October Horrorshow: The Killer Shrews

Ray Kellogg returns! Just a day after the October Horrorshow Giant Monstershow featured Kellogg’s magnum opus, an ode to Bert I. Gordon entitled The Giant Gila Monster, we feature The Killer Shrews, also directed by Kellogg. In fact, it was filmed either immediately before, or immediately after The Giant Gila Monster (the internet is unclear on which, and I won’t be digging deeper to find out), and was released on the same day in 1959. This film is sibling to The Giant Gila Monster, but that doesn’t mean the two are identical. Well, they’re almost identical.

From a screenplay by Jay Simms (who also penned the Gila Monster script), The Killer Shrews follows veteran television actor James Best as small boat captain Thorne Sherman. He’s been contracted to deliver supplies to a remote island where scientists are conducting genetic experiments on shrews. It would normally be a milk run for Thorne and his first mate Rook (Judge Henry Dupree), but a hurricane is bearing down on the coast, and the two sailors are forced to spend the night on the island.

The group at the research lab is apprehensive about the sailors hanging about, and for good reason. Dr. Baines’s (Gordon McClendon, who put up the money for this flick and saw a good return on his investment) and Dr. Cragis’s (Baruch Lumet) research has been going well. So well, they’ve inadvertently created shrews of alarming size. The two scientists provide exposition describing the eating habits of shrews that makes clear the big ones like that on the island are dangerous.

It’s a good thing we viewers get that exposition because, come on, it’s shrews. Not a giant tarantula or a lizard. Not a battleship-sized vulture or a caustic alien blob. Shrews. What a challenge for Kellogg and company to try and make shrews a scary creature. They couldn’t have chosen a less threatening animal if they had gone with chihuahuas or bunny rabbits. But, hey, any creature that walks the earth gets pretty frightening if it’s the size of a bus. But, Kellogg didn’t go for true The Killer Shrewsgiants for this flick. The shrews, although hundreds of times bigger than they are in real life, are still only the size of dogs. In fact, the shrews are played by dogs. Very clearly, they are dogs, the only costuming being some arrangement of fur and long wigs. It’s extraordinarily shitty. When I saw one of them jump and bark in the film like it was after a treat I almost fell off of my couch.

The effects team (of which no one is credited, by the way) did work up a puppet head for closeups, and while creepy-looking, it’s so obviously a puppet head that when it’s used in the movie it’s only good for howls of laughter.

Rook becomes the first victim of the shrews, and the rest of the cast, including Alfred DeSoto and Ken Curtis as assistants Mario and Jerry, and Ingrid Goude as Cragis’s daughter Ann, retreat to shelter. They’re all locked away in a house, now, and before the film’s climax, we viewers get lots and lots of talky scenes, and little in the way of anything actually occurring on screen.

I didn’t think it was possible, but Kellogg really topped Gila Monster when it comes to cinematic ineptness. The film is packed end to end with uninteresting people having uninteresting conversations. In his defense, Kellogg didn’t write this, and there wasn’t money for much else, but his directing wasn’t helping. These scenes of filler dialogue are so pointless that sitting through them willfully is like an aggressive form of sloth. Thorne and Ann strike up a movie romance that is among the most painful I’ve had to endure in a shitty film. Best and Curtis had the most extensive professional acting experience of the cast, and it shows, but they still couldn’t pretty up this movie.

A strange aspect of this movie is how it was shot. It uses the same cinematographer as Gila Monster, Wilfrid M. Cline, but the look and feel is quite different. There was an interior set that was used for the majority of the film that was straight out of the Ed Wood playbook. It’s clearly cheap. But the way Cline shoots the film makes the set and the action in it feel like a throwback to late 1920s/early 1930s movies. The contrast in the photography is probably due to this film falling into the public domain, so no one has been watching after the print, but the rest is all Cline.

When the movie finally turns its full attention to the shrews in the final act, the result is pure mirth. I mean it. This last act is worth wading through every single minute of what came before. It’s shitty movie gold. The dogs, despite Kellogg’s efforts, never look threatening, especially when it looks like they just want to play. It’s hard to believe that this is an actual, earnest film and not a joke. I love how insane this whole movie is, and I love that McClendon didn’t go broke financing this turd. It gives me hope. Unfortunately, from an objective standpoint, this is a worse film than Alien: Resurrection.

Of final note, remember that hurricane mentioned above? All the movie shows of it are a couple lightning strikes, and Best’s pants legs flapping in the breeze. That’s it. There are no scenes of the characters readying their shelter for the storm, or riding out the worst of the winds. There are no scenes where characters are outside in the teeth of the storm. Oh, there are lots of scenes that happen outside, but there’s no storm, much less a hurricane, in sight beyond those few token establishing shots. The filmmakers should have recognized that a hurricane was beyond their capabilities and found some other reason for Thorne and Rook to stay on the island. But then that would make the movie less shitty, and who wants that?