The Killer Shrews (1959)
On an isolated island, a small group of people is terrorised by giant, voracious shrews in the midst of a hurricane.
Director: Ray Kellogg
Run time: 01:08:53
The Killer Shrews is a independently made 1959 American black-and-white science fiction film, produced by Ken Curtis and Gordon McLendon, directed by Ray Kellogg, that stars James Best, Ingrid Goude and Ken Curtis. The film co-stars Gordon McLendon, Baruch Lumet and “Judge” Henry Dupree.
The Killer Shrews was filmed outside of Dallas, Texas back-to-back with The Giant Gila Monster. Now in the public domain, the film has had multiple DVD releases and was featured in the fourth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Captain Thorne Sherman (James Best) and first mate Rook Griswold (“Judge” Henry Dupree) deliver supplies by boat to a group on a remote island. The group, consisting of scientist Marlowe Cragis (Baruch Lumet), his research assistant Radford Baines (Gordon McLendon), the scientist’s daughter Ann (Ingrid Goude), her recent fiancé Jerry Farrel (Ken Curtis), and a servant Mario (Alfred DeSoto), welcome the captain and his first mate. They also subtly resist the visitors staying overnight, even though a hurricane is approaching. Thorne goes with them to their compound, while Griswold stays with the boat, saying that he will come ashore later.
The situation in the compound is less than safe. During cocktails, Thorne becomes aware of a life-threatening situation to all of them: Marlowe Cragis has been performing well-meaning research on serums and uses shrews as test animals. The doctor’s purpose is to shrink humans to half their size in order to reduce world hunger, because (he reasons) being smaller, humans will consume less food in a world with a limited food supply. Unfortunately, the doctor’s experiments have created mutant giant shrews that have escaped and are now reproducing in the wild, growing larger and more voracious day-by-day. The group must now barricade themselves inside their compound every evening before the sun sets, so that the shrews will kill each other once they have eaten every other living animal on the island.
Thorne and Ann begin to be attracted to each other, causing Jerry to become jealous, despite ruining his relationship with Ann. The giant shrews have run out of smaller animals to hunt and eat. When Griswald comes ashore, the mutants attack and kill him. After closing in on the compound and killing the livestock, one of the mutant shrews breaks a window and hides in the basement. Mario and Thorne go downstairs when they hear the noise. Mario discovers the mutant and shoots at it, but not before it bites him. The giant screw is immediately killed by Thorne. Mario quickly expires from the mutant bite. Radford later discovers a highly toxic venom in the dead shrew’s saliva, the result, it turns out, of the poisoned bait he had placed in the wild to kill them off. Another mutant is able to get in, and it bites Radford. As he dies, Radford records the symptoms on his typewriter, right up to the moment of his death.
As the giant shrews begin to chew through the compound walls, the group makes impromptu armor by lashing together empty 50 gallon oil drums, then duckwalking towards the beach. Only Jerry remains, due to a phobia, isolating himself on the roof before watching the mutants chase after the lashed drums. He attempts to flee but is cut off and killed by another group of shrews. Thorne, Ann, and Marlowe manage to reach the beach and swim out to the boat. Safely aboard and confident that the giant shrews will eventually die out from consuming each other, Thorne and Ann share a long kiss.
James Best as Captain Thorne Sherman
Ingrid Goude as Ann Cragis
Ken Curtis as Jerry Farrell
Gordon McLendon as Dr. Radford Baines
Baruch Lumet as Dr. Marlowe Cragis
“Judge” Henry Dupree as Rook Griswold
Alfred DeSoto as Mario
Principal photography took place outside of Dallas, Texas. Special effects were provided by first-time director Kellogg, who served as the head of 20th Century Fox’s special effects department throughout most of the 1950s. Close-ups of the shrews were filmed using hand puppets, and for the wider shots, coonhounds were costumed as the shrews.
This low-budget feature was regarded as one of the most successful “regional films”. Unlike other regional films, it received national and even foreign distribution.
A new colorized version of The Killer Shrews was released on DVD by Legend Films as a double feature set with the creature feature The Giant Gila Monster. The satirical TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffed on the film in an episode during its fourth season. MST3K’s version of The Killer Shrews was released on DVD by Rhino Home Video as part of the show’s Volume 7 boxed set. The gags were focused on the film’s main flaws: the lack of conflict in its first hour (which was mostly focused on the “living room” of the island’s compound, as the characters talked back and forth to each other), the silly appearance of the shrews (coonhounds dressed up in long hair wigs), and how most of the dialogue was difficult to understand due to the regional accents of the actors.
At the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, The Killer Shrews holds an approval rating of 50%, based on 10 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 4.6 out of 10. Author and film critic Leonard Maltin awarded the film 2.5 out of 4 stars, calling it “an inventive but silly sci-fi tale”. Despite mixed reviews the film was a commercial success. Unlike many American creature features of the time, it was released internationally adding to its profits.