“I don’t ask questions, because it’s against my principles, but would you mind explaining that?”
Directed by Ray Kellogg, who also made The Giant Gila Monster (which will be discussed at a later date), The Killer Shrews is one of many 50s horror films featuring monstrous, mutated creatures. Here, said creatures are shrews, whose genetics have been modified by Dr Craigis and his associates on a remote island. Their attempts to isolate specific strands of DNA serve a noble cause – to combat over-population by making humans much smaller, but with greater metabolisms (and, therefore, a longer life span) – but an unfortunate side effect in their experimentation has left them trapped in their compound, surrounded by hundreds of gigantic, mutant shrews… with a hurricane on its way!
With only seven people in the cast – six men, and 1957’s Miss Universe, Swedish beauty Ingrid Goude – who will be devoured by the starving genetic monstrosities? The choices are: said Swedish beauty, her loving, harmless father Dr Craigis, her drunk, violent ex-fiance (and the man responsible for allowing the shrews to escape and populate the island), a work-obsessed, socially awkward geneticist, the handsome and authoritative sailor who has brought much needed supplies to the island, his ethnic minority comedy sidekick, and Dr Craigis’ ethnic minority servant – no prizes for working out which members of this small group survive. It is worth saying, however, that their method of escaping is utterly inspired, and the climactic sequence is one of the main reasons for the film’s ongoing popularity.
The Killer Shrews has also become famous for its title characters. Close-ups reveal the beasts to have not one, but two pairs of gigantic, poison-tipped canines, and rabid expressions in their wide, bulging eyes. These monsters, usually seen only in portions through knots in the wooden face surrounding the building, are rather grotesque, though largely inanimate. For chase scenes, the huge shrews are, famously, coon dogs with big hairy rugs on their backs. Kellogg never really allows the viewer to witness these beasts, however, filming them in long shot or partially hidden by fences and foliage and, consequently, if one can suspend one’s disbelief, they are really not bad foes for such a low-budget production. These cannibalistic bone-eaters, now giant, will resort to any means necessary in order to eat, and they prove to be determined and effective – although why they choose to burrow through the building’s walls, but not under the wafer-thin yard fence, is anyone’s guess.
With the exception of Goude, who appears to have been hired solely on her looks, the acting is acceptable, even good, for such a small production. Dr Radford Baines, the quiet geneticist, is a sympathetic character, while Ken Curtis is suitably repulsive as drunken Jerry. Kellogg, who was better known for his special effects work than his directing, does an adequate job – the film’s classical score is effective in building tension and excitement, and the narrative is well-paced (albeit rather manic towards the end). The hurricane is the biggest let down. An obvious MacGuffin, existing solely to trap everyone on the island and to give Kellogg a reason to use multiple stock footage lightning shots (and one rather impressive shot in which a tree is struck and crashes to the ground), the calm waters and slightly cloudy skies are not great signifiers of an imminent natural disaster.
The ongoing popularity of The Killer Shrews is most obviously demonstrated by the fact that it has spawned a sequel! In 2012, Return of the Killer Shrews saw James Best, who played Thorne, the film’s hero, return to the island, a mere fifty-three years after his first visit. Unfortunately it is not available to buy. I guess the original will have to do.