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February 26, 2022

Movie Review: The Killer Shrews (1957)

Directed by Ray Kellogg

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Macho Captain Thorne Sherman (James Best) and his black manservant “Rook” (Judge Henry Dupree) ship out to a secluded island to ferry some people to the manland. You don't get any extra points in guessing who is killed first. Once at said island, they are greeted by Dr. Marlowe Craigis (Baruch Lumet) his Swedish daughter Ann (Ingrid Goude), his helpmate Jerry Farrell (Ken Curtis) and dotty Dr. Radford Baines (Gordon McLendon). Due to weather conditions, the captain informs his chartered party that due to weather conditions, and that he will be unable to ship them back to the mainland straightaway. They express shock and disappointment – is there something they're keeping away from him?

Returning to their adobe island compound, over the course of the evening, the captain and his chartered party do what people in the Fifties generally did – lounge about in their tacky living room, chug dry martinis nonstop and berate their Mexican servant Mario (Alfredo de Soto). Rook is pursued up a tree and then gobbled up by some unseen creatures. Over the course of several drinks, the truth comes out – the scientists are conducting an experiment on overpopulation and have mutated the local shrews, rodent-like creatures that must eat their own body weight or die within hours, to plot the course of human events. The giant mutant shrews, about the size of dogs (which they actually are, with unconvincing masks and hairpieces) circle the house. One by one, the canine monsters with poisonous fangs claim their prey …. Again, no extra points as to who will get killed in the house first. How will they get to the ship and safety?

The Killer Shrews is a classic science-fiction stinker, notorious on various levels. The titular shrews, described as “angry dogs, probably angry on account of the masks they are forced to wear) are among the least convincing in Fifties creature-dom. In the compilation film It Came from Hollywood (1982), comedian Gilda Radner, narrating a clip from a shrew attack from this film would exclaim, “That looks my dog Sparky! No, Sparky, no!” One wonders if the film's producers were under the strict no-cruelty-to-animals laws governing motion pictures at this time.

The Killer Shrews is also notorious for its one-sheet. A single pink stiletto high heel knocked over by a monstrous rat-tail, with the tag line … “All that was left … after the KILLER SHREWS!” The stark juxtaposition of a sexually fetishistic item – the high heel shoes, with a loathsome rat tail probably set off bells in many preteen libidos at the time of this film's release.

The Killer Shrews, along with The Giant Gila Monster (1959, recently remade as Gila, 2012) was the work of distinguished scriptwriter Jay Simms (Creation of the Humanoids and Panic in Year Zero, both 1962) working with friend and Texas regional filmmaker Jay Kellogg. The results were mixed, to say the least. Terribly acted and actually dull – the shrews don't get to business until the halfway mark in the film's 68-minute running time, one is hard pressed to say that it's “so bad, it's good.” Killer Shrews does foreshadow much of what would later become “siege horror” down the line. The characters' predicament foreshadows the plight of the protagonists in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). In its own way, Killer Shrews may have helped birthed contemporary culture's fixation with zombie apocalypses. So there you go –

The Film Chest release of this public domain title has nothing else but chapter stops. The “digitally remastering” as promised by the cover is mediocre at best. As such, the disc is for Fifties Fright Film Fans – only.

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