Thursday, 3 February 2011

AFED #34: The Killer Shrews (US, 1959); Dir. Ray Kellogg


This is a shrew, a small rodent of the order Soricomorpha. Despite being fairly prolific both in Europe and North America (albeit separate sub species) they're quite reclusive and I can't recall ever seeing a live one.

My first awareness of these strange little creatures came through a card game called Woodland Happy Famiies, a pack of which could be found sequestered amongst the vast array of junk at my grandmother's house as a kid. I liked the pictures (by the prolific illustrator Racey Helps) so much that years later I bought a new set for myself. Here are the Shrew Family...


Okay, so they're anthropomorphic versions but still recognisably shrews; they have that distinctive snout and beady black eyes. There's really not a lot of mistaking a shrew.

These, on the other hand, sure as hell ain't shrews...




But they do give a fair idea of what to expect from bargain basement nadir The Killer Shrews. A film that's pretty much ensured a position amongst the lowlights of this year-long odyssey.


James Best (the future Rosco P. Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazard as well as Quentin Tarantino's acting teacher) stars as Thorne Sherman, the captain of a supply ship making deliveries to a research group on a remote island. When they greet him brandishing a rifle it's obvious something's awry, but with a hurricane approaching he's obliged to seek refuge at their house overnight, while his first mate Griswold stays with the boat.

The scientists, led by the wonderfully named Dr. Marlowe Cragis (Baruch Lumet), explain to the bemused Thorne that they're conducting experiments in restricting growth with a view to ending world hunger. Quite why they decided to test their theories with shrews, an animal that needs to eat every 2-3 hours, isn't entirely clear but something has gone wrong and a rogue batch of oversized shrews have escaped and set about eating everything on the island.

Thorne also finds he's made an enemy of Jerry (Ken Curtis), the estranged fiance of Marlowe's daughter Ann (Ingrid Goude) and the culprit for the killer shrews' escape. Given that Ann latches onto Thorne with the unnatural alacrity Jerry's jealousy is hardly surprising, but at least it adds to the frisson.

Meanwhile outside the 'shrews' - or rather dogs with furry rugs strapped on their backs - begin making a nuisance of themselves and devour the hapless Griswold (he's black, and therefore expendable) before setting their sights on the house. They break into the basement and dispatch assistant Mario (Hispanic, also expendable) courtesy of their venomous bite, the potency of which is greatly increased in their enlarged form.

Before long the shrews (depicted in close-ups with some less than sophisticated puppetry) have started burrowing through the walls and Thorne must lead the survivors (minus Jerry, who ought to have realised having a chip on his shoulder didn't do much for  his chances of making it to the end of the picture) off the island to safety. You'll wish he hadn't.

Inevitably such a lamentable production has become a cult classic; there's even a sequel in the works in which the 85 year-old Best will reprise his role as Thorne. Ironically, for a film that quite literally scrapes the barrel (see the end to understand my meaning) it was produced by renowned broadcaster and entrepeneur Gordon McLendon, who a few years later would be a major shareholder in Columbia Pictures.

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