Monday, February 3, 2014

The Killer Shrews (USA, 1959)

"If you have to be isolated for your work you sure picked a lonely little island."
Thorne Sherman (James Best)

Ah, the wonderful films that we all saw on our local creature feature show while growing up in the USA back when life was so simple. Some scared us poopless, others almost made us piss in our pants from the suspense, a select few left us indifferent, and once in a blue moon we found one really stupid. (Actually, the only creature feature film we remember seeing as a kid that we found stupid was The Creeping Terror [1964 / trailer / full film], but that's another story.)
How do those old movies hold up when viewed again as an adult? Some sort of hold up well enough (House on Haunted Hill [1959 / trailer / full movie]), others seem to have improved (White Zombie [1932 / trailer / full movie] and, to tell the truth, The Creeping Terror), while others seem to be completely new films. The last is the case with The Killer Shrews: we know we saw it — every pre-pubescent with a heterosexual penis can see that Ingrid Goude was wet-dream material in her prime — but, damn! Ain't like we remembered anything when we finally caught it again last week, after way too many decades for us to want to admit here, but in all truth, we probably won't remember all that much about the movie — other than Goude, maybe — in a month or two, either...
Written by former TV scribe Jay Simms (who wrote better low budget films, such as Panic in Year Zero! [1962 / trailer] and The Creation of the Humanoids [1962 / trailer]), The Killer Shrews was part of the two-fold directorial debut of the successful visual effects artist Ray Kellogg who, over the course of his career, for example, did the visual effects on a total of ten Marilyn Monroe movies (not to mention such great stuff like The Girl Can't Help It [1956 / trailer], The Day the Earth Stood Still [1951 / trailer] and Pickup on South Street [1953 / trailer]). The other film Kellog directed at the same time as this flick here was the teen trash classic The Giant Gila Monster (1959 / trailer / full film), a movie that scared the poop out of us when we were six but we now imagine is probably just as tacky as The Killer Shrews. (It's on our re-watch list, so who knows, maybe we'll review it eventually).
The Killer Shrews was a regional production from Texas, the state that thinks it is its own country (and should be, if you ask us). As such, we are not sure if the predictability of who dies is due to the era of the movie or the location of its origin, but rest assured the order of death is easy to predict: first the minorities — there is one Afro American, Rook Griswald (Judge Henry Dupree), and one Mexican, Mario (Alfredo DeSoto), so guess who goes first — and then the fat person, and then the remaining asshole. Well, shit: it is a "horror" movie, so somebody gotta die... and also, if you get down to it, the predictable order of death really hasn't changed any today in one sense: you a minority, you gonna die.
For a regional production, The Killer Shrews — alongside The Giant Gila Monster, with which it was distributed as a double feature — was a highly successful movie: it not only got national distribution, but even made it overseas, helped in part we are sure by the presence of Miss Sweden 1956, Ingrid Goude as the movie's singular hot tamale, Ann Craigis. Goude never had much of a career, though she does hold her own well enough in a film that suffers less from bad acting than from static direction and a slow-developing, talk-heavy script. Still, she probably did the right thing by retiring two years later to marry what would be the first of three rich men over the subsequent course of eleven years. (A smart person, after all, knows which side of the bread is buttered.)
The Killer Shrews is of course infamous for its use of wigged dogs with fake fangs as stand-ins for the mutated and insatiably hungry killer shrews. Yes, they are a joke, but most reviews fail to mention that they are used relatively sparingly and, while perhaps unconvincing as giant shrews, nevertheless convey more threat than, say, the intentionally bad-CGI shrews of the intentionally crappy sequel Return of the Killer Shrews (trailer) made 53 years later in 2012. But then, the crappy CGI of the sequel is just an extension of the whole wink-wink-we-know-we're-bad self-conscious attitude of the no-longer-so-contemporary post-post-modern bad film aesthetic, whereas in the original the "shrews" are just cheap and bad.
Like so many films, The Killer Shrews involves a small group of people at an isolated location facing a deadly threat. Here, a group of seven is stuck on a remote island due to an approaching storm and face the deadly threat of a scientific experiment that, meant for the good of mankind, has gone wrong. (Rather unlike what the opening narration implies when it talks of a deadly threat coming southwards from Alaska.) Yes, once again, science has gone too far without thinking, and yes, once again Mother Nature is out for revenge, despite the altruistic nature of the experiments.
As the Yiddish-accented Dr. Milo Craigis (Baruch Lumet, Sidney Lumet's father, who can be seen somewhere in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask [1972 / trailer]) explains at one point, "If we were half as big as we are now, we could live twice as long on our natural resources." Thus, he and his colleague Dr. Radford Baines (Gordon McLendon), in their search to make us smaller, do the logical thing of making the tiny shrew giant. (For more info on the life of shrews, we recommend that you watch the short Our Wonderful Nature, our Short Film of the Month for July, 2011.) Worse, their alcoholic asshole handyman Jerry Farrell (Ken Curtis, a former vocalist in the Tommy Dorsey Band and busy western actor), who's all sweet on the Doc's Swedish-accented daughter Ann (Goude), forgot to lock the cage door one night and now the island is overrun with "hundreds" half-starved giant shrews — and they smell human for dinner.
The rug-covered dogs are of course a detriment to the movie, but less so than the cheaply made set of the house interior where easily over two thirds of the film occurs. Looking as cheap and fake as it is, the characters have little to do much of the time they are in it, so all they do is smoke, drink, change their outfits (OK, only Ann does that) and talk, talk, talk — and then talk some more. Although some talk is perhaps needed to set up the situation and introduce the characters, in The Killer Shrews the talk is both interminable and often totally unnecessary, an obvious attempt to simply pad the running time. Thus, roughly the first two-thirds of the film are rather sleep-inducing.
Once the shrews finally show up, however, things do get better, and if you can convince yourself to see killer shrews on screen instead of rug-covered dogs, the movie even actually becomes somewhat interesting and, at times, mildly suspenseful both due to the threat of the hungry creatures and the inter-dynamics between the trapped people, particularly between alky Jerry and he-man skipper Thorne Sherman (James Best of One Way Street [1950 / trailer], Ray Harryhausen's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms [1953 / trailer], Forbidden Planet (1956 / trailer], Shock Corridor [1963 / trailer] and  Rolling Thunder [1977 / trailer]), who obviously gives Ann an itch somewhere that Jerry doesn't.
Aside from rug-covered dogs, a talky script and cheap interiors, The Killer Shrews also suffers from some pretty bland direction. Occasionally — indiscriminately, if you get down to it — director Ray Kellogg seems to decide he's gonna experiment or something and then he does something totally outrageous like a tiny dolly shot, but for the most part the movie is retains a static camera and middle-of-the-frame blocking of scenes. A dull and uninteresting directorial style that in no way adds tension but often, as during the big escape scene, negates any and all suspense by tipping the events into the laughably incompetent.
In light of all the above, one really must give the various actors credit: despite their mismatching accents they really aren't that bad, and not only deliver their lines competently but even manage, somehow, to give their stock characters a lot more personality and individuality than might be expected in a movie like this one. (In this regard, perhaps scriptwriter Simms also deserves some credit, as he is the one who wrote such personality-revealing scenes as when a furious Skipper Thorne almost — but then doesn't — toss alky Jerry over the fence to the killer shrews.)
That The Killer Shrews is justifiable Mystery Science Theater 3000 material is without doubt, but it is still a far cry from being totally crappy on the level of, for example, Teenage Zombies, a film made the same year. Luckily, even where it is crappy, The Killer Shrews — unlike Teenage Zombies — is at least more fun crappy than crap crappy. Still, due to the excessive dry spots, in the end The Killer Shrews fails to become a classic psychotronic movie but, instead, remains a relatively unmemorable cinematic experience. Watchable, but hardly essential.
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