Sunday, October 23, 2016
“Giant Gila Monster” director Ray Kellogg’s low-budget creature feature “The Killer Shrews” is a claustrophobic saga that grossed almost nine times its budget and has become a public domain masterpiece. “Creation of the Humanoids” scenarist Jay Simms spend most of his career writing episode for television series such as “Laramie,” “The Rifleman,” “Rawhide,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Laredo,” and “Gunsmoke.” Before he graduated to less science-fiction, horror-oriented material, he wrote this chiller, and he must have been channeling H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Doctor Moreau” to some extent. James Best portrays the hero in this shoe-string budget thriller, and Ken Curtis—who produced the film—cast himself as a drunken scientist. Aside from some footage of a boat on the ocean and scenes inside a scientist compound, “The Killer Shrews” (** OUT OF ****) could have been shot anywhere on its reported $123-thousand budget. Best and Curtis give the best performances hands down, while everybody else looks a little embarrassed by all the baloney that they try to make sound believable. According to the Internet Movie Database, the full-sized shrews were played by coon dogs, and the close-ups of the shrews were puppets. Wikipedia points out that “The Killer Shrews” was lensed in Dallas, Texas.
An isolated island in the middle of the ocean is the setting for this science-fiction/horror movie where a team of scientists have been conducting experiments on tiny animals called shrews. The most outlandish aspect of this movie is the reason that prompted Dr. Marlowe Craigis (Baruch Lumet of “The Pawnbroker”) to embark on his privately funded research. He intends to shrink humans to half our current size so he can ease world hunger. Craigis figures that when the human race is that reduced physically in size, people consume less and lengthen the Earth’s food supply. Inexplicably, their science project gets out of hand. By the time that Captain Thorne Sherman and his first-mate ‘Rook' Griswold (Judge Henry Dupree of “My Dog, Buddy”) arrive with supplies, the shrews have grown to the size of dogs. Dr. Craigis explains that shrews must eat their bodyweight in anything alive to survive. The first half of “The Killer Shrews” is spend with Craigis delivering a plethora of expository information about these devilish critters. One of Craigis’ scientist, Jerry Farrell (Ken Curtis of “The Searchers”), is particularly upset by this point by the escape of some shrews. Furthermore, his lack of vigilance regarding the escaped shrews has prompted Dr. Craigis’ gorgeous daughter, Ann (Ingrid Goude of “Never Steal Anything Small”), to call off her engagement with Farrell. A hurricane batters the island, and Thorne decides to stay in the compound with the scientists after Ann reveals everything about the murderous mutants. This doesn’t suit Farrell because he thinks that Thorne is making moves of his former finance.
About 20 minutes into the action, Thorne’s first mate encounters the ravenous shrews. He runs in panic and struggles to climb a tree to elude the hungry beasts, but several of them leap at him and kill him. Meanwhile, three other starving shrews dig under the gates to the stable and eat a helpless horse, and then they start searching for a point of entry to the compound. One shrew gains access to the compound when a shutter on a window is damaged by the high winds. The animal slips in, and Thorne and Craigis’ hired help Mario (Alfredo de Soto of “The Big Steal”) confront the beastly thing in the basement where the food is stored. The dog-like creature with huge fangs bites Mario, and the handy man dies from poison that was put out on the island long ago to diminish the population. Not only did the poison fail to work, but the shrews have absorbed into their system with suffering any ill effects. Thorne and Jerry trudge through the woods to the shore. Thorne whistles up Rook who is supposed to be aboard the yacht. Rook is nowhere to be found until Thorne stumbles onto his remains. Earlier, the jealous Farrell threatened to kill Thorne since he kept making eyes at Ann. Thorne disarmed Farrell. After they find Rook’s empty revolver, Thorne and Farrell hear the hunger shrews approaching. They charge back to the compound. Farrell arrives before Thorne and tries to lock Thorne out of the compound to prevent more the shrews from invading the premises. Thorne scales the wall and beats up the frantic Farrell. Bristling with rage, Thorne almost dumps Farrell’s unconscious body over the wall. At the last moment, he relents to everybody’s relief. No sooner than everybody believes they are out of harm’s way than they realize that more shrews have sneaked into the compound. Ann is poised to make coffee when she opens a door to another room, and a shrew dashes out. The animal attacks Dr. Radford Baines (producer Gordon McLendon), and he perishes from the poison in the animal’s bit. However, he survives long enough to type out every symptom of his behavior before he keels over. Thorne guns down the shrew.
Thorne, Ann, Farrell, and Dr. Craigis evacuate themselves from the house portion of the compound after the shrews tear apart the plaster and burrow into the adobe. Farrell appropriates the automatic shotgun that Thorne pitched over the wall before he scaled it. They find some drums later enough to each of them to crawl into and duck-walk across open ground to the shore. Farrell refuses to join them and climbs atop the roof as the shrews assemble for the final feast. Thorne uses a torch to cut oblong viewing holes in the drums. They lash three drums together and remotely open the patio gate. The shrews scramble in and tear at the view slots while our heroes laboriously make their way across uneven terrain to the shore. Believe it or not, a sequel entitled “Return of the Killer Shrews” was released in 2012, and James Best reprised his role as Thorne.