HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Friday, October 24, 2014

THE KILLER SHREWS -- DVD review by Porfle

One of the most well-liked, perhaps even loved, titles in the bad-movie pantheon is a low-budget horror/sci-fi thriller from 1959 called THE KILLER SHREWS.

As I myself pointed out in great detail in an earlier review--intended, admittedly, more for Medved-style cuteness than anything else--there's a lot to poke fun at in this modest effort if you've a mind to.

But even as it gets its share of well-deserved ridicule (especially for the giggle-worthy fact that its mutated shrew creatures are actually dogs wearing monster costumes) and is one of the most popular films to have been given the MST3K treatment, one of the main reasons this tense little flick has such staying power is that in addition to being "so bad it's good", it is also, in many ways, just plain good.

For one thing, it's one of the first movies in which a disparate group of people barricade themselves in a house to defend themselves against an outside menace. As has often been pointed out, the similarities between it and George Romero's 1968 horror classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD indicate that Romero was influenced by the earlier film.

Which gives rise to an even more intriguing thought--did Alfred Hitchcock see THE KILLER SHREWS before coming up with his own barricaded-house thriller THE BIRDS four years later?

The story is pure straightforward pulp novel stuff, with manly cargo boat captain Thorne Sherman serving as a no-nonsense working class hero. When he and first mate "Rook" Griswold (Judge Henry Dupree) deliver supplies to a group of research scientists on a remote island that's about to be hit by a hurricane, he finds he's walked right into danger in the form of wolf-sized, man-eating killer shrews whose teeth drip instantly-lethal venom.

Heading the research group is Dr. Marlowe Craigis (leading Yiddish theater actor and famed director Sidney Lumet's father, Baruch Lumet), a well-meaning scientist wracked by guilt for having unwittingly unleashed such monsters. Among those threatened by them is his own daughter Ann, played by Ingrid Goude who was Miss Sweden of 1956 and, while not a very skilled actress, at least brings a likable earnestness to her performance.

In the role of Dr. Craigis' cowardly assistant Jerry Farrell is Ken Curtis (THE SEARCHERS, THE ALAMO), who would go on to TV superstardom as Festus Haggen on "Gunsmoke." Curtis has a field day playing Jerry as a weaselly lush driven by ambition and burning with jealousy after Ann starts making goo-goo eyes at Captain Thorne, and we can't wait to see the shrews chow down on this insufferable jerk.

Rounding out the cast are executive producer Gordon McLendon as endearingly nerdy scientist Dr. Radford Baines and Alfredo DeSoto as loyal handyman Mario. McLendon and Curtis also co-produced THE GIANT GILA MONSTER that same year, and both films were directed by Ray Kellogg, who co-directed THE GREEN BERETS along with John Wayne. A special effects man as well as director, Kellogg supplies some really nice-looking matte paintings to the shots of Thorne's boat anchored in the island harbor.

While many low-budget horror flicks of the era are technically inept and heavily padded, THE KILLER SHREWS' lean, suspenseful story moves along briskly once the exposition is out of the way. The shrew attacks themselves are often frightening as the revolting creatures relentlessly chew their way through the soft adobe walls of the house in a frantic search for "food."

It helps that the actors seem so thoroughly convinced that the dogs-in-monster-suits menace is real. James Best, known mainly as Rosco P. Coltrane on "The Dukes of Hazzard", somehow fits his own laconic persona into the part of a macho action hero well enough for us to buy into Thorne Sherman as a guy with the brains and brawn to get these people through this seemingly hopeless ordeal.

Meanwhile, some of the dialogue is laughably off-kilter and seems even more amusing as the cast strains to deliver it with utmost seriousness, often while guzzling martinis like they're going out of style. Yet they're able to make us care about these desperate people during the escalating shrew attacks, up to and during one of the most ludicrous (yet somehow riveting) climactic sequences ever seen in a film of this kind. The fact that it's played absolutely straight--as is the entire movie--makes it both exciting and, yes, perversely hilarious.

The DVD from Film Chest is in 4 x 3 full screen with original mono sound. No subtitles or extras. While I don't see much difference in this "digitally restored" version than the ones I already have, the image is quite good despite the usual specks and scratches.

What makes this release stand out for me is that the opening narration is complete, beginning with the line "Those who hunt by night will tell you that the wildest and most vicious of all animals is the tiny shrew." Usually this narration is joined in the middle of the final sentence with the truncated line "...Alaska, and then invading steadily southward...there were reports of a new species...the giant killer shrew!"

Apparently only the longer audio survives since the footage to accompany it seems to consist of the same brief shot seen before, only greatly slowed down until the bolt of lightning that heralds the main title. But it's nice to finally hear the whole thing.

Even if you've already watched the MST3K version of THE KILLER SHREWS, it deserves to be seen on its own terms. (Unlike much of the total crap that Joel, Mike, and the robots have comically endured over the years.) With repeated viewings, the unintentional comedy remains entertaining as ever while the suspense and chills contained in this nifty little monster movie steadily creep their way up your spine.


Buy it at

Read our original "The Killer Shrews" review HERE

DVD street date: November 11

No comments: