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Monday, June 1, 2009

The Killer Shrews

McLendon Radio Pictures entered the movie making world with this film and Giant Gila Monster distributed as a double feature. Gordon McLendon, Texas radio mogul, and producer Ken Curtis tried to shave production crew costs by shooting the two films concurrently. Killer Shrews (KS) is the more polished of the two, though still very much a low-budget B grade sci-fi. KS even has a tiny bit more science in its fiction. It rehashes the old trope of the misguided, though well-meaning scientist who unintentionally creates a deadly monster. In this case, 100 pound hyper-viscious rodents who quickly multiply and dominate the scientist's small island.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Thorne Sherman and his first mate Griswold are delivering the monthly supplies to some scientists on a remote island. When they arrive, Dr. Craigis wants Sherman to take his beautiful young daughter, Ann, off the island. A hurricane is brewing up, however, so departure must wait for the next day. At the lab compound, the mood is ill at ease between the various researchers. Meanwhile, Griswold is securing a line from boat to shore when he is attacked and killed by a pack of giant shrews -- coincidentally the size of large dogs. Eventually, the back story comes out, that Craigis was conducting experiments on tiny shrews. One mutation grew to dog size. Jerry, the assistant, was drunk and allowed them to escape. Once free, they bred to a pack of hundreds. With all the available food on the island consumed, they will come for the people next. One shrew gets in the house. It bites the servant, Mario, who quickly dies of the venom. In the morning, Jerry and Sherman try to get to the boat, but the skiff is wrecked. They find Griswold's shoes. Back at the house, another shrew bites Radford on the leg. He dies too. The remaining four abandon the house as it's overrun by shrews. Sherman's escape plan is to use empty oil drums as personal armor. They lash four barrels together and cut some eye holes. Jerry refuses to participate. Craigis, Ann and Sherman duck-walk under their barrel armor. The pack of shrews attack, but can't get through. Jerry makes a run for it while the pack is busy, but another pack gets him. The three make it to the water and safety. They swim to the boat. Ann and Sherman kiss. Craigis smiles. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The story almost follows the familiar mad scientist monster formula, but with enough quirks to keep things interesting. The actors do a reasonable job. Sure, the special effects are minimal and the shrews are just dogs in costume, but story works and is fairly well paced, particularly near the end.

Cold War Angle
There really isn't any Cold War in KS. Radiation didn't cause the killer shrews, so it isn't even an atomic cautionary tale.

Population Time Bomb -- The cautionary moral of KS is delivered gently. Dr. Craigis is conducting genetic experiments in an effort to slow down human metabolism. If successful, people would need less food. The planet could support everyone without starvation. He uses shrews because they have a generational cycle of just three weeks. Some of his experimental shrews, however, went wrong. The grew huge. The escaped shrews became a model of an overpopulated world. They ate everything on the island and were turning on each other to survive. "Eventually, there will be just one shrew left on the island," Craigis says, "and he will then starve to death."

Isolated Case? -- The opening narration tells of giant killer shrews starting out in Alaska and working their way south. The rest of the script, however, has them only happening on Craigis' remote island and could not swim. This suggests that the opening narration was an afterthought -- perhaps a bit of marketing spice grafted on.

Inland Sea -- The script calls for Sherman to be delivering supplies to a remote island somewhere in the caribbean or Gulf of Mexico. A hurricane threatens. Viewers familiar with the sea will notice how oddly dead-calm the water is during the boat shots. Not typical for the hours prior to a hurricane. This is because it was shot on Lake Lewisville (formerly Lake Dallas). McLendon's Cielo Ranch (and studio) fronted on the lake.

Budget Cast -- It is noteworthy that KS's producer and primary financial backer also acted in the movie. Ken Curtis, the producer, played the role of Jerry and did a creditable job of it. Gordon McLendon, the deep pockets, played the role of the quirky assistant scientist Radford. McLendon was accustomed to being on-air in his radio broadcast business. He seemed comfortable enough in front of the camera too.

Non-Sequetor Swede -- Ingrid Goude, Miss Universe 1957, plays the customary B-movie role of beautiful young love interest for the hero and bone of contention for the usual love triangle. She does a fair job in her role, but with a notable swedish accent. At one point, she chastises Sherman for being too complacent about all the odd things about the island. "Don't you wonder about my accent?" He doesn't, and no explanation come out later. Audiences are left wondering.

Bottom line? Despite it's low budget production, KS is still an entertaining story. The giant shrews aren't the focus. They're an outside threat and source of pressure for the human drama. As such, it doesn't matter that they're just dogs in costumes. The plot has more depth than B movies are noted for. Killer Shrews is a worthy addition to a 50s B sci-fi collection.


rockinlumpy said...

Absolutely great blog you've got here, I've been going through it for a while now. I love these old 50s B movies, both sci-fi & horror. I own pretty much all the ones you've covered plus a lot that you haven't got to yet.

How can you not love dogs dressed in sheep's clothing pretending to be Killer Shrews. Or a Giant Gila monster busting through the cardboard wall to save us from having to listen to that damn horrible song again.

Or how about the lovely ladies in high heels that always have to flop on their face when being chased by the monster or space guy etc. They're always great to watch even though we know who's gonna win in the end.

So keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

HA-HA-HA dogs with rugs...this is a a classic campy sci-fi..one of my favorites

96hondaex said...

I finally found the title of this movie after years of searching off and on! I remember watching this as a kid and having nightmares about it. I was born in 1976 though... I finally got smart and used "escape under tied up barrels" in google search and your blog came up. Thanks for sharing with us!

Anonymous said...

I do not understand the hilarity this film attracts. Yes, the titular monsters are dogs wearing masks, but this was 1959, after all. No CGI back then. I do not see any other way the shrews could have been realised. Not without Ray Harryhausen anyway. Best wishes, Zokko.

Nightowl said...


Could be that audiences nowadays lack the flexible imagination to let dogs-in-masks BE giant shrews. If they can't get past that, the movie will be absurd.

Seems like modern audiences don't have the flexibility that 50s audiences did. They accepted men in rubber suits as monsters, wobbly models for spacecraft, etc. "High tech" only needed some sparky things, some blinking lights and dials. It was a simpler era.

Thanks for the comment!