Wednesday, 2 October 2019

The Killer Shrews (1959)

A mediocre film with laughable creatures, minimal tension and underdeveloped characters but with numerous martinis and a well stocked bar being the only redeeming feature! A film best enjoyed after several martinis. 

Directed by Ray Kellogg
Produced by Ken Curtis, Gordon McLendon
Written by Jay Simms
Music by Harry Bluestone, Emil Cadkin
Cinematography: Wilfred M. Cline
Edited by Aaron Stell
Distributed by McLendon-Radio Pictures Distributing Company
Running time: 69 minutes
Budget: $123,000 (approx.)
Box office: $1 million (U.S.)


James Best: Thorne Sherman
Ingrid Goude: Ann Craigis
Ken Curtis: Jerry Farrell
Gordon McLendon: Dr. Radford Baines
Baruch Lumet: Dr. Marlowe Craigis
Judge Henry Dupree: 'Rook' Griswold
Alfredo de Soto: Mario (as Alfredo deSoto)


A remote and isolated island, 

Infested with flesh-eating monstrous giant shrews! 
Populated by a small band of humans, 
Cut off and stranded by a hurricane! 

How did the vicious shrews come to be there? 
What will become of the trapped humans?

Read on for more.....

Spoilers Follow Below.....

Yet Another Authoritative-Sounding Narrator

The film opens with a narrator informing us that,

“Those who hunt by night will tell you that the wildest and most vicious of all animals is the tiny shrew. The shrew feeds only by the dark of the moon. He must eat his own body weight every few hours - or starve. And the shrew devours everything: bones, flesh, marrow... everything. In March, first in Alaska, and then invading steadily southward, there were reports of a new species:
The giant, killer shrew!” 

Underscored by the sound of thunder. (Wooooo!) 

“Automatic pilot can't play Dixieland jazz on them banjos like I can!” - Yep, Yet Another Jolly Affable Black Side Kick 

On board a supply boat, Captain Thorne Sherman and his side-kick deckhand and mechanic, Rook Griswold discuss the weather and how the “pressure’s dropped so fast” due to an approaching hurricane which like most hurricanes has “definite ways of telling you it’s there.” 

Yet Another Isolated Island Setting 

Their destination: a small isolated island inhabited by a research team headed by Dr. Marlowe Craigis. After reaching the destination, they secure the boat for the storm, row ashore in a dinghy and tie up to a small pier. The unloading will take place the next day. 

Sherman and Griswold soon spot a small group approaching, and Sherman observes that something seems strange about it: “Now that's a rather strange set up, wouldn't you say?” To which Griswold replies, “Looks like somebody's getting rid of somebody, huh captain?”

Yet Another Maverick Scientist, Blue-Eyed Blond Beauty Love Interest & Nasty Assistant Combo

When Sherman and Griswold meet with the approaching group, it can be seen from the meaningful glances and stares that Sherman is taken with Dr. Craigis' daughter, Ann. As the introductions and conversation proceeds, Sherman continues to stare at Ann while Craigis’ assistant, Jerry Farrell stands close by and cuddles his shot gun. He has the demeanor of one who was born with a foul temper.

Craigis informs Sherman that he wants to send his daughter back on the boat but Sherman replies that they are not leaving today or unloading supplies as the approaching hurricane will delay everything.

Sherman asks Rook if he wants “to shake the kinks out” and “limber up a little” by stretching his legs. He also advises him to wear a gun if he comes ashore later. There’s a definite sense of trouble brewing hanging in the air that Sherman can’t quite put his finger on.

The group proceed to the house, the exterior of which is set up like a fortress. Sherman inquires if they were aware of radio reports about the approaching storm but he is told that they have been out of communication for a week as the radio is “totally out of commission.”

“Perhaps the captain would enjoy a drink.” (or 3 or 4 or 5….) 

Mario makes an appearance and being Hispanic, is of course portrayed as being slobby and overweight. He is clearly there to do the bidding of the gringos such as fetching things and mixing martinis and such.

There is also something ominous about the high fence and the way Jerry deliberately locks the gate and checks that it is in fact securely locked.

“I've never been known to turn down a drink yet” (or 3 or 4 or 5...)
Craigis informs Sherman that they are self-sufficient having “cows for fresh milk and chickens for eggs” – a sort of world all their own which is exactly what he has tried to create. Sherman observes that they “picked a lonely little island.” Ann excuses herself and goes off to change her clothes. Craigis suggests to Sherman that Ann is a little worried because the captain isn’t leaving until the next day but Sherman believes that “there's something else bothering her.”

“Must be very interesting work”

Enter Dr. Radford Baines who is completely engrossed in his research work and is totally oblivious to his surroundings. After introductions, Baines a biologist who specializes in genetics and heredity, tells Craigis that they have had “two new litters since lunch” and that “both support GT116” and that they “can breed them to the 205 group in about three weeks.”

Yet more scientific gobbledygook

Graigis discusses the practical applications of his research by first asking Sherman to consider “what would happen if you could isolate and identify” the inherited factors in each gene. He goes on to explain that in the case of “mammals, the smaller the size, the higher the metabolism and shorter the life span.” Graigis’ research involves “attempting to decrease the size by maintaining a low metabolism and result in a longer lifespan.” The reason behind Graigis’ research is “overpopulation” that will in time become a problem. According to Graigis, their objective, as practical research, is to decrease an animal’s size, but keep a low metabolism so an existing food supply will go further with a longer life span.

“And if you'll freshen Ann's drink...” 
“Oh, Captain, let me freshen you a drink” 
“One for the road” (or 2, or 3, or 4…..) 

Re-enter Ann sporting a change of clothes. Craigis tells Sherman that they’ve “only been here nine months” and that “this place has been unoccupied for years.” Sherman then gives (now long discredited) advice on preparing for a hurricane. Somewhat strangely, Ann informs her father that she's invited Sherman for dinner, which is news to Sherman. Hhhmmm! Mighty fishy!

"Looks like a small rat, but smells like a skunk." 

Baines suddenly comes bounding into the room bearing a shrew which are used as the subjects of the research. This one “is the sole survivor of group 30 and is 28 months old today, the equivalent to 140 years to us” but which “still maintains low metabolism without any sluggishness.”

This sorex soricidae has a birth cycle of 10 to 14 days and is used to establish traits and can allow Craigis to “trace the progressions through a number of generations over a short period of time.” More significantly, this specimen is ….an ADULT! Rather ominously we learn that it bites “only when he is hungry” and that “all he knows is his next meal” and that having been fed “he'll be all right for another eight hours.” On that note a shutter crashes against the house causing Ann to scream. There is obviously more to this than meets the eye!

“I could use another martini” (or 3, or 4, or 5...) 

And no wonder considering what Craigis has to say about the shrew's behavior;
“They are not climbers, they are digging animals, like the mole. They feed only at night unless they are starving, and when they are hungry enough, they'll tackle anything regardless of size…..If you leave two of them in a cage for 12 hours without food, the stronger will eat the weaker…..Their intense activity requires a tremendous amount of energy to supply. They must eat three times their own weight in food every 24 hours or starve…..Some call them bone eaters. When the flesh is gone, they'll eat the bones for marrow. All they leave are teeth, horns, hooves...” 

Yet Another Love-Triangle Complication & No-Good Dastardly Assistant Shenanigans 

Ann tells Jerry “because of your drunken stupidity” (due not doubt to a surprisingly well-stocked bar!) “in leaving the cage door open, you created the horrible situation that now exists.” Some of the shrews have as a result been let loose and they've grown into the monstrous critters that now threaten the people on the island. Added to this dilemma is the complicating factor that Jerry and Ann are engaged to be married, and Jerry suspects that Ann has more than a passing interest in Sherman. When he spots Ann and Sherman talking together he sarcastically remarks, “this is certainly a cozy little scene. Might even be called intimate: Boy meets girl...”

Inevitable Fate Of A 50’s B-Grade Black American Side-Kick 

Meanwhile Rook has come ashore and tied the boat’s check line to a nearby tree. 

Suddenly he hears a strange sound and then fires his gun at something. A pack of what appears to be dread-locked pooches pursue Rook into the woods. He then manages to climb what is little more than a sapling tree while the Rasta dog-shrews try to reach him. The wind, rain and thunder whip away his screams for help while the inadequate sapling gives way and poor Rook falls victim to the not so “little monsters” -sorex soricidae.
Cue: The Unforeseen Consequences 

Sherman informs Ann he's returning to his ship. She tries to persuade him not to and has to resort to pulling a gun on him to prevent his departure. Outside the shrews are getting restless. Ann finally discloses the truth to Sherman about the nature of the research being conducted on the island. She tells him that “there are 200 or 300 giant shrews out there, monsters weighing between 50 and 100 pounds” and that “they are beginning to starve.”

Dr. Craigis enters and tells Sherman the rest of the story: Six months before a litter of giant shrews escaped and began to breed. Their food supply is nearly gone, which is why they are waiting by the house.

“Six months ago we managed to isolate the path to controlling size. Two litters were born; six individuals kept for study. They were about the size of buckshot at birth, but the rate of growth was abnormal. They continued to grow and grow. They were mutants, but they inherited all the negative characteristics of their breed. Somehow they managed to escape. About a month later we saw one of their offspring. They were multiplying. We did everything in the world to exterminate them, but no apparent luck.”

It seems that the shrews’ available sources of food on the island are nearing depletion which will result in them exterminating one another over the period of a couple of days. The group of humans will have to…...

wait until it's over! 

Ah, Yes! The Requisite Manly Hero 

Ann considers Sherman to be “a strange man,” who seems “so disinterested in everything.” Naturally, he plays up to this assessment by stating, “I’m only interested in anything that concerns me. Then I do something about it.” Yep, despite the usual confected tension, we know full well that Sherman is interested in Ann and that they’ll wind up together. It’s the phony masculine disinterest that probably attracts her. No surprises or spoilers with this relationship outcome.

The Besieged 

The shag-pile doggy-shrews suddenly launch an attack on the barn and eat the livestock. Sherman goes outside after hearing what he thinks is a human voice, but is attacked by Jerry who tries to stop him from opening the gate. Once back inside the house, plans are made for their escape next morning. To be on the safe side, during the night patrols of the house are organized to be conducted in hour and a half shifts.

“Have a drink” (or 2, or 3, or 4….) “It'll help you to relax”

When Mario completes his rounds at 3.00 am, he goes to get Jerry for the next shift. Jerry however, is very drunk but manages to convince Mario to take his shift after mumbling and grumbling about Ann and Sherman and how he and Mario will outlast the rest of them and so on and so on.

Another Minority Group Bites The Dust! 

A shrew engages in a bit of breaking and entering of the premises and makes its way down into the cellar. Mario notices the broken shutter through which it entered and realizes that a shrew is now in the cellar. He goes to see Sherman to enlist his help in killing the shrew. While both men search the cellar, Mario is attacked and bitten by the shrew. Sherman manages to shoot and kill the creature, but poor Mario collapses. Craigis comes on the scene and pronounces Mario dead. The likely cause: hemotoxic syndrome. An autopsy will confirm the cause of death.

“I'd take a dull alive woman every time” 

Ann explains to Sherman that she is a zoologist and confides to him that she also played a role in the doctor’s research, with her specialty being the creatures’ diet. Not surprisingly feels that she has “had a hand in this too” and that as a consequence she’s “partly to blame.” She swears to Sherman that she’ll never have anything to do with such research again. 


She then declares that she would rather “live normally, like normal women do.”
“More poisonous than snakes.” 

The autopsy has determined that “Mario was killed by poison.” This poison had been concocted and put out as bait with the intention of eradicating the giant shrews. Instead, the creatures’ system was able to assimilate that poison where it “remained in the salivary glands of their jaws.” Just one bite or even a scratch from one of the shrews would prove lethal to anyone so exposed.

“Stay away from her, or when the shrews get through with you, they won't even find a buckshot” 

The shrews manage to gain entry into the house and everyone has retreated to the living room. A decision is made to bait the outside using the dead shrew that killed Mario. The bait remains untouched for twenty minutes, so it is felt that while there is a temporary lull, a run for the boat should be made.

It is decided that Sherman and Jerry will leave the house. (What could go wrong with that?) Not long after they depart, Jerry who is eaten up with jealousy threatens Sherman with a gun, but he is quickly disarmed by Sherman.

“Since last night you won't find much of him” 

Both men walk further on to the beach and call for Rook. After a search they only find some clothing and “the gun we had on the boat.” It soon becomes obvious that Rook had come ashore and was killed and eaten by the shrews. It is wryly observed that “they don't leave much, do they?”

Moral Decisions

Pursued by a pack of hairy shrews, Jerry and Sherman return to the house. Jerry is the first to arrive and being the utter bastard he is, he shuts the gate leaving Sherman trapped outside to face certain death at the hands / paws / claws of the approaching doggie-shrews. Sherman manages to shoot and kill a shrew, before scaling the fence. Once over the fence, he attacks Jerry, beating him to a pulp. Sherman then carries him up to the top of the fence and stands ready to throw Jerry over to the ravenous pack of shrews below. Suddenly he thinks better of it and having reawakened his sense of humanity he puts the unconscious Jerry down. 

“He just ripped my trousers, that's all” 

Back in the house, Jerry is placed on a couch and Anne enters the kitchen to make some coffee. She unwittingly lets a shrew into the living room where it bites our ever distracted Dr. Baines. It is no surprise to see Baines quickly sicken and die as a result. Holding true to the spirit of science, he had “recorded every symptom and reaction right up to the moment of his death.”

“I need a drink. Anybody else care for one?” (or 2...or 3...or 4….) 

Sherman exercises his second amendment rights on the offending shrew and even Jerry gets in on the act by firing his gun wildly while under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol. All that amounted to, however was “a stupid waste of ammunition.” 

Meanwhile, an enterprising shrew has begun digging through the wall into the living room. The party of humans are now forced to retreat outside the house to the fenced area.

A Cunning Plan!

While barricading the wall to the house, they discover some metal chemical drums which could be converted and used as individual tanks to provide them with a means of escape. The plan involves lashing the drums together, getting inside, slowly “duck walk” Chuck Berry style down to the beach and once there to then swim out to the boat.

“I told you, I'm not going. I'm staying here”

As the doctor, Sherman and Ann prepare to leave, Jerry climbs up on the roof and steadfastly refuses to join the others. Suddenly the others notice a shrew digging through the wall to the outside area so they decide to leave Jerry to his fate on the roof and escape.

“Don't let their head get under! They'll flip us over!”

Once outside the gate, the armour-clad group are immediately set upon by the pack of savage shrews. (You can’t help but to expect one of the disguised dogs to lift his leg up and take a leak on the outside of one of the drums!) After a couple of close shaves, they make it to the beach and out into the water. As soon as the water is judged deep enough, the escapees exit the drum and swim to the boat.

The Inevitable Comeuppance For The Villain While Our Hero Gets The Girl

With no shrews in sight, Jerry comes off the roof and dashes towards the beach. He only manages to get a short distance before he is attacked and killed by a pack of killer shrews. Meanwhile, Ann, Sherman and Dr. Craigis climb aboard the boat. Craigis explains that in “24 hours, there'll be one shrew left on the island, and he'll be dead of starvation. An excellent example of overpopulation.”

With a cringe-worthy reply from Sherman that he’s “not going to worry about overpopulation just yet,” he and Ann kiss before the big fade out…….

Points Of Interest 

Hand puppets were used for the close-ups of the giant shrews and Coon dogs were used to play the killer shrews.

The Killer Shrews was intended to be distributed as a double feature with The Giant Gila Monster (1959), which features in this blog.

A sequel, Return of the Killer Shrews, was produced in 2012, which once again starred Best as Thorne Sherman. The almost 54 year gap between the original film's release and the sequel's release is one of the longest between film sequels in film history.

The film was shot at Cielo Ranch, a 100-acre estate on the shore of Lake Lewisville just North of Dallas, Texas which was owned by Gordon McLendon who was the producer and who also played the part of Dr. Baines.

Sure, this film can be seen as being just a bit of harmless entertainment, which it is. It will no doubt be viewed as being so bad that it’s so good. No, not really. Like many films from any era, including our own, it is so bad because it’s just plain…..BAD! This is true despite our capacity for self-delusion. These days we have the advantage of dressing up crap with whiz-bang effects. But no matter where dog shit comes from – a coon hound or a pedigree show dog – it’s still plain old dog shit. That applies to all areas of life from entertainment through to politics.

We often find ourselves drawn to films and other aspects of life that have a predictable and formulaic quality about them. I guess we like a measure of certainty and knowing what to expect. Unfortunately, a constant diet of predictable and formulaic junk food can eventually make us intellectually, morally and spiritually sick. Reliance on such things is just too easy and convenient and real progress and innovation suffers as a result. 

Sadly, that is the feeling I get as I write about sci-fi films from the end of the 1950s. The early initial spark of creativity and innovation that had been evident during the early and mid-1950s seems to be lacking toward the tail end of that decade with the result that we have such films as The Killer Shrews. It is a feeling I also have concerning sci-fi on film right now sixty years later in 2019! Despite the dazzling computer generated special effects, many recent sci-fi films have a predictable and formulaic feel to them overlaid with any number of 21st century politically correct propaganda messages. Nothing, however can replace relatable characters with depth, meaningful dialogue, good solid story-telling, a sense of fun and something that makes the viewer think, reflect and feel. Instead, all too often we are presented with uninspiring rehashed rubbish. Who knows what the 2020s will bring or will reality have outstripped sci-fi’s capacity to surprise and engage? 

Facts About Shrews

Full Film (Black and White)

Full Film (Colour)

©Chris Christopoulos 2019

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