Review of “The Killer Shrews” (1959)

trailer from YouTube

This is this week’s Saturday night pizza and bad movie entry. We had pizza and fruit with wine the day after a Christmas dinner of tamales, homemade mac and cheese, and half a cornbread muffin, with homemade pumpkin pie for dessert. Life is good. The movie sucked.


Plot:

The opening narration warns the viewer: “Those who hunt by night will tell you that the wildest and most vicious of all animals is the tiny shrew…”

Captain Thorne Sherman (James Best) and pilot Rook Griswold (Judge Henry Dupree) discuss what looks like a storm coming and an expected hurricane. They are delivering supplies to a scientific research team on a tiny, remote island. The team is the only humans on the island. Sherman has just taken over this route.

The island looks gorgeous, but they’re greeted on shore by unhappy-looking three people, one of them carrying a rifle under his arm, pointed at the ground. (Hmmm….) They’re glad to see the supply ship come in.

The senior scientist, that is, the one with the accent, Milo (maybe Marlowe?) Cragis (Baruch Lumet), tells him that once he’s unloaded, he wants Sherman to take his daughter, Ann (Ingrid Goude) with him. Sherman locks eyes on Ann. He says they will not unload that night (… which makes no sense to me…) nor leave because of the coming storm. The man with the gun, Jerry Ferrell (Ken Curtis), flips through the manifest. Sherman tears his eyes away from Ann long enough to ask him if there are dangers on the island. Jerry replies vaguely.

Rook goes back to the boat to take of… something. Sherman tells him if he comes ashore to wear a firearm.

Oh, just slap a red shirt on him.

Ann invites Sherman for a drink, and everyone except Rook heads for the compound. Sherman takes note of the high fence around the entrances. Huh? Are they expecting an invasion? From whom? When he sees a radio antenna on the roof, he asks why they sounded surprised when he told them about the hurricane. Hadn’t they been warned? He’s answered that the radio has been out for a week.

Dr. Craigis explains that they’re self-sufficient—chickens for eggs, cows for milk, etc. Makes you wonder what’s on the supply boat until you see the consumption of booze and cigarettes that soon follows.

Amid far too much alcohol and far too many cigarettes, absent-minded research scientist Dr. Radford Baines (Gordon McLendon) appears with a baby shrew to discuss the latest litter. The shrews are part of research into overpopulation. (hmmm…)

What could go wrong?

Thoughts:

We watched this via Mystery Science Theater 3000. Trying to follow what was going on in this film was complicated not only by the poor audio quality but also by the MST3K gang’s running commentary. The dialogue seems muted against a high noise floor. The result was a lot of “Huh? What?” from the dearly beloved and me. I found a better—but hardly perfect—copy on YouTube. If the reader is interested in watching the film, I recommend going to the YouTube route rather than catching the MST3K version.

When they appear, the giant killer shrews—who only attack at night, except when they’re really hungry—are so obviously dogs (poodles?) in costume—it’s hard not to laugh—with delight, not in derision. (“Here, boy!”) They seem to be running after their prey for fun. I can’t help but wonder if their “victims” had their clothes painted with peanut butter. How many lives could have been saved if they’d only brought a Frisbee?

Later, fake shrews eat their way into the adobe-brick house. (Was adobe really the best choice of building materials for the tropics?) The scientific compound, which has only been there a matter of months, also has a basement.

Ann is not a scientist, so her role in the scientific endeavor is never made clear. She is clearly uncomfortable with whatever is going on with the research, though she loves her father. She also is (or maybe was?) engaged to the gun-toting Jerry. When Sherman appears as her ticket out, she is drawn to him, inviting him not just for the marathon cocktail session but also to dinner. In the meantime, has anybody heard from Rook? This sets up tension between Sherman and Jerry.

The power goes out. The storm hits. You’d think it would flatten the house or at least blow out a few windows, but it amounts to people’s clothes fluttering in the wind when they stand outside the front door.

What eventually saves the brave few is as silly and unworkable as the rest of the movie. And about as convincing as poodles in costumes.

The MST3K crew kept making comments about the old TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, which I never paid much attention to. James Best, who played Captain Thorne Sherman, would later play Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard. Another TV lawman was played by Ken Curtis: who is probably best known as Festus Haggen of Gunsmoke. Curtis also co-produced, along with Gordon McLendon, this film. There. You can say you saw them before they became famous if you watch this.

I cannot recommend this film. It didn’t make sense to me. Even setting aside the premise of the shrew-breeding program gone bad and the scientists being too distracted and/or self-absorbed to see what horror they’ve unleashed on the world, I just never understood why the people behaved the ways the did. Sure, Sherman is hoping for a little action. But why refuse to unload the boat because a storm is coming? I can understand staying. If conditions are unsafe, why not more concern about Rook? Shouldn’t everyone be busy with storm prep and less occupied getting souced and chasing tail?



Title: The Killer Shrews (1959)

Directed by
Ray Kellogg

Writing Credits
Jay Simms…(original story)
Jay Simms…   (screenplay)

Cast (in credits order)
James Best…Thorne Sherman
Ingrid Goude…Ann Craigis
Ken Curtis…Jerry Farrell
Gordon McLendon…Dr. Radford Baines
Baruch Lumet…Dr. Marlowe (or maybe Milo) Craigis
Judge Henry Dupree…’Rook’ Griswold
Alfredo de Soto…Mario (as Alfredo deSoto)

Released: 1959 (UK)
Length: 1 hour, 9 minutes

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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