Have I Got Shrews For You
As 2021 properly gets underway, once again we find ourselves largely confined to our dwelling spaces, torn between watching the news in disbelief or just switching it off for the good of our mental workings. What is a frivolous film-review column to do in these circumstances? Well, entertain, hopefully, and it's an odd truth that it's usually much easier to find interesting things to say about a bad film than a good one. And so we will be sticking to dreadful obscurities for the time being.
There are some films that just leave you agog, simply because it's hard to credit that anyone ever thought they were a good idea on any level whatsoever. Bad execution is one thing, many an idea with potential has been scuppered by inept craftsmanship. But sometimes you come across a film that simply defies credulity, because there is simply no way that it was ever going to have any merit.
With Ray Kellogg's The Killer Shrews, the clue is there in the title. Well, I'm not sure that 'clue' is quite the word I'm looking for, as that implies a lack of the glaring obviousness of impeding crapulousness that comes with a title that employs 'Killer' and 'Shrews' in such close proximity. Let us say they are not automatic or natural bedfellows, with 'killer' suggesting excitement, jeopardy, tension, and 'shrew' a tiny woodland creature of the kind that our cat used to bring in occasionally. I can appreciate that by the late 1950s, when The Killer Shrews was made, there had already been a number of films about homicidal wildlife, so the producers may have felt obliged to go beyond the usual suspects (snakes, rats, spiders, and so on). But even so. I suppose you can play a game where you try to think of a less appropriate animal than a shrew to headline a monster movie – The Killer Newts, maybe, or The Killer Sparrows. The Killer Marmosets. But The Killer Shrews does take some beating.
After the usual preliminary overwrought voice-over, we meet our hero for next seventy minutes or so, Captain Thorne Sherman of an un-named small ship. Sherman is played by James Best, a prolific actor perhaps best remembered for playing the useless Sheriff Rosco P Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard (in addition to that and The Killer Shrews, the charge sheet against Best should also record he was at one point Quentin Tarantino's acting teacher). Here Best is all at sea, which would normally be the best place for a ship captain were it not for the fact that it is because he seems somewhat miscast and unable to decide how seriously to take the film. In the end he almost certainly takes the film too seriously, because it is impossible to treat a film like The Killer Shrews too frivolously.
Well, Sherman is delivering supplies to an unnamed remote island, assisted by the sole member of his crew, Rook Griswold (Judge Henry Dupree). We are instantly in problematic territory, and I don't just say that because this is one of those films made on a very low budget where the dialogue was dubbed in afterwards, and not with a great deal of finesse. Griswold is fat and stupid and, regrettably, African-American; he calls Sherman 'boss' and is called 'boy' in return, despite the fact he is older. This is very incidental stuff – Griswold is a supporting character, only here to get eaten early on – but even so, it is a reminder that the 1950s had bigger problems than useless low-budget monster movies.
Sherman and Griswold arrive at their destination, aware there is a hurricane on the way. On the island, they happily contribute to the festival of bad dubbing and thick accents already in progress, with Best adding his good ole boy drawl and Dupree his 'yassuh massah' schtick to the Polish and Swedish brogues provided by main residents Baruch Lumet (a noted boffin) and his daughter (Ingrid Goude). Everyone on the island seems on edge, with Dr Cragis (Lumet's character) insisting Sherman take his daughter Ann away with him, but the hurricane means they'll all be there for a while yet.
Sherman gets invited back to the house where all the boffins and their servant (Alfred DeSoto, contributing his Mexican tones to the extraordinary panoply of accents already on display) reside. It turns out the scientists are at work on a scheme to solve the problem of overpopulation by making people really tiny and thus freeing up resources (it's a bit like Downsizing, if Downsizing had been more stupid and primitive), but Sherman senses there is something else going on. Sure enough, Ann reveals she has an inescapable feeling that something awful is going to happen. She is correct: they are going to make the rest of this movie.
Cragis eventually reveals that his experiments in controlling population have created a new breed of giant shrew with venomous saliva, and his assistant (and Ann's sometime fiancé) Jerry (Ken Curtis) foolishly left the cage open. The mutant shrews have escaped and bred wildly, eating all the local wildlife, and anyone going outside the house after dark will now be on the menu. Given that Sherman has recently popped out to practise the art of smoking a swift cigarette in an impending hurricane, he takes this news pretty well.
However, Griswold has not been told this, and is therefore surprised to be set upon by the deadly beasts in question while about his ill-defined chores near the dock. Yes, Griswold's time is up, although not before we get a good look at the titular beasts of The Killer Shrews. I think we have established that killer shrews are an unpromising premise for even the least ambitious B-movie, but I suppose it is just about possible that this movie could have functioned if the shrews themselves were put across well. Suffice to say, they are not. As you can possibly imagine, I have seen many films with dodgy monsters in them, but this is the first time the monsters have come on and I have been genuinely unsure if that's actually supposed to be them. The budget of this movie clearly could not extend to trained giant mutant shrews, and so the roles of the shrews are played by – take a deep breath – dogs in shrew costumes. The shrew costumes are not even any good. The shrews are clearly dogs that have had bits of old carpet draped over them. The result is possibly the worst set of monsters in the history of cinema, and the effect is only compounded by close-up shots where the shrews are realised using a sort of sabre-toothed glove puppet.
At this point stupefaction sets in for any normal viewer, and the rest of the film unspools cheerily enough: everyone takes cover on the same set, economically enough, which the shrews then attempt to gnaw their way into. Much pleasure is to be derived from the performance of Gordon McLendon (who also produced the thing) as a doomed assistant boffin: McLendon decides to add a bit of oomph to his performance by dramatically taking off his glasses whenever he delivers a line. It feels like he does this every time he has dialogue. He does his line, gravely whipping off his specs as he does so, and the camera cuts to the reaction of Best, or whoever. Then when it cuts back to McLendon, he has put his glasses back on, ready to take them off again the next time he has to speak. This is nearly as mesmerising to watch as the dogs in their shrew outfits. It's much more entertaining than the love triangle which has appeared ex nihilo between Sherman, Ann, and Jerry.
Well, I don't want to spoil the film for you (actually, I'm not sure this film is susceptible to spoiling, given spoil means 'make worse'), but all the people you would expect to get eaten by the shrews are eaten, and the survivors sail away happily enough. One thing about The Killer Shrews is that it is pretty bloody-mindedly rigorous in terms of theme – this may even have been written as a serious dramatisation of said theme, which is overpopulation. The scientists are here trying to solve it, and the plot resolves (inasmuch as it does) because the shrews have exhausted their food supply. 'An excellent example of overpopulation,' says Dr Cragis. 'I'm not going to worry about overpopulation just yet,' says Sherman, proceeding to get it on with Ann in her father's presence. Given he just met her the day before and is apparently already contemplating having a large family with her, one has to wonder about this man, on many levels.
A couple of other facts about The Killer Shrews which may be of interest: this film made back ten times its budget (maybe it went down a storm in Sweden, I don't know), which is more than most blockbusters do, and also – and here I really am left shaking my head – enjoys a 50% score on a well-known review aggregation website. I can only assume that these are based on the entertainment value of the film as an unintended comedy; this is considerable, to say the least. It is literally impossible to take seriously, and you honestly have to wonder if anyone ever thought that it might be.