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The Killer Shrews

Year: 1959
Production Co: Hollywood Pictures Corporation
Director: Ray Kellogg
Writer: Jay Simms
Cast: James Best, Ingrid Goude, Ken Curtis, Baruch Lumet, Judge Henry Dupree

I watched this movie on one of those streaming services that curates alternative, international and arthouse films, a bit like Criterion. The only reason I can think it might have been there is because either nobody who worked there actually watched it, they got the rights as part of a package to other stuff they wanted, or its age (1959) deems it historically important.

Which is strange, because I also gather after reading a bit about it that it has a very maligned reputation, and that anyone who likes it nowadays does so ironically in the vein of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Showgirls.

If the Criswell-like opening monologue ('a new species... giant killer shrews!!' followed by an ominous animated bolt of lighting and stock audio clap of thunder) doesn't give you enough of a heads up about what you're in for, you're watching the wrong film.

It's an atomic age giant monster horror flick, a throwback to the drive in generation, and you can either take it in the spirit it's intended or laugh at it and have a hoot.

Cargo ship captain Thorne (James Best) puts ashore on a remote island with his first mate and helper Rook (Judge Henry Dupree) to deliver supplies. They're in a hurry to batten down the hatches because there's a hurricane coming, but the cast of characters they meet are as evasive as they seem tentatively welcoming.

As he later explains, scientist Marlowe (Baruch Lumet) is conducting experiments on the island's shrew population, standing around explaining the entire plot to the iron-jawed Thorne in Basil Exposition style. Also present is his research assistant, his winsome daughter Ann (Ingrid Goude), her hostile former fiancée Jerry (Ken Curtis) and a Hispanic manservant.

Thorne wants to hunker down and wait the storm out, but Marlowe for some reason insists he and Rook not only leave immediately but take Anne with them, some awful danger nearby nobody wants to address directly. Being the hero in a 50s movie, Thorne ain't going to have no eggheaded scientist or a woman tell him what to do and he flatly refuses, raising the ire of the angry ex fiancee along with everyone else.

I can't remember if Marlowe explains his experiments to grow shrews to gigantic size or if the poor Rook cops it in the forest first, but it's soon apparent they're dealing with more than Thorne bargained for. Giant venomous killer man-eating shrews are indeed roaming all over the island, gunning for them.

As the hurricane descends, the party has to repeatedly keep the animals outside the compound at bay to survive, even though they can apparently chew through brick walls along with everything else.

It has the makings of a cult classic for two reasons. One is because director Ray Kellogg, who made a few of these movies but had a very long and respectable career as a second unit director and effects director, subscribes to the theatrical styles of the day. Every actor leans heavily into the stereotypes about their character and they all speak the overripe 50s adventure genre dialogue way back to the cheap seats.

The second reason is how cheap the whole thing is. It's been described online as an independent film and this is what a low budget obviously bought you in the late 50s. For a film set in a hurricane all we get is a strobe light outside the windows on the sound stage for lightning, thunderstorm effects on the soundtrack and a dodgy fan machine and some detritus thrown around for outdoor shots, the actors covering their faces and stumbling in the 'driving' wind much more than they need to.

Dorky puppets of monstrous shrew heads are thrust through holes in the walls or into frame when they attack while their calls sound like nails on a blackboard scratched in 80s hip hop style.

And for medium or long shots, it couldn't be more obvious it's a small pack of domestic dogs with shaggy pelts thrown over them. They probably had happily wagging tails as they descended on each 'victim' thanks to a pocketful of dog treats but the weight of the fake pelts just held them in check.

And for an island crawling with two or three hundred giant shrews (as Anna dolefully explains), we only ever see six of seven of them together. If the spectacle at the time was successful, you can imagine kids in the late 50s talking excitedly about the hundreds of shrews all over the island the same way they were convinced you can see the knife piercing Marion Crane's flesh a decade later.

But with half a century of hindsight and all the advances not just in filmmaking styles but technology, it's a museum piece now – albeit great fun.

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