The Killer Shrews (1959)

Nate: Hi there, something a bit different for you today. I normally do these reviews jointly with Pam, but I'm crazy busy with honey-do lists this week so I'm going to let my Intern Jack step up and take this one, I'll just supervise. This is Jack's first time reviewing, but I'm sure he's going to do great. Say hello to our guests, Jack.

Jack: Hey everyone, are we ready for some fun!?! Sorry, did that sound too chipper?

Nate: A little, should probably lay off the catnip for a while. Take it away.

Jack: Right, so The Killer Shrews is about a drunken tinker named Sly who is tricked by a mischievous lord into thinking he's a nobleman. In the play-within-the-play, the "shrew" is the beautiful Katherina, daughter of the Lord of Padua. In the first act th...

Nate: Uh, no, no, sorry. It's about killer shrews eating people. Didn't you watch the powerpoint presentation I cc'd you?

Jack: No, no I didn't, Kelby told me I didn't need to.

Nate: Goddamn Kelby. It's not Shakespeare, Jack, it's a crappy el-cheapo b-movie about mutant rats chasing buxom girls and mad scientists around a desert island.

Jack: Oh dear, and I spent all day reading cliff notes of Shakespeare to prepare for this. I'm completely at a loss now, I am so sorry, boss.

Nate: It's ok, Jack, just watch the movie.

Jack: Ok, I can do this. We open at sea in a tropical zone, Caribbean maybe. We meet our film's hero, Thorne, captain of a fancy powered cabin cruiser. Thorne is a burly, square-jawed hunky guy who's played by Bob Crane, obviously slumming his way through Hollywood's back alley gutter before scoring big with Hogan's Heroes. He's g...

Nate: No, Jack, that's actually James Best there, who would be completely forgotten if he didn't end up being Roscoe T. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard. James Best.

Jack: I hate to correct you, boss, but that can't be right. Roscoe was a toothless, mushmouthed hilljack who had sex with a basset hound weekly, Thorne is a handsome steely-eyed clear-speaking upright kind of dude, that has to be Bob Crane, just look at that haircut.

Nate: Nope, trust me, I googled it, that's James Best. By the way, have you seen the company credit card? I can't find it anywhere.

Jack: Oh yeah, Kelby has it. But he's not here, he left a while ago, said he had to get down to the Western Union before noon. Something about this email he got from a Nigerian prince.

Nate: What!? Oh fuck me.

Jack: Well, Nate seems to have left the office suddenly, so I guess I'm on my own now. Chipchip carry on and all. So anyway, Bob Crane's character is delivering supplies to an isolated island laboratory. Running ahead of a coming hurricane, he and his Token Black Man porter make landfall and meet up with the lab's staff on the beach.

Thorne (r).

But not all is rosy in this idyllic island paradise. Something sinister has happened since the last time they were here, something that has people on edge. Everyone is tense and nervous, men are carrying guns and muttering dejectedly to themselves, and they keep glancing out into the woods, almost like they think something is out there, watching them with hungry eyes. Dumdumdum!

"That's a nice gun..."

The "lab" is just a poorly-decorated bungalow with some outdated couches and a lot of interior doors. Any sort of "lab-y" equipment must be in the basement out of sight. There are a couple of scientists, a lab assistant, and a disposable Latino butler here. The only one you really need to know is the old, wrinkly, balding Doctor, who is head of the program. He's got a Teutonic accent, an ill-fitting polyester suit, and he looks like Mister Noodle from Sesame Street.

The Doctor chats up Thorne.

We get a few minutes of exposition to set up the plot, as the Doctor explains to Thorne what they are doing here. It seems, much like most doomed scientists in b-movies, they are trying to do some universal good by operating far outside the bounds of traditional academia. They are trying to eliminate world hunger and save humanity by isolating the genes that make the tiny little shrew able to eat so much and still stay so small, hoping to produce smaller-sized people who will consume less. I think, that actually makes no damn sense at all to me. But then again, I'm a 15-pound cat and I can eat 20 pounds of Friskies a day and still keep my svelte figure, so I think they are wasting their time on shrews. Perhaps scientists would be better off trying to make humans more like cats, we are awesome, after all.

This ugly little fucker is a shrew, by the way.

Anyway, since this is a b-movie from 1959, of course the Doctor must have a sizzling hot daughter (yawn). Ann slinks into the room in a scoop-neck and an a-line skirt, her extreme hourglass waist squeezing her internal organs painfully in an Elizabethan torture chamber sorta fashion style. Her pixie hair is cute, though, and her sultry (if thick) Scandinavian accent is pretty sexy.

"My colon is in my lungs, ouchy."

While there's instant pre-scripted chemistry between Ann and Thorne, she's technically taken, being engaged to Jerry, the ADHD lab assistant with the pants pulled up way too high. One look at Jerry (hey, is that Festus from Gunsmoke?) and you can tell that he's got no shot at walking the bombshell Ann down the aisle, not with dreamy Captain Thorne on deck. Makes you wonder what Ann saw in Jerry to begin with. Of course, what do I know about love and relationships, the bastards cut my balls off.

Perhaps he's got a Corvette.

While his boss Thorne is wooing the lady, the poor Token Black Man puts on his Starfleet security ensign red shirt and wanders out into the woods to be attacked and munched by a pack of feral mutant hungry shrews. He goes down hard, but he puts up a welcome fight with his pistol and Louisiana rebel yell, maybe even taking a few shrews with him to the Promised Land. And, yes, the "killer shrews" are just medium-sized house dogs with carpet remnants duct taped to their backs, but with the fuzzy camera work, the quick editing cuts, and the general darkness of the scene, you really can't tell that much. We've seen far worse monsters in b-movies over the years, haven't we?

"Beam me up!"

Unsurprisingly, the Token Black Man is instantly forgotten about and we have some high drama as night falls. Thorne wants to leave and go back to his boat as he's kinda tired of Ann leading him on with her fidgety shotgun-armed fiance in the next room, which is a smart move. But Ann is insistent that he can't open the gate after nightfall and we can see the sheer terror in her eyes as she pleads with Thorne.

She doesn't smile much.

When Thorne calls their bluff, they are forced to explain what is really going on. It seems that the Doctor's experiments on shrews have produced a mutant strain that grows as big as a border collie and has the ravenous appetite of a zillion starving supermodels. Worse yet, they breed like rabbits and are really horny and in the mood, like, all the time. Worser yet, the dumbass lab assistant Jerry left the cage open and the initial batch escaped to the wild. Worserer yet, their population numbers have exploded to north of 300, making them a virtual swarm of gnawing, chewing demons. Worsererer yet, they seem to be immune to gunfire and have figured out how to dig under the perimeter fence and eat the cows. Worserererest of all, in their arrogant white-lab-coated hubris, the scientists refuse to admit there's a problem and call in the Air Force to napalm the smoking hell out of the island. Thorne, being a Common Man with Common Thoughts, is pretty freaked out about all this.

Seriously, dude, where did you get your medical degree?

You know, I'm really hairball-hacking mad at the producers for this movie's overly sensationalist title and the way-too-TMI intro voice-over, as it totally ruined any chance of suspense. And so far, for real, this movie has done a sterling job of building a sense of suspense and mystery. If you didn't have the tell-all title and the voice-intro to give away the fact that there are "killer shrews" involved, you really could be into the story, trying to figure out what's going on with all these twitchy people and lurking shadows. But, alas, you have to appeal to the drive-in movie crowd if you're a b-movie producer, and, more to the point, you need to impress the theater managers who want a flashy title on their marquees to get people to pay for tickets. Let me segue over to Pam here. Pam, am I wrong in this? Has not this been a pretty tight little movie so far? Would not knowing in advance that killer shrews are on the loose give this movie a much-needed sense of foreboding and mystery?

I agree, Jack. Not revealing too much information too soon is the hallmark of good writing. Since the cat is let out of the bag by the voiceover, I wonder if the filmmaker wasn't trying to keep the shrews a secret until the appropriate time but was overruled by someone else who was afraid the target audience didn't have the patience to wait and find out what was going on. Considering that this was a drive-in movie, whoever made the decision might have been right, but it does ruin the suspense and hurt the movie. Back to the rugged Thorne and the beauteous Ann. Screams from the barn indicate that the shrews have managed to make their way inside, and again Thorne demands to know why the doctor hasn't called the Navy or the Air Force to destroy the shrews.

I recommend you nuke it from orbit, it's the only way to be sure.

The Doctor replies that the shrews, being unable to swim, can't make it off the island so they're no threat to the rest of the world, and he wants to observe what will happen once the shrews devour everything they can find and run out of food. He seems to think this will be an object lesson to the world and cause humans to voluntarily avoid overpopulating the planet. It seems to me that he's come rather far from his original objective, and I think he's desperately trying to salvage some useful data from his failed experiment. Thorne, the killjoy, points out that if the shrews can get into the barn they can probably burrow through the adobe walls of the house. The doctor reluctantly agrees that maybe, just maybe, it would be a good idea to set up headquarters on Thorne's boat. Thorne says they'll go to the boat in the morning and instructs them to take turns keeping watch until daylight, and quiet falls upon the Doctor's house.

There's an insane amount of alcohol in this house and everyone is constantly drinking full glasses of whiskey in every scene, Don Draper would be so proud.

Later at 2:45 AM, Ann is asleep on the sofa in the living room. Mario is on watch and making his rounds. Jerry is in his bedroom, very drunk, and nearly shoots Mario as he comes in. Jerry is in a loquacious mood and engages Mario in slurred conversation, distracting him from his duties. Jerry is also in a generous mood and graciously offers to let Mario take Jerry's turn at patrol, an offer which Mario quickly accepts, no doubt feeling he wouldn't be able to sleep with the pie-eyed Jerry on watch anyway. However, that couple of minutes of conversation was just long enough: one shrew has made it into the house and into the cellar! By the way, from the jerky way it moves, I think it's a stuffed animal of some sort that was filmed in stop-motion. Mario notices an open window and shutters and hastily closes them, but it's too late.

Where is his brother Luigi?

Mario wisely decides to tell the sober Thorne rather than the drunken Jerry, and they both head down to the cellar to get the shrew. Based on what we've seen of the shrews so far, I would have expected the shrew to attack the men as soon as they entered the cellar, but instead it hides from them for a couple of minutes. At last, and there is genuine suspense here, it attacks Mario and bites him on the leg. This effort seems to be almost too much for it and it collapses on the floor, remaining still while Jerry puts a tourniquet on Mario. (If you look closely, you can see there's no blood.) Its head moves feebly, probably more stop motion, and Thorne kills it with a pistol shot as the Doctor, Jerry, and the assistant reach the cellar. The Doctor takes Mario's pulse and announces that he's dead, which puzzles Thorne. He says that's impossible because he got the tourniquet on Mario too fast (and also because there wasn't any blood, although he doesn't say that. Wonder why they couldn't take the trouble to mix up a little fake blood?) The Doctor announces sadly that it's "hemotoxic syndrome." So the shrews haven't only gotten a lot bigger, they're now venomous? How did this happen? The Doctor explains it all by giving the B-movie all-purpose explanation, "It's a mutant."

Notice there's not a lot of caps of the actual killer shrews, because they never stay still long enough for me to get one...

Ann is quite distraught over Mario's death, and in an effort to take her mind off it, Thorne engages her in conversation about what her role on what brought her to the island. It turns out that she's a zoologist who specializes in animal diets. Aha! Is she responsible for the shrews' transformation? We'll never know, because she drops the subject immediately and starts talking about what she's going to do it she ever gets off the island. "Living like a normal woman" is high on her to-do list, so I suppose is true '50s fashion, she'll marry the first man she can catch and start popping out babies. Normally it would irritate me to see a female character jettison her career so lightly (and acting as if raising children is so easy), but I suppose being in the near vicinity of a horde of vicious killer beasts your father produced would be enough to make the most career-minded female run for shelter.

This movie has major MST3k geek cred, by the way.

Meanwhile, the Doctor has performed an autopsy on Mario and 'fesses up to Thorne that the poison that killed Mario was the same poison he recently set out for the shrews, hoping to kill them. Somehow, although the Doctor doesn't go into details here, the poison was absorbed into the shrews' salivary glands, to be released into their victims. The Doctor says there's no antidote, either, and he says cheerily that even the slightest scratch from a shrew could be fatal. However, he seems very secure in his professional abilities and doesn't blame himself a bit.

Not a lot of light in their lab, maybe that's why they messed up their tests.

Thorne is quite naturally even more worried than he was before, and he reiterates that they must watch all the doors and windows if they're going to survive until daybreak. Wait a minute, it was already 2:45 when Mario finished his rounds. The activities in the cellar occupied a certain length of time, and then the Doctor had to perform an autopsy on Mario. How long does an autopsy take? Shouldn't it be nearly dawn already? Forget this for now, because Thorne's fears prove all too real as we see a shrew digging its way through an adobe wall of the house. Several of them break through, but for now they're biding their time.

Did you know the actress playing Ann was the runner-up Miss Universe for 1956? Me neither. She should have stuck to modeling.

Some time passes. It's almost dawn, and Thorne is making plans to get them all to his boat. He's going to throw the dead shrew over the wall, hoping to draw the others to it and give them a chance to escape. However, the shrews don't seem interested, and the dead shrew just lies there. They peer over the wall and decide the coast is clear (and Ann snuggles close to Thorne, much to Jerry's disgust). Everything looks good, and Thorne and Jerry set forth. I think we all know that trouble will be here soon.

Nice job, Ann, way to introduce jealousy and anger into an already desperate situation.

We're right. Thorne stupidly lets Jerry get behind him, and Jerry promptly threatens Thorne with a shotgun and warns him to stay away from Ann. However, Jerry gets careless and Thorne is able to knock him down and take the shotgun away from him. Thorne keeps heading for the boat, with Jerry trailing after him, and as they walk we catch glimpses of shrews running through the woods. They reach the shore and see the boat anchored offshore, but calls to Token Black Man bring no answer. It finally (finally!) dawns on Thorne that he hasn't seen or heard from Token Black Man in quite a while. Thorne starts looking for him, while Jerry trails aimlessly along. Thorne happens across the revolver Token Black Man was carrying, along with a torn, blood-stained piece of cloth, and he realizes that this is all that's left of Token Black Man. It seems odd that the shrews, which are about the size of coyotes, could eat an entire man bones and all plus most of his clothing, but since this isn't the most peculiar thing about the shrews by any means, let's let it go. Besides, it's a dramatic moment, and it gives James Best the chance to display both anger and sorrow, proving that Thorne isn't just the strong stoic hero-type.

Hmmm...the flora of this "tropical" island looks more like North Texas, curious.

Thorne and Jerry keep looking around, either for shrews or for additional remains of Token Black Man, when Jerry spots a shrew and takes off running back to the compound. He makes it inside but refuses to open the gate when Thorne reaches it. However, in true hero fashion, Thorne scales the fence, jumps into the compound, and (big surprise) starts beating up on Jerry. By the way, Ken Curtis, who plays Jerry, produced this movie, and I admire the way he isn't afraid to make his character repulsive. (He also produced The Giant Gila Monster.) It's an epic struggle, and Jerry gets in a few good blows, but eventually Thorne pummels him into unconsciousness. Thorne comes very, very close to tossing the limp Jerry over the fence and into the pack of shrews. I was convinced he was going to break with all B-movie traditions and actually do it, but he relents at the last minute.

"Ouuu, I love it when men fight over me..."

They are all snug in the house, wondering what to do now, when Ann opens a door and in jumps a stuffed animal! No, it's really a zombie shrew, dead so long that rigor mortis has set in...No, I guess it's supposed to be a live shrew, but it's pathetically obvious that it really is a stuffed animal. In the brief glimpses you get of shrews running, they're obviously medium-sized dogs with furry hides tied on them, but the camera is careful not to linger on moving "shrews." I must point out, though, that the animals we see are much too long-legged to be shrews grown to giant size.

The prop cap guns shoot out sparks, very classy.

Sadly the shrew grazed the other scientist's leg before Thorne shot it, and although he pretends it only tore a hole in his pants leg, we are not surprised when he shortly expires. While the poor man is typing and going through his death agonies (and I'm not making that up -- what a dedicated scientist!), for no apparent reason Jerry grabs up a pistol and fires several shots into the door through which the shrew entered (Jerry has been drinking steadily since he revived). The Doctor, also a dedicated scientist, matter-of-factly removes the piece of paper from the typewriter and reads what his assistant wrote, which seems to be a description of his symptoms.


Jerry, now very drunk again, begins to snivel, provoking Thorne into slapping him while Ann watches. So everybody is occupied and not keeping watch for shrews, which proves to be a serious mistake as we see dirt trickling from a hole in the house wall. This is followed by the face of a shrew, which seems much smaller than the shrew faces we've seen before this. Does this mean not all the shrews grew to be giants? No, I think it means there was only a small hole, so they made a small shrew head to fit it.

"Rah! You guys got any cheese in there?"

Thorne shoves the sofa in front of the hole, but soon another hole appears in the wall, then another! They rush outside and pile wooden crates against the fence, but they know this won't stop the shrews for long. In fact, I can't imagine why the shrews haven't already chewed through the wooden fence, since the planks are not that thick and have gaps between them. Maybe the wood's been treated with something that doesn't taste good? Fortunately the resourceful Thorne spots some empty metal drums and, with the welding apparatus which just happens to be there, proceeds to weld them together. His plan is that they will crouch under them and walk to the beach. This doesn't seem like much of a plan, but I have to admit I can't think of anything better.

Because all real men know how to work an acetylene torch.

Jerry, however, has other ideas, and in pursuit of them he helps himself to a shotgun and climbs to the roof. He wants to stay there and fight off the shrews. The others think the drums are a better idea, and they open the gate and head for the beach (Thorne made some slits in the drums so they can see where they're going) while Jerry prowls the roof. The shrews don't have the brains to stick their noses under the edges of the drums and flip them up so they can get at the humans underneath, so, although it's tiring, Ann, Thorne, and the Doctor are making their way to the beach. Jerry is still on the roof, but when it looks as though all the shrews are following the others, he jumps down and makes a break for it. Unfortunately for him his judgment is no better than it ever was, and he is overcome by a pack of shrews and bites the dust.

"Gasp! With each of us in separate drums, there's not a man here to hold my hand, what ever shall I do?!?"

The three really do make it to the beach. Shrews, as you'll remember, can't swim, so once they're neck-deep in water they wiggle out from under the drums and swim to the boat. Thorne and Anita cuddle while the Doctor says that within 24 hours, only one shrew will be left on the island and it'll die of starvation. I guess this counts as a happy ending. By the way, the rest of the storm is coming, the storm that caused Thorne to stay at the island in the first place, but they don't care.

Are you going to give the ring back, Ann?

Well, Jack, what did you think of the movie?

You know, I thought it was alright. Not good by any means, and downright horrible in fleeting moments, but definitely watchable. The perfect length, too, an extra 20 minutes would have only drug the story down (and they'd have to put in a scene of Ann in a bikini to keep the audience interested). I'm not even too bothered by the tacky dog/shrew costumes, they did a great job of only keeping the camera on them for no longer than absolutely necessary, which is a lesson a lot of b-movie directors of the same era failed to heed. The leads were alright, especially Bob Crane, who resisted the urge to go full-bore campy on us. And I agree, giving Jerry a complicated and nasty personality was a plus, really brought a background character to life. Ann was a bit wooden, but, of course, she wasn't hired for her thespian skills. All in all not a bad little movie, certainly better than I had expected and most certainly unworthy of the scorn that the b-movie community has long heaped on it.

Thanks boss for letting me take this one, it was fun. Too bad you didn't get to Kelby in time, I suppose I'll have to start selling my fur on eBay to pay the bills now...

The End.

Written in August 2011 by Intern Jack and Pam Burda.

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