dir. Ray Kellogg
“Those who hunt by night will tell you that the wildest and most vicious of all animals is the tiny shrew. The shrew feeds by the dark of the moon. He must eat his own body weight every few hours – or starve! And the shrew devours everything – bones, flesh, marrow, everything! In March, first in Alaska and then invading steadily southward there were reports of a new species – The Giant Killer Shrew!”
Is it possible for a movie to work in spite of itself? You know what, wait, allow me to rephrase. Is it possible for a movie to accidentally work? I don’t know. But “The Killer Shrews” presents a compelling case. Against all logic and common sense, the film works. It owes absolutely none of that to anyone behind or in front of the camera. Ray Kellogg, an American born filmmaker from Iowa, took the horror genre by storm in the year 1959. Well okay he did the complete opposite, but whatever, semantics. For his directorial debut he made two low budget horror films, “The Killer Shrews” and “The Giant Gila Monster”, made back to back and with the same production crew. Because Kellogg himself helmed the special effects for both (not a proud boast), he was allowed to direct. The two films were marketed as the first feature films to be shot and produced entirely in Dallas (a fact that I’m sure Dallas will agree is best left forgotten). They are what they are. The titles are not misleading. They are about Killer Shrews and Giant Gila Monsters. I don’t need to tell you what the production values look like. You already know. There are people too in these films, but only because there has to be. They are sometimes hard to distinguish when standing next to the props. Most of them are acted by actors who have only rarely acted in feature films again. Ken Curtis, in an exception to the rule, actually went on to star in quite a few John Ford films, including “The Searchers” and “Rio Grande”. Formerly a cowboy vocalist, his performance here is what you’d imagine from a country singer turned actor. Most telling, perhaps, is that both Kellogg films would end up being featured prominently in MST3K episodes. “The Killer Shrews” was also highlighted in the cousin show, “This Movie Sucks!” So, why am I recommending this film, you’re probably asking! How can I say that it works? How is that even possible? Well, It just does.
NOTE: This is the last that you will hear of “The Giant Gila Monster” which is a steaming pile of, well, you know what. I mention it only for context, not recommendation.
We open to Captain Thorne Sherman (James Best) and first mate Rook Griswold (Henry Dupree), who is black (which in the 50’s was a character type, not just mere description), delivering supplies to a remote island by boat. They are met with guns and suspicion. “Do you expect an invasion?” Sherman inquires dubiously. “Yes,” replies the rifle-totting Jerry (the above mentioned Ken Curtis). It’s at this point that I have to begin my defense of the film. I realize that my intro reads as rather derisive, almost ironic. It should be noted that I’m not mocking the film, but poking fun at it. “The Killer Shrews” actually does a pretty good job of building it’s core mystery. Since the title promises Killer Shrews it should key you in that eventually we’ll be seeing all that it implies (unlike Mario Bava’s “Planet of the Vampires”, which peculiarly features no vampires). But for the first 20 minutes of film Sherman, and by extension us, is kept in the dark. Dr. Craigis (Baruch Lumet) gives a ponderous sermon about overpopulation, in which he has a strange solution. “If we were half as big as we are now, we could live twice as long on our natural resources.” He also brings out a rat for no reason other than foreshadowing. There are drinks too, which provide some of the greatest moments of unintentional hilarity throughout. The characters drink and drink, and then they drink some more. At one point, late in the film, one of the giant shrews makes it into the room and attacks. Sherman whips out his pistol and shoots it dead, but not before chugging down a final glass. An astonishing amount of the film consists of the characters standing around, or sitting around, drinking and talking. The dialogue is banal at best and sometimes almost awe-inspiring in it’s inanity. Ann Craigis (Ingrid Goude), Doctor Craigis’ daughter and by necessity (being the only female in the film) love interest to Captain Sherman, speaks about leaving her life of science and danger behind. “Live normally, like normal women do. It may seem a little dull after the life I’ve been living. But rather dull and alive than excited and…” Sherman interrupts and holds her close, as melodramatically as in a 50’s movie poster, “I’ll take a dull, alive woman every time.” Ugh. The romance between the two sets off the hothead Jerry, Ann’s drunken fiance. In a film that exhibits giant Killer Shrews and clocks in at a scant 60 minutes, we don’t really need a secondary conflict. But we get one.
When the Killer Shrews do finally appear we can see why the decision was made to keep them mostly in the dark. Yes, those are dogs in drag. Whippets to be exact. There are two methods that Kellogg uses here to show us the shrews, one is wholly effective, and the other is so hokey that it completely diminishes the eeriness of the other. For the close-ups Kellogg dangles what looks like a stuffed rat doll before the camera. Only giving us glimpses of eyes and fangs. These are the best shots. So obviously fake that it borders on creepy. It’s when Kellogg cuts back to the wide shots of the benevolent dogs in costumes that I was taken out, especially later when the film has the gall to brazenly parade them around in broad daylight. Sometimes the dogs don’t even appear in costume, but just wet after being hosed down. Oh well, we can’t blame Kellogg for not getting the “Jaws” memo as Spielberg wouldn’t be around to set the template for shrewdness for another 16 years. It doesn’t help that most of the dogs in question look less like hungry beasts and more like they’re yearning for a belly rub. Another fascinating production deficiency that somehow works to the benefit of the film is it’s setting. Essentially, the entire film takes place in a small outpost that is surrounded by a massive wooden fence. The room where our characters spend most of their time drinking has all the authenticity as being made from cardboard. You can literally see creases and folds in the walls. At one point a character opens a door and we can see the entire wall vibrate. The lighting is no better. However, it gives the film a claustrophobic touch that a more realistic, or spacious, setting just wouldn’t allow for. The flimsiness of the sets even adds a sense of danger. As we sit there waiting for the shrews to tunnel in, we can see how exposed our characters are. Like the CGI apes in the new “Planet of the Apes” movies, eventually it grows on you. I’d like to say that, like the apes, it was a decision prompted by artistry rather than laziness, but most likely that’s not the case.
Amid the clash of egos, the shrews start depleting our characters one by one. Rook is first, of course, because he’s black and this is the 50’s. Though, I have to confess that Rook’s demise is actually a pretty well-executed segment, most notably because it takes place at night, obscuring the shrews and relying primarily on implication. Rook climbs a tree in a futile effort to escape. As the shrews pool around the trunk we can see the tree bending lower and lower, until Rook falls and is ripped apart by sound effects. The following day Sherman finds nothing but a pile of clothes and a gun. “They don’t leave much, do they?” he memorably growls at Doctor Craigis. The next victim is the only other minority character in the film, the Italian servant Mario. After he’s bitten on the leg and dies instantly we’re informed of an additional piece of information about the shrews. They’ve been treated with poison. OH NOOO! Yes, it seems that in a fruitless attempt to poison the shrews to death Dr. Craigis unwittingly laced their fangs with a cocktail of every lethal poison at his disposal. It’s a plot development so amusingly portentous that it’s hard not to feel a sting of excitement. This is made aware in a glorious scene where Doctor Radford (Gordon McLendon, in a completely bonkers performance) is also bit on the leg. “Just ripped my trousers, that’s all.” he reassures the rest of the group, and then sits down to type out his bodily symptoms before falling dead.
All of this leads to what has to be one of the most puzzling and downright hilarious finales in all of horror cinema. It’s pretty much the definition of good camp. And is there ever a bad time for some good camp? Our heroes (and Jerry) are chased out of the outpost by the shrews and intend to seek sanctuary on Sherman’s boat. To hike through the treacherous woods Sherman concocts a plan to hide everyone underneath empty oil drums welded together, with eye holes to see, and duck walk to the beach. Conveniently, what do you think Sherman happens to find waiting just outside? Sitting beside a pile of junk are 4 oil drums, welding equipment, and even a pair of safety goggles that he takes the time to slip into, despite the life and death urgency of the situation. Jerry, a stubborn fool in the great tradition of cinematic stubborn fools, refuses to go, opting instead to climb up onto the roof. He changes his mind just moments after the rest of the party leaves and succumbs to death by shrew as a result. The walk to the beach is shot mostly in static. Just shots of the actor’s faces in close, obviously not really walking. If it was at all possible to subtract even a meager amount of tension from such a scenario, Kellogg comes surprisingly close to finding it. Our heroes make it safety. Doctor Craigis informs us that within 24 hours the shrews will all starve to death. “You know something doctor?” Sherman grins, “I’m not going to worry about overpopulation just yet.” The music swells as he embraces Ann in a kiss. Ugh.
Now, I have to admit to a certain level of bias here. I’m a sucker for material like this. I can admire a good, scary horror film as much as anyone else. I love “Alien”! But there’s something about a horror film that invites you to laugh. It could intentional, like “Evil Dead 2” or “Bride of Frankenstein”. Or it can be unintentional, as is the case with “The Killer Shrews”. Does my review virtually amount to the longhand of saying “it works because it’s fun”? Perhaps. But I think it’s important to explain why I can defend something like “The Killer Shrews” as acceptable dumb fun, then turn around and deride someone for defending something like a “Fast and Furious” movie. The devil is in the details. “The Killer Shrews” has a complete lack of pretense. It doesn’t exploit it’s genre tropes and cliches, but follows them with a charming earnestness. It doesn’t talk up to the audience, but it doesn’t talk down to them either. It is what it is. It’s a movie about giant shrews terrorizing people. And it succeeds at that as well as any film can. It’s quite possibly the best version of itself that could have been made, given the materials and resources at hand. And really, who am I to argue such modest goals? You can counter that the characters and scenes I’ve described are more ‘infamous’ than memorable, and far less so than that of more deserving films that get unfairly overlooked. But for better or for worse, “The Killer Shrews” makes an impression. It’s a cult classic for a reason. It’s a film that I keep coming back to and will continue to do so. I’m reminded of the scene in Tim Burton’s fantastic “Ed Wood”, where the titular filmmaker is receiving a scornful review of his latest film. “Worst film you ever saw?” he smiles sincerely, “well my next one will be better.” I can imagine Ray Kellogg eagerly pledging the same.
On this note I should add that a sequel to “The Killer Shrews” was made in 2012, even with James Best reprising his role as Thorne Sherman. However, “The Return of the Killer Shrews” lacked the two things that made the original so much fun. First, opting for crummy CGI instead of dogs in drag, taking away from the hilarity of it all. And second, for being so aware and tongue in cheek that it lost the enthusiastic earnestness of the original. It’s not worth reviewing, just know that it’s not worth your time either.
Rating: B+ (VERY GOOD)