THE KILLER SHREWS, the maligned & cherished 1959 horror cheapie, first caught my attention at 2am, once upon an Olden Days Saturday night, Feature Two of the weekend monster double-bill on a local Seattle TV station (there were four channels). Nostalgia holds dear, as my Mom stayed up and watched it with me: a love gesture that I will always cherish. That she didn’t give me away to a circus on Sunday is also to her credit, but the other fact—a ‘scientific’ one—that lodged in my 4th-grade (as in school) brain was that a shrew “must eat three times their own weight in food every 24 hours–or starve!”
Doubt your reviewer’s veracity, dare question his recall? Okay, Poindexter, then why would the opening narration clue us in that “Those who hunt by night will tell you that the wildest and most vicious of all animals is the tiny shrew. The shrew feeds only by the dark of the moon. He must eat his own body weight every few hours – or starve. And the shrew devours everything: bones, flesh, marrow… everything. In March, first in Alaska, and then invading steadily southward, there were reports of a new species: the giant, killer shrew.”
Sailboat skipper ‘Thorne Sherman’ (James Best) delivers supplies to a remote island. A hurricane approaches, so his jolly mate ‘Rook’ (‘Judge’ Henry Dupree) watches the boat while Thorne meets the island’s five nervous inhabitants—the ones with two feet. They are a scientist (Baruch Lumet), of the unspecified European variety, his voomacious daughter (Ingrid Goude), the gal’s former fiancee (Ken Curtis), now a surly drunk, a nerdy research assistant (Gordon McLendon), and a cheerful servant (Alfred De Soto), early casualty variety. Cigarettes are smoked, numerous drinks are required. Soon enough they’re forced to spill the beans about their ‘experiments’, which have turned mole-ish mammals normally no bigger than your computer mouse into ravenous beasts the size of big dogs (which they, uh… partially resemble: to be revealed).
Ken Curtis (who was a family friend and great guy) was no longer making a living as a singer (one of the legendary Sons of The Pioneers), instead getting by with supporting parts in projects from father-in-law John Ford. Ken and co-star McLendon (a major and fascinating figure in radio history) slapped together the $123,000 for this 69-minute opus, which they shot back-to-back down in Texas with The Giant Gila Monster. Both were directed by Ray Kellogg, a notable special effects man on his first go in the pilot seat. Jay Sims provided the screenplays (hold applause). The bare-bones silly sallies caught on in the drive-in/make-out circuit, and ‘Shrews‘ alone returned a healthy $1,000,000, a whopper for such an endeavor.
So, how ‘good’ (gulp, man up) or Bad (cruel snicker) is it? Taking the low road first—yes, it’s Bad enough to be snarfed at for decades, and included in such roasts as Mystery Science Theater 3000. The script is, well…”You’re a strange man, Thorne. I never met anyone like you. You seem so disinterested in everything. Aren’t you the least bit curious? Don’t you wonder about the unusual things around here? The guns. The fence. The shattered windows. My accent. Anything?”
Kellogg’s what-am-I-doing? direction can’t do a lot with the acting, which is, with one exception, awful. Baruch Lumet had extensive experience in Yiddish theater, but whatever training that field provided would take a microscope to discern based on his work here (his son, director Sidney Lumet, would more than redeem shrew-chewed family legacy). Ingrid Goude, 22, a former Miss Sweden (1956), is—charitably—terrible. Really, if you’re Miss Sweden of any year, who gives a meatball if you can pretend to be scared by lesser mammals, even if they do need to consume thrice their own weight before noon tomorrow? Ken Curtis was never a threat to Spencer Tracy, but with the right material and director (like, uh, John Ford) he could be amusing (The Searchers) or stalwart (The Alamo). He’s just painful here, no doubt feeling the pressure from producing such back-to-back titans. The music score whipped up by Harry Bluestone (noted violinist) and Emil Cadkin goes into hardy-har overdrive fit for a Wagnerian opera. The really-big-shrew effects are variable, with the debit end being the obvious use of coon hounds and German shepherds, bounding about with pieces of carpeting strapped onto them.
ANN: “Live normally, like normal women do. It may seem a little dull after the life I’ve been living. But rather dull and alive than excited and…” THORNE: “I’ll take a dull, alive woman every time.”
But—wait just a tamed shrew sec here—let’s be fair. Leading man James Best is all right, given what he’s handed: the ever-reliable Best (1926-2015) was busy in 1959, logging four features and 10 TV gigs. His 188 credits include The Caine Mutiny, The Naked And The Dead and Shenandoah. Best was, among many talents, a great raconteur: later in life he mused that, next to his late-career gig on The Dukes Of Hazard, the picture most people asked him about was this goofy classic. Veteran cameraman Wilfrid M. Cline was no slouch, either; he gets in some decent shots, especially considering the chintzy sets and amateurish direction. The close-ups of the shrews were done with hand puppets, and the sound effects guy (one Milton Citon, y’all!) came through quite decently in providing eerie noises, akin to what a 150-pound rat with a mad-on would possibly emit. Anyway, this stuff works, or at least it did for an 8-year-old, in 1963, watching it on a 21-inch Zenith TV, at 2:45 a.m. With Mom.