The Killer Shrews
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The Killer Shrews

Lately, a many of movies I enjoyed as a kid are being released on DVD. This is one part of the nostalgia craze that can really get behind. Despite the fact that many of these flicks were shot on a shoestring budget and a principal photography period that they couldn’t commit the time or money necessary for retakes. These movies were cheap and many would state unprofessional by today’s standards. Still, these were the movies that enthralled us as we sat in our Saturday matinees at a local movie theater. Now that many of these movies are in public domain the smaller distributors are able to pick them up for release. When these distributors that stands out above the rest is Film Chest. I’ve been receiving screen is from them for a while now and I have never been disappointed by the witness selection of movies of the respect of the fans are remembered and fondly by taking the time and effort to remaster them the best possible technical specifications. I experienced a rush of anticipation when I received the announcement that one of the next films they would release would be ‘The Killer Shrews’. I remember that as a kid watching it both in the theater and later on WOR-Channel 9 is one of the afterschool creature features. Back then I collected monster magazines and had little scrapbook of my favorite films, a precursor to the database I currently have for my movie collection. I remember adding this film that scrapbook. For those who are urged on by curiosity to watch this movie for the first time I offer one piece of advice to enhance your enjoyment. Do not attempt to experience this film from a critical perspective. Try your best to go back to the nine-year-old boy whose first encounters with movies is during the late 50s and early 60s. We didn’t spend our allowance looking to analyze a movie, wanted an afternoon of entertainment; and that is exactly what we got with movies like this.

The all types and themes utilized by this story were standard for the time. You had a group of scientists which inevitably included a highly intelligent and strikingly beautiful woman, a ruggedly handsome working-class man any danger formed by the mutation of something that’s normally quite harmless, typically a result of radiation. The adults of this time vividly remember that the war against Japan was one of the United States using the atomic bomb. One of the prevalent fears of the time was that radiation will result in terrible mutations creating all sorts of deadly creatures threatening humanity. Captain Thorne Sherman (James Best) and first mate ‘Rook’ Griswold (Judge Henry Dupree), make a decent living hiring out Sherman’s boat for a variety of sundry purposes. The current contract requiring that they bring supplies on a regular basis to a remote island. They have a group of scientists were busy taking samples and carefully noting their observations. The head of the researchers was Dr. Marlowe Cragis (Baruch Lumet), and his research assistant Dr. Radford Baines (Gordon McLendon). Also in attendance is Dr. Cragis’ daughter, Ann (Ingrid Goude), her fiancé, Jerry Farrel (Ken Curtis) and their servant, Mario (Alfredo DeSoto). Those of us, who grew up watching ‘Gunsmoke’, will recognize Mr. Curtis as Marshall Dillon’s erstwhile deputy, Festus.

What must be appreciated about the seven children known as ‘Creature Features’, is that it is their nature to straddle both science fiction and horror. In keeping with these design parameters elements of both types of story must be included. The research scientist and what they are about to find provides the necessary Sci-Fi quotient but what comes next is straight out of the heart playbook. Having assembled a suitably divergent group of people they now have to be isolated from the outside world. For a small island only accessible by boat, a hurricane is quite a reasonable plot device. The law storm looming Sherman and his man forced to spend the night at the scientist’s encampment. Griswold as first mate remains on the boat to secure things planning to come ashore a bit later in the evening. Farrel openly objects to extending hospitality to a potential rival Ann’s attention. Despite the distrust and the rather rugged conditions of their camp, Dr. Cragis retains his social sensibilities and with the storm gathering strength in the darkness, they are still time for cocktail hour.

In a story like this, the scientists always has the most altruistic driving his inevitably bizarre research. Dr. Cragis is working on creating a serum that will decrease human beings to half the normal stature. The premises smaller people will require less food which in effect would double the world’s supply of food. I suppose the solution that actually did come about in the real world, increasing the yield food sources. Less feasible to do good doctor been shrinking the human race. Considering this is the logical framework driving this research the fact that he is testing his premise by creating giant shrews could make a lot more sense. What the researchers did not anticipate is that the shrews would continue to reproduce each generation larger than the previous one. Soon they are surrounded by the titular giant killer shrews. We now have the two standard ingredients necessary for a horror movie; the group isolated from help trapped by a deadly menace. The next item on the checklist is to provide a spark to ignite this tinderbox. Predictably, and was in love with Capt. Sherman, throwing her fiancé into a fit of jealousy. As rational thought is away from the spurned boyfriend, the horde of giant shrews continues to mount. Just to add a little more danger to a situation that is already almost survivable, the oversize carnivores now have developed a poisonous bite.

As mentioned before, this film was not meant to be enjoyed by rational adults critiquing the accuracy of the science or believability of the special effects. Aside from the ludicrous nature of the scientific method deployed here in the unbelievable of the scientific accomplishments, the giant killer shrews are basically dogs with exceptionally bad toupees attached to their fur. Is not explicitly mentioned in the closing credits but for avid members of PETA, though killer shrews were harmed during the making of this motion picture and several of the actors went on to quite notable careers. Aside from Mr. Curtis’ memorable role of the longest-running television show, the boat captain’s love interest would later be best known as Sheriff Roscoe on the Dukes of Hazard. The director, Ray Kellogg, spent most of his career creating special effects but did eventually direct John Wayne in the jingoistic ‘The Green Berets’. Responsible for these story and screenplay Jay Simms would have a long and diverse career writing both television and movies. He wrote the script for one of my favorite post nuclear apocalypse movies, ‘Panic in You Zero’ starring Ray Malan. On the small screen you wrote for myriad of TV series including multiple episodes for ‘The Big Valley’, ‘Have Gun Will Travel’ and ‘the Rifleman’. There are a couple of other releases of this film including one that offers a double feature with another similar film also written by Mr. Simms, ‘The Giant Gila Monster’. One edition can even be found that offers both black and white and colorized versions of the films. As his inevitably the case, in addition released by Film Chest is not only the preferable version but is the only one that makes a concerted effort to remain true to the original movie. As you watch this movie what is most noticeable about the care put into their releases is what is missing. Unlike other purveyors of such classic flicks this one is largely devoid of any white specks, grain or other artifacts of age.

Posted 10/10/2014

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