Studio: Film Chest Media Group
Director: Ray Kellogg
Writer: Jay Simms
Producer: Ken Curtis
Stars: James Best, Ingrid Goude, Ken Curtis, Gordon McLendon, Baruch Lumet, Judge Henry Dupree, Alfredo DeSoto
A boat captain and a scientific research team become trapped on an isolated island overrun by giant, venomous killer shrews.
I believe it was either Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert, or maybe someone else entirely, who once said something to the effect of, the best movies are those that teach us something new. On that criteria, “The Killer Shrews” qualifies as one of the best.
Prior to watching the film, I was only vaguely aware of what a shrew even was, aside from the derogatory term for a woman or part of the title of a Shakespeare comedy. Before the opening title hits the screen, the narrator rattles off a brief list of attributes describing the shrew as the “wildest and most vicious of all animals.” Did you know that the shrew must eat its own body weight every few hours or starve? That’s not very much when you only weigh 2.5 grams, but relatively speaking, imagine if you had to eat 450 pounds of food every day.
Also taught by the film is that when the shrew eats, it devours everything. Bones, flesh, marrow. Everything. They even start breeding within three weeks of being born. Pretty impressive stats for one of the animal kingdom’s smallest living mammals.
Not that I doubted the factual accuracy of Jay Simms’ script, but to the film’s credit, it had me intrigued enough about this mostly overlooked insectivore that I did some follow-up research after the end credits rolled. It’s to be expected of any Atomic Age thriller that science-fiction will be melded with science-fact, although Encyclopedia Britannica clarified enough to confirm that “The Killer Shrews” isn’t exactly 100% on point regarding the details above. The gist is mostly there though, even if the film’s fact checker might not pass muster in the same role on “National Geographic.”
Something else popularly promoted by “The Killer Shrews” that is difficult to fully verify is the claim that the cult classic is praised by Stephen King, which apparently adds legitimacy to its value by virtue of celebrity association. Google “Stephen King” and “Killer Shrews” and you will find any number of secondhand mentions about King dubbing the film “scary” or a “favorite,” though I was unable to locate a direct quote confirming either.
In the appendix of his 1981 nonfiction book “Danse Macabre,” King does include “The Killer Shrews” in his list of roughly 100 films “tied together by their time and their excellence … particularly interesting in one way or another … (and having) contributed something of value to the genre.” I see why that would be translated as King bestowing accolades, though “The Killer Shrews” technically does not bear the coveted asterisk indentifying the film as a personal favorite. (Maybe he specifically said so somewhere else?)
Completing the trifecta of possibly not quite true claims about “The Killer Shrews” is its box art tagline of “so bad…it’s good.” That’s a phrase bringing with it an expectation of Ed Wood-level workmanship assuring cola out the nose over a production unaware of its ineptitude. And it doesn’t fully fit. While “The Killer Shrews” bears enough snicker-worthy moments to have earned itself a lampoon on MST3K, the truth is that it’s not that bad, not particularly good, just somewhere in between.
Boat skipper Thorne Sherman and his first mate arrive on a remote island to unload supplies for a scientific research team before sailing on their merry way. But a hurricane looming on the horizon requires an overnight stay for the sailors, prompting a number of squirrely looks between head researcher Dr. Craigis, his sexy Swedish daughter Anne, and her shifty-eyed beau Jerry. Thorne meets another doctor and the Spanish manservant Mario, enjoys a martini while flirting with Anne, and once night falls, discovers what everyone’s dagger-throwing glances are all about.
Through some cockamamie experiment to make humans smaller or reduce food consumption or something, it doesn’t really matter, Craigis accidentally created a mutated species of wolf-sized shrews with a venomous bite. The island is now overrun with the former lab specimens, having multiplied in the meantime and gorged on all livestock they could sink their fangs into. Their natural food supply depleted, the shrews have no choice but to turn their attention towards the humans to satisfy their neverending hunger.
“The Killer Shrews” certainly has a thick slice of Swiss cheesing up the atmosphere, as it isn’t fooling anyone regarding where the production did not spend its money. An overly chatty first two acts take place primarily inside the living room of the island’s house. With six main players carrying the bulk of the story, it is mildly amusing watching everyone find reasons to weave in and out of that single room as the story requires, like theater actors onstage performing a one-act play.
The shrews themselves are simply shaggy dogs fixed with Halloween masks and fake fur. Even though 200-300 of the beasts are swarming the island, we rarely see more than one of them at a time and never more than five-six in a single shot.
They’re goofy, sure. Yet they don’t come close to being among the worst offenders in monster movies of that era. Take a look at the slithering carpet of “The Creeping Terror,” the octopus Lugosi wrestles in “Bride of the Monster,” or Corman’s Venusian alien from “It Conquered the World.” Those creations read so jokingly that laughter is the only reasonable reaction, leading to genuine “so bad…it’s good” statuses for those B-movies.
Despite being Lassie in a poor disguise, the killer shrews on the other hand retain just enough ferociousness that children in 1959 forgave the fantasy to still find them frightening. Oddly, fooling people with just enough relative effectiveness to be modestly respectable here and there is what separates “The Killer Shrews” from its brethren as being a smidge too far above a legitimate “so bad…it’s good” moniker.
Although it is unintelligible much of the time thanks to a United Nations quorum of varied accents, the dialogue is better than what fans can usually expect from similar films, too. In fact, one could make a case for the movie being ahead of its time as a precursor to the zombie boom, nine years before George A. Romero unleashed “Night of the Living Dead.”
Replace the shrews with walking corpses and you have an identical concept. Many zombie tropes that would take another decade to become staples are plainly displayed in “The Killer Shrews.” Paranoia sets in while survivors secure their refuge. A man infected by a venomous bite insists not to worry, it’s just a rip in his trousers. A coward bars an entrance and traps the rival alpha male outside under the pretense of, “it’s not safe to open the doors!” It has been speculated that Romero either directly or indirectly borrowed from “The Killer Shrews” for his own “cornered by an overwhelming force” epic, and it is virtually impossible to not see the parallels.
Which brings the point back around full circle. “The Killer Shrews” straddles an indeterminate line of competent quality on one side and comical camp on the other. Weirdly, that works to the movie’s detriment as it is not technically accomplished enough to be truly creepy, yet not quite quirky enough to be completely charming.
Blending those worlds and falling short keeps “The Killer Shrews” planted in patchiness. If you want a black-and-white genre romp starring a future TV star (i.e. Mike Brady instead of Roscoe P. Coltrane) that more closely tickles camp as well as creeps, consider going a round with 1961’s lesser-known “Bloodlust” (review here).
Review Score: 50