by competent performances by James Best as our man's man from the mainland, and Ken Curtis as the loathsome, alcoholic weasel Jerry. The rest of the cast ranges from awkward to bland, with Ingrid Goude being the weakest of the lot, her presence in the film being largely attributable to her career as a Swedish model. Gordon McLendon, who played the part of Radford, was likely included in the cast entirely for budgetary concerns as he was also an executive producer putting up most of the money for the picture but, to his credit, he's far from the worst castmember and ended up with 5x what he invested after the box office receipts were tallied. They're not the most stellar troupe ever assembled by a casting director, but the two most accomplished actors were given the two most important roles, so you'd at least have to say they did the best they could with the available talent.
Here's who matters and why: James Best (Return of the Killer Shrews, Death Mask, The Savage Bees, The Brain Machine, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Forbidden Planet, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), Gordon McLendon (The Giant Gila Monster). James Best would go on to play Rosco Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard, and Ken Curtis is best known for his portrayals of Charlie McCorry in The Searchers, Cpl. Wilkie in The Horse Soldiers, Jim Buckley on Ripcord, and of course, Deputy Festus in 306 episodes of Gunsmoke.
The special effects are, as you're no doubt aware, the only reason to watch the flick, and it's got nothin' to do with admiration for their craftsmanship. The close-up shots utilized admittedly gnarly, if absurdly stiff puppets, while the distance shots featured bloodhounds wearing head-coverings, ragged fursuits, and long rubbery tails, and are some of the most ridiculous special effects ever put to film. But again, to his credit, Kellog advertised giant killer rodents and he delivered giant killer rodents, and you've got to admit that his methods led to some of the most memorable (if absurd) moments in B movie history. He could have tried to keep his critters in the dark and gone with the inarticulate hand puppets, but instead, he dressed up his wolfhounds in shrew's clothing and provided entertainment value for the crowds, and for that, he gets a few points.
The shooting locations are dismal, unphotogenic, and you can't help but get the feeling that the set designer got his money upfront and immediately left town. Filming took place on a ranch owned by executive producer Gordon McLendon that included lakefront property on the shores of Lake Dallas, Texas, and while they do their best to hide the fact that this's obviously not an island by keeping tight shots on the boat, their efforts prove futile. There's also an awful lot of clear sky and motionless trees working against the idea that there's a hurricane headed their way, which really makes you wonder why the hurricane subplot is even necessary as it suggests the horde of rampaging monsters isn't reason enough to stay indoors. So this's a pretty poor showing in an area that usually grants easy points.
The soundtrack is your standard 1950s "sound and fury signifying nothing," with a lot of generic, blustery brass pieces whose excitement is never matched in terms of visual thrills. On the more restrained side, you've got the flute-heavy tracks meant to build suspense, and while they are mildly more successful than the over-the-top brass pieces in the early going, it's all very stock in tone and lacks any kind of uniqueness that might give the soundtrack a sense of identity. Now, this is not to say that its presence doesn't improve the film's atmosphere, because as drab and tired as it is, by the 1950s a score was absolutely mandatory for purely structural purposes, so there will be points awarded for it simply existing. That said, don't expect a boutique label to release this stuff on vinyl anytime soon. Overall, The Killer Shrews is decidedly more entertaining than its double-billed counterpart, The Giant Gila Monster, but fares no better in terms of production values. That said, it's ridiculous enough to watch at least once in the spirit of "so bad it's good" filmmaking, and due to its public domain status, it's widely available for free to anyone who wants to see it.