Film

Don’t Open That Door! #19: 'The Killer Shrews' (1959)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: small furry things become medium-sized furry things in The Killer Shrews


The Killer Shrews

Director: Ray Kellogg
Cast: James Best, Ingrid Goude, Gordon MacClendon
US release date: 1959-06-25

Alternate titles: Do You Think the Black Guy Will Survive Till the End?

POSITIVES:

Ingrid Goude (Miss Universe 1956), and her appalling Swedish accent.

Ongoing alcohol abuse—good role model for the kids.

Crisp pace and running time (69 mins).

One genuinely jump-off-the-couch scary moment! (Really).

Inventive and unexpected climax.

Hilarious last line.

Laugh-inducing special effects.

NEGATIVES:

Laugh-inducing special effects (see "Positives").

SYNOPSIS: Attack of the Medium-Sized Dogs Cleverly Disguised with Yarn and Plastic Rat-tails—oops, sorry, I mean The Killer Shrews—opens with Captain Thorne Sherman and his first mate, a jolly black man named Rook (rooks are black birds—geddit?) stranded on a sinister island populated by an odd group of scientific researchers whose motto seems to be: "Never drink water!" While not busily pounding down endless cocktails, Thorne makes the acquaintance of Dr. Milo Craigis, who sounds Austrian; his mysteriously Swedish daughter Anne, who sounds brain-damaged; Anne's ex-fiance, the atonishingly craven Jerry, who sounds astonishingly craven; and geekmeister supremo Dr. Baines, who sounds terribly excited about the island's experiments. Experiments in what, you ask? Hey, the movie's not called The Benevolent Quakers.

With a hurricane swiftly approaching, this "party" (literally) is stranded on the island for the night, which would be no big deal under ordinary circumstances—but as Anne explains in her unnerving, r-dropping Swedish accent, "There are two or tee hunded giant shoes outside!" This is bad news for all concerned, especially since Rook has elected to stay outdoors, as far from these strange white people as possible. The other nod to diversity, Hispanic servant Mario, appears to shuffle through the film in a peyote-induced haze. No points awarded for guessing whether he makes it till morning. The director ratchets up the "terror" by informing us that the shrews are fiesty burrowing creatures (gosh! They're as big as, um, dogs) who have exhausted the local food supply. Which wouldn't be such a bother, if the house were made of brick. Or even wood. Alas, however, it's adobe—meaning mud—and there are plenty of cracks in them there walls. And now the hurricane is coming on.

When push comes to shove, the astonishly craven Jerry acts just about the way you'd expect him to—that is, astonishingly craven—while Thorne and Anne and the rest come up with a plan that just might be desperate enough to work. This involves getting Anne inside an oil drum and making her sweat. Oh Captain Thorne, you devil you.

What gets mauled: A black guy; a Hispanic guy; a white guy; another white guy. Hey, at least they're equal-opportunity killer rodents as big as medium-sized dogs.

Party game: Play "Hey Bartender" and try keeping track of the drinks each character puts away. For even more fun, play "Under the Table"—keep your own booze supply handy and try to match the characters onscreen drink-for-drink. Remember, you have to drink as much as all the characters. (Not recommended if you're planning to operate heavy machinery after the show. Or light machinery for that matter. Or even, like, stairs.)

Did you notice? The "research lab" where genetic-modification work is carried out consists of a microscope and a caged shrew. Hey, low-tech works sometimes.

Didn’t you notice? When Ingrid Goude is hot 'n' sweaty inside an upturned oil drum, she actually does look like Miss Universe. (Her mumbling in Swedish just nails it.)

Best lines of dialogue: "Now look, I don’t ask questions because it's against my principles. But would you mind explaining that?" (Actually, this is only the second-best line. The best line is the very last one in the film, but it's such a howler that I don't want to give it away here.)

Somehow their careers survived: James Best (Thorne) went on to roles in the promisingly-titled Shock Corridor (1963) and Mind Warp (1972), plus 1976's Ode to Billy Joe, as well as TV's The Dukes of Hazzard. Ingrid Goude (Anne) and Ken Curtis (Jerry) both appeared in TV's Gunsmoke; Curtis's movie career emphasized westerns like The Alamo (1960) and California Cold Rush (1981). Producer/writer of The Killer Shrews, Gordon MacClendon, also produced The Giant Gila Monster and appears in this movie as Dr. Baines.

BOTTOM LINE: A surprisingly good time, a buncha laughs and one real surprise.

NEXT WEEK: Teenage Cave Man (1958)

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