The tail-wagging terror of THE KILLER SHREWS (1959)

Following is a story about science gone awry, a story we’ve seen countless times.  With the pretext of saving humanity man has performed experiments too horrible to contemplate and the movies have been there to document the terror.  I am asking you to put aside your fears and anxieties for mere moments to learn about one of these stories – the one about when a scientist created the killer shrew!

shrew

Oh..ha ha…no, not that one.  This one…

killer

It’s on a small, remote Island in…well, somewhere…that Captain Thorn Sherman (James Best) and his first mate, Rook Griswold (Henry Dupree) arrive to deliver needed supplies to scientist, Dr. Marlowe Cragis (Baruch Lumet, the late, great Sidney’s father).  Cragis is on the island with his daughter, Ann (1957 Miss Universe Ingrid Goude), her fiance Jerry Farrell (Ken Curtis who also produced the film), research assistant Dr. Radford Baines and servant, Mario (Alfred DeSoto).  The group is on the island conducting experiments to prevent overpopulation – should that ever become a problem.  The Doctor’s theory revolves around the notion that if we had slower metabolisms and were half our size we’d live longer lives and the planet would in essence survive on less.

Rook and the Captain approach the remote island
Rook and the Captain approach the remote island

On an average day Captain Sherman would simply drop off the supplies and skedaddle on off the island, but he and Rook are stuck because a hurricane is coming.  And as soon as the scientist and the others meet the boat we get a sense there is a danger looming that’s far greater than a weather forecast.  For one, Ann is acting really nervous.  Secondly, Jerry Farrell is in a really bad mood and carrying a rifle and finally, scary music is playing.  Then we get the entire story of the Doctor’s botched experiments when Sherman accompanies the group to the house for a drink, while Rook stays behind with the boat.

Captain Sherman, Ann and the Doctor have a drink as the danger of the killer shrews is explained
Captain Sherman, Ann and the Doctor have a drink as the danger of the killer shrews is explained

It turns out that the serum that’s supposed to make mankind smaller and slower has been tested on small, rat-looking creatures and a few of them have mutated into GIANT KILLER SHREWS!

sh

Just so you’re clear – true shrews are not to be confused with West Indies Shrews, tree shrews, otter shrews or elephant shrews, which belong to different families altogether.

Anyway – moments later we are introduced to Dr. Radford Baines played by Gordon McLendon.  Of the characters in the movie Baines is the (unintentionally) funniest, which is not surprising I suppose given McLendon is not an actor, but the uncredited executive producer and financier of THE KILLER SHREWS.  Baines is the one who explains all about the shrews and the experimentation and whenever he discovers something new he appears out of nowhere and does the ‘Superman removing the glasses’ move to make his point or share his new discovery.

Baines making a point without his glasses
Baines making a point without his glasses

In any case, Dr. Cragis’ shrews have mutated to pick-up all the bad characteristics of their species, which apparently includes developing both a horrendous over bite and a voracious appetite for flesh – be it bovine, equine or human.  These shrews also mate like rabbits and the few that escaped from the laboratory now number in the hundreds (although only about seven of them make it on-camera).  The main problem arises when the only food source left is the people!  (cue horror music)

So, the Captain is now trapped inside the house with the others because the shrews will attack if they try to get back to the boat.  Meanwhile, little by little the shrews eat through the walls to get inside the house to eat all the people.  The beasts are so ferocious that they ignore when the costumes are exposing their cute puppy parts.  Er….I mean paws and wagging tails.

kill

Now in constant danger the men take turns staying up through the night with guns in hand to kill any shrew who might get inside.  It’s during poor Mario’s shift that the first break-in occurs and a particularly shifty shrew shears his shin.  Mario dies almost immediately despite the fact the shrew only scratches his leg.  Oh, which reminds me of another characteristic of these mutated shrews, they always go for minorities first.  The first one killed was Rook Griswold when he attempts to reach the house during the night.  And now, the shrew went directly for Mario.  In Trekkie terms both Rook and Mario were wearing red shirts.

So, Mario dies, we soon learn, due to poison delivered by the shrew in the shin because as the Doctor explains he’d tried to kill the beasts with poison, but they mutated to accept it.  Or something like that.  This turns out to be lucky for the shrews, in reality, because many of them have teeth so long a bite is an impossibility.  Dr. Baines also dies as a result of a shrew bite, by the way, and it must be noted he does so with honor.  As the fast-acting poison works its way through his system he manages to type a list of all his symptoms before he keels over approximately 30 seconds later.  Now the group must not only fear being eaten alive, they have to avoid a mere scratch!

As daybreak approaches shrews come and shrews go, but the majority of the animals are OUT THERE!  (cue music) and terror builds.  But there’s some relief now and again thanks to the pauses for flirtation’s sake between Ann and the Captain.  Their shenanigans add to the anxiety for everyone because Jerry Farrell, Ann’s fiance until the day before (it seems) doesn’t take too lightly to the flirting.  But, we’ll leave the love triangle aside.

Ann and Captain Sherman take time out to connect
Ann and Captain Sherman take time out to connect

Now that the house has been breached Captain Sherman, Dr. Cragis and Ann decide the only way to survive is to make it to the boat.  Farrell, now crazy with jealousy and fear decides to stay behind and fend for himself, which proves a bad decision, by the way as he becomes fodder for the shrews.  Meanwhile, the other three come up with an ingenious way to make it out of the house, across the island, into the ocean and onto the boat.  What they do is take empty barrels of oil, cut holes into them so as to see where they’re going, turn the barrels upside down and tie them together.  Each person then gets into one of the barrels and does a duck-walk toward the ocean.  In case you’re unsure how this works and find yourself in need of such an escape – what you do is squat and walk like a duck, which on-camera translates to slightly bopping up and down during your close-ups.  It’s very effective, if not without its perils as the terrifying shrews wag their tails and prance on their skinny canine legs all the way with them!

barrel
Killer shrews surround the oil barrels as the trio duck-walks toward the ocean
Ann looks to where she's duck-walking...
Ann looks to where she’s duck-walking…
teeth
…and a shrew is looking back at her

Lo and behold the oil barrel trick works and the three – miraculously – make it onto the boat – and live happily ever after.  The shrews are left to cannibalize themselves on the remote island.

There you have the basic story of Ray Kellogg’s THE KILLER SHREWS, a 1959 science fiction doozie filmed back-to-back with THE GIANT GILA MONSTER for distribution as a double feature.  Together these movies marked the directorial debut of the veteran special effects man whose filmography in special photography is impressive.  Why Kellogg couldn’t make a movie about killer shrews that’s believable is beyond me.  And I’m not talking mere horror schlock here.  THE KILLER SHREWS is beyond belief bad – so bad it’s bad…and a must see!

man

The last time I saw THE KILLER SHREWS I was on a plane and couldn’t help but laugh loudly at some of the scenes.  I found little information about the making of SHREWS, but can guess it cost about $11.50 to make. There were two kinds of shrews used in the movie to create the horror, by the way.  Some shrews were created using puppets and others – the ones who require tail wagging, are dogs in shrew costumes.  I swear if you look closely you might catch a glimpse of a Lassie cameo.

1d

There’s nothing more to say about this one.  THE KILLER SHREWS is a ridiculous laughfest of tail-wagging terror – my entry to Accidentally Hilarious, a blogathon of unintentional humor in classic film hosted by Movies, Silently.  For more accidental laughs be sure to visit the host site.

hil

20 thoughts

  1. I remember seeing this when I was a kid, and thinking it was ridiculous even then (“Hey, those are just dogs!”). Thanks for the trip down bad memory lane…I’d forgotten all about those barrels!

  2. Aurora, your post about THE KILLER SHREWS had me laughing out loud! Even the lovely Ingrid Goude and Baruch Lumet couldn’t save it; those dogs looked like they’d been out in the rain! This was wonderfully awful, Aurora, and I loved your review! 😀

  3. God, I remember this one! One Saturday afternoon in my childhood and stumbling on to this. Not anywhere near the top-tier of the 50s sci-fi/monster flicks, but not boring either. Fun look back, Aurora. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Michael. If you look below to a comment by “Moaneez” – a long-time friend who’s responsible for introducing me to these awful/wonderful movies.

      Aurora

    1. LOL. Star Trek was eons ahead of this in make-up. even the great, glitter-based beaming up is advanced next to the doggie costumes. But such fun.

      Aurora

  4. The Killer Shrews! -one of my favorite guilty pleasures! Right up there with The Giant Claw. Both definitely good for a few laughs- hope they show it again soon.

  5. I read about The Killer Shrews when researching for this blogathon but I didn’t expect it to be this good! Those surprisingly unrealistic fangs! The piercing eyes! But I’m so happy I know how to escape them now, that’s a life lesson everyone needs to learn – how to duck-walk away from shifty shrews 😉

  6. Greetings Ghouls…your old host, Moaneez, here. The joyful noise of chattering mid-sized dogs -all dolled up for shrew practice- tearing and ripping at some island inhabitants, is the stuff that good horror films are made of. This is the reason why the smaller independent studios grabbed the monsters and ran…many of them all the way to the bank. Louis B. Mayer never had such moxie! I routinely avoid comments such as, “cheap”, “cheezy”, and “schlock”, because it simply presents an injustice. The art of movie viewing is to, indeed, suspend disbelief. If that is so, then why throw barbs at an obviously fun film…or group of films?

    The distributors were nothing short of genius when they packed the local drive-ins and movie houses with, okay fine, “B-pictures”. Packages were released to theaters for the spending teenage crowds. Double-features, “Dusk-to-dawn” events, and even live spookshows fed the frenzy, and from the mid-50s to the mid-70s, the younger set could satiate its gluttony for horrors galore!

    By the by, kudos to my bijou-bud, Aurora. A devout film nut, “A” has shared many a movie night with yours truly, and my “undead” wife, Lucia. Her dedication to the realm of the cinema has seen her endure many of my favorite monster movies. Thank you, A!! Your are a credit to our love of motion pictures, television, and nostalgia…keep it rolling, sister. Spook to you soon.

    …still Alive…Moaneez

    1. I was very close to thanking you in the post, Moaneez, for introducing me to the SHREWS. And many other terrible/wonderful movies. My roads through classic movies wouldn’t have been the same without you and the Mrs.!!! ALL those late nights watch-a-thongs!!

      Wish you’d send me these as posts so I can share with everyone instead of in comments. Always happy to see you stop in here!

      Aurora

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