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"Looks like a small rat. Smells like a skunk."

Released the same day in 1959 as The Giant Gila Monster (the movies were intended to be shown as a double feature) and made by the same people, The Killer Shrews is—to somewhat overstate things—everything the other film is not. Though the imprint of Ray Kellogg as director (and presumably the insectivora maximus auteur) does not bode well for the audience, the film deserves more than a cursory look.

(make no mistake—it's still a B movie)

"Sure is a lot of quiet out there. Almost smell it, can't you?"
"No, but I can feel it."

The viewer is first confronted with a brief narration1 about the "giant killer shrew," setting the stage for one of horrordom's favorite means of manufacturing thrills: huge, dangerous critters. There have been ants, flies, ticks, mosquitoes, the aforementioned gila monster, spiders, rabbits (yes: rabbits), alligators, locusts, apes, plus hybrid, fantastic, or prehistoric creatures (the latter being generally large to begin with). Even seemingly innocuous things are fodder when they are enlarged: The Blob (1958, plus sequels and the 1988 remake)—not Steve McQueen's finest hour. (Barring that, Hollywood leaves the creatures the regular size and just uses large numbers—but that's for another time). Adding "killer" to the equation is the proverbial cake icing.

Two men are piloting a boat across the open sea toward a deserted island near Alaska (well, most of the filming was in Texas, but this is a product of the Dream Factory...or something resembling it). The mission is to bring supplies to a group of scientists working there. There's Thorne Sherman (not a porn nom de dong—but it could be). He's the hero. He's the star. He's the captain. Because he wears the captain's hat. He's played by James Best. Better known to the world as the guy who played Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on television's "The Dukes of Hazzard" during the 1980s (incidentally, the Everly Brothers are his cousins). He's accompanied by Rook, the typical you-know-he's-gonna-be-a-victim minority character. Of course, he's not a captain. No hat.

The island serves a purpose. Along with the way the plot plays out, it concentrates the action and makes things a matter of "no escape," since there's a hurricane (or "hurr-uh-kin," as Thorne says) rolling in. It also limits the number of locations to the house and compound and the forest (the beach, too). This does two things: it makes it cheaper to film and it makes for a "trapped" feeling. The menace surrounds them and cuts them off from the only means of escape, the boat. While this has been done and done far better (1982's John Carpenter's The Thing off the top of my head), it works quite well. Perhaps better than the film deserves.

"Are you expecting an invasion?"
"Yes, animals."
"Game or otherwise?"
"Under certain conditions it could be dangerous."

(Raymond Chandler eat your heart out. Then feed it to the shrews.)

Met at the beach by the scientists, Thorne is concerned that one has a shotgun and pistol. He's also told he is to take the doctor's daughter on the return trip to the mainland. He accompanies them to the house and leaves Rook with the boat. Rook should not have listened. But he obeys. Thorne has the hat.

So who are these people? Well, there's:

  • Dr. Milo Craigis, ostensible Swede and the head scientist. Actually played by Baruch Lumet who had a successful career in Yiddish theater. His son is director Sidney Lumet.
  • Jerry Ferrell, whose position in the group seems a bit unclear. Perhaps the guy who does all the nonscientific work. He was engaged to Ann but they broke up the night before Thorne arrived. Yes, this leads to complications. He's also a drunk. He's played by actor Ken Curtis, better remembered as Festus Haggen on the long-running series "Gunsmoke."
  • Ann Craigis, the doctor's daughter who claims to have had a role in what happened, but is never clear about what it was. Played by Ingrid Goude who was Miss Universe 1957.
  • Dr. Radford Banes, the man in charge of the actual experiments on the shrews. Played by Texas DJ/radio magnate (and member of the Radio Hall of Fame) Gordon McLendon. His only acting credit. His appearance is due to his being the (uncredited) executive producer. He held the same behind the camera role in The Giant Gila Monster.
  • Mario, the other unfortunate minority. As no great surprise, he's a servant. Played by Alfredo DeSoto, who seems to have learned his lesson and never appeared in another American movie (only made two others).

As the storm bears down, Thorne finds that the house has a high privacy-type fence and a ventilator on the roof. Most of the action takes place in a main room, sparsely decorated. While the group is low on supplies (and have had no communication with the outside for a week), the bar is very well stocked (all two feet of it). And there's plenty of drinking going on (perhaps behind the camera, as well) During the storm, there is almost no musical score, just the sound of wind. On the other hand, during the other times—mostly outside scenes— the (two) composers more than make up for it. Loud and brash, punctuating every action and suggested emotional response.

"If we were half as big as we are now, we could live twice as long on our natural resources."

The scientists are studying overpopulation. The idea is that smaller things would need fewer resources if only one could slow their metabolism without sacrificing the ability of energetic movement. Then the world would be a better place. They even succeeded in breeding a shrew with a much slower metabolism, without showing signs of lethargy or sluggishness. How wonderful. But some time before Thorne arrived, someone left a cage open and some enhanced shrews escaped. Science rules!

"Cute? That's the last word you can use to describe those little monsters. They're the most horrible animals on the face of the earth."

Thorne is given information on the creatures. How they are called "bone eaters" and will crack the bones to get at the marrow after everything else is gone, leaving only teeth, horns, and hooves. That "when they're hungry enough, they'll tackle anything, regardless of the size." This was referring to the regular ones. It isn't until later that he finds out there are two to four hundred of the giant ones (50 to 100 pounds a piece) running around the island. Also two members of the group find that their bite is poisonous. The hard way.

Thorne is assured that the animals will turn cannibalistic when the rest of the island creatures are gone. He reminds the doctor that they are likely to be last on the menu.

"Any unusual experiment can produce unusual results."

(professorsid approaches the lectern)

(cough) Ahem. There is a good reason shrews were chosen for the subject. They have the highest levels of metabolism of any mammal. This requires that they eat almost constantly to fuel the great need for energy. This means eating anywhere from 60% of the animal's body weight to three times its weight each day—most shrews weigh only a few grams, the smallest tipping the scales at less than an American dime. Most are shorter than 10 cm, including tail, with a few exceptions that reach around 30 cm, including tail. Shrews are some of the smallest mammals on earth. The thing about them turning to cannibalism is true.

Another consequence of the ultra high metabolism is that they "burn out" in relatively short time, most species living little over a year in the wild (some species have lived as long as three years in captivity). The line about smelling like a skunk refers to a strong smell produced by scent glands in the animal's hindquarters. Thought to be used to signal other shrews, it also serves as a means of protection—cats almost never eat shrews because of the odor (neither do other mammals). On the other hand, birds and snakes do find shrews a tasty treat.

Perhaps most interesting is that, though the movie makes them poisonous as the result of an attempt to poison them, it was unnecessary. Shrews are actually venomous and some species even able to kill small vertebrates (in others it functions to render the prey helpless or incapacitated). The primary food source is of the insect/invertebrate variety, so the potential for rogue shrew attacks on one's next picnic is statistically insignificant. Don't panic.

Thank you and remember there will be a quiz on Wednesday over the Godzilla material.

"Doctor, that's not the same animal you showed me. That's a monster."
"As I said, they are mutants. In controlling the size factor, we seem to have crossed some of the other characteristics."
"Well, you certainly did a good job of it."
"I've known that for some time."


Needless to say, the shrews run out of other food and turn toward the group for the next meal. This is facilitated by a window that just won't stay closed and a building that is made of adobe covered with plaster. Typical near Arctic building material, no doubt. Of course, it was pointed out earlier that shrews are good diggers. At one point, there are shrews both inside the house and outside the fence, making it necessary to create a rather clever means of escape involving upside down chemical drums, lashed together, and scuttling under them tortoise-like.

In the end, some manage to escape and it is mused how in 24 hours there would be a single shrew left on the island and he will have starved to death. Overpopulation. Science wins.

The Killer Canines

Yeah. That's what they are. Dogs. Not even big dogs, just medium-sized dogs with bristly costumes on. Yeah, costumes. Like mats of reedlike grass draped over their backs and a bit of a mask-like thing over the head. Then they run around and look "scary." The rest of the time (for non- walking/running/scratching shots) killershrewpuppets (patent pending) are used. More scraggly masses of fur, dark, beady eyes, and long nasty-looking, vicious teeth. Fangs.

Kidding aside, though, for a LOW budget flick from 1959, they aren't half bad. How else would one make a giant killer shrew? Especially ones that interact with a real set and sometimes even actors. Filming real ones and placing them on miniature sets (like was done in The Giant Gila Monster) wouldn't work. And it always looks fake and lame. Doing the same and then projecting it on a back screen (or using a blue screen type process) is just as lame and fake. Sure they may be dogs in shrewdrag, but it actually works. (Okay, the high-pitched scratchy sounds they are supposed to be making are admittedly pretty bad.)

And like the "costumes," the movie works surprisingly well within its limitations. There's some menace and tension and truly horrible creatures. In the end, a rather enjoyable B movie.

Pass the popcorn.

1The DVD cuts off a slice of the very beginning and I am unsure of the whole narration. Unsurprisingly, this doesn't detract from anything.

(Sources: the DVD, partnered with The Giant Gila Monster. While the soundtrack is in better shape than the other movie, the digital transfer sucks just as bad—plus the slight trim of footage noted above. www.imdb.com provided information on the cast. Various sites were checked for the shrewinfo)

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