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Thursday, July 11, 2013

THE KILLER SHREWS -- movie review by porfle

(NOTE: This review was originally posted several years ago at CONTAINS SPOILERS!)

A shrew is a tiny, rat-like animal that smells sort of like a skunk. A killer shrew, on the other hand, is a large dog with fake hair and fangs stuck on it. At times, it's also a hand-puppet that someone shoves at your face while making a "skick-ick-ick-ick!!!" sound.

But before we are introduced to these exciting creatures in the low-budget horror film THE KILLER SHREWS (1959), we meet Thorne Sherman, the captain of a small cargo boat, and his first mate, "Rook" Griswold, who are currently delivering supplies to an island where a group of scientists work in seclusion on some mysterious research project which concerns overpopulation and which, yes, turns out to have something to do with killer shrews.

Thorne is played by James Best, whom you may know better as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrain on "The Dukes Of Hazzard." Here, he's younger, slimmer, and slightly less goofy -- more of a poor man's macho adventure hero -- although he still has sort of a prissy way of pursing his lips when he's vexed. "Rook" is portrayed by an actor named Judge Henry Dupree. I don't know if the guy was really a judge in real life or if his parents just decided that "Judge" would be a cool name for a baby. Maybe their other children were named "Bailiff", "Stenographer", and "Defendant."

Anyway, when they get to the island they're greeted on the dock by the leader of the scientists, Dr. Marlowe Craigis from Sweden, who is played by Baruch Lumet, the father of well-known film director Sidney ("Network", "Dog Day Afternoon") Lumet, who probably never went around saying "Guess what? My dad was in 'The Killer Shrews'!" very much. Dr. Craigis is accompanied by his daughter Ann (1957 Miss Universe winner Ingrid Goude, whose talent in the competition probably wasn't "acting"), and his really creepy and weaselly assistant Jerry (Ken Curtis, who produced THE KILLER SHREWS and went on to portray Marshall Dillon's deputy Festus Haggen in "Gunsmoke"). Until recently, Ann was engaged to Jerry, which makes one wonder how desperate she is for a man. There must be something really wrong with her -- I'm guessing it's her breath.

Dr. Craigis is eager for Ann to leave the island with Thorne for some reason, and Jerry is carrying a shotgun and peering around nervously. Hmm...could something be amiss? Something that might have to do with...killer shrews? Well, too bad because there's a hurricane coming and Thorne isn't going anywhere until it blows over. Grudgingly, the three researchers return to their remote island hideaway with the captain in tow. "Rook" stays behind to watch the boat and to be the first character eaten by the -- oops, getting ahead of myself.

Soon they arrive at the secluded house, which is surrounded by a thick wooden fence. Here's where THE KILLER SHREWS becomes one of the best drinking games ever. From this point in the story onward, throw back a shot whenever someone in the movie takes a drink or mentions drinking. You'll get sloshed in no time, because this is the most booze-happy bunch of research scientists in cinema history. When their servant-slash-handyman Mario appears to let them in, Ann begins the festivities by saying, "Fodder, perheps de captain vould enjoy a drink." Dr. Craigis responds, "Of course. Vill you join us in a cocktail?" and Thorne, naturally, is delighted. "Well, I've never been known to turn down a drink yet," he candidly admits. "Fine," says the doctor, "in dat case we'll heff martinis. Mario?" "Si, senor?" "Mix dem, please."

When they enter the house, everyone gathers around the fully-stocked portable bar that will become the most frequently-used prop in the entire movie. Here, Thorne is introduced to Dr. Radford Baines, an absent-minded nerd who thinks shrew research as a means of combatting overpopulaton is so utterly wonderful that when he isn't in the lab researching shrews, he wanders around the house thinking about it until someone stops him. He's so dedicated, in fact, that if, say, a killer shrew bit him in the leg, thus giving him a lethal dose of its deadly venom, he would hustle to the nearest typewriter and catalogue the various symptoms he began to experience for as long as he could before he keeled over dead. I'm not saying this actually happens, of course. But in this movie, it certainly could happen.

Meanwhile, the hurricane is getting closer, and Thorne advises Dr. Craigis to get some doors and windows open. "Dere are ventilators on de roof," he assures him. "And if you'll freshen Ann's drink, I'll go and check dem." Now that's an attentive dad! "Got dem opened, all right," he announces upon his return. "Vell, Captain...let me freshen your drink. One for de road." But Thorne has decided not to return to his boat just yet, because -- in a scene in which Ann and Thorne light up a couple of cigarettes on the couch, and Jerry eavesdrops suspiciously on their conversation as he smokes his own cigarette, and the three of them puff away like there's no tomorrow -- Ann has let it slip that the house is surrounded by killer shrews that will eat him if he goes outside. Apparently, their research has gone a bit awry. Later, Dr. Craigis graphically describes how a victim of the shrews would be stripped to the bone, and Ann, upset by this, springs to her feet and shouts "I could use another martini!" "Of course, my dear," responds her father. "I'll get you one." At this rate, somebody's going to have to get her a new liver, too.

Meanwhile, the killer shrews are chewing their way through the walls, trying to get at the only food source left on the island -- the people. While discussing their next move, Thorne grabs the drink that Jerry has just poured for himself. Jerry pours himself another one, and they both toss their drinks back at precisely the same time. (MST3K referred to this dazzling dual display of dexterity as "synchonized drinking.") As the perilous night wears on, two members of the household are killed by invading shrews. I won't tell you who they are, but since I'm going to stop talking about them from now on, you can probably figure it out.

When daylight returns at last, Thorne and Jerry venture through the forest toward the dock to check on "Rook", who may or may not have been eaten by killer shrews the night before. Jerry deems this the perfect opportunity to point his shotgun at Thorne and warn him to stay away from Ann. But Thorne has about as much intention of doing this as he does of turning down one of Mario's martinis, and a fight ensues. Suddenly, the killer shrews attack! The two men hightail it back to the house, but Jerry reaches the gate first and locks Thorne out. Thorne climbs over the wall and proceeds to beat Jerry brutally. He then hoists him over his head, climbs up on a box, and threatens to throw him over the fence and feed him to the creatures. If this sounds familiar, it's because George Romero later wrote an almost identical scene in the script for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, in which Ben is locked out of the house by Harry Cooper. Even the library-derived music is the same.

Finally, the shrews begin to turn the walls into swiss cheese and everyone is forced out of the house and into the compound. In spite of his alcohol-soaked brain, or perhaps because of it, Thorne hits upon the bright idea of lashing a bunch of inverted metal drums together, cutting eyeholes in them, and then having everyone climb in and duckwalk to the beach. That's right -- duckwalk. I don't know about you, but I don't recall very many action/horror films in which the thrilling climactic escape from the terrifying creatures had a whole heck of a lot to do with duckwalking, but here it is.

Of course, it's all shown in close-up, so you don't actually see their knees pumping against their chins or their feet waddling up and down, which is a shame because I would like to have seen that. But it's enough just to know that they really are duckwalking all the way to the beach in their makeshift tank as a horde of ravenous killer shrews, portrayed by dogs with fake hair and fangs stuck on them, struggle to eat them.

I'm not going to tell you whether they make it or not -- you'll just have to see for yourself when you watch THE KILLER SHREWS, which of course you're going to want to do immediately after reading this. But I will say that if they did make it back to the beach and swim out to the boat and head safely back to the mainland, then Thorne Sherman might possibly slide his arms around Ann and come up with one of the best closing lines in bad cinema history, and it would probably have something to do with the fact that he's not quite ready to start worrying about overpopulation just yet.

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Read our updated review of the Film Chest DVD here


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