A couple of months ago, I was digging through the Buy 1 Get 5 Free Used DVD pile at my local Game Stop and I spotted it — one of my favorite childhood memories wrapped up in a movie. No, it wasn’t Mary Poppins or The Jungle Book. It was The Killer Shrews and I squealed just like one of those mad, rabid creatures when I spotted it!
At the time I couldn’t imagine why anyone would trade in such an amazing piece of cinematic history but I have since come to understand. See the nifty box art to the left? Well, my box art isn’t quite as nifty. It’s the shoe and the tail with no sign of those two vicious shrews! Well, no wonder someone traded this copy in. Surely they did it so they could buy a new copy with the much cooler art on the cover. Lucky, lucky me!
The Killer Shrews is built around the same basic template as my other favorite Fiend Without a Face. Scientist messes with nature. Nature gets pissed and gives him what for. Low-lying monsters mass for an attack and our heroes (leading man, old man, pretty girl, dorky assistant and a couple of red shirts) are trapped like rats (or shrews) desperate for a way to escape as said monsters reduce their numbers.
Yes, it’s formulaic, but why mess with what works?
On to the story! The movie begins by telling us that shrews are the most vicious animals on the planet and they must eat three times their own weight every day to survive. So in other words, shrews and I have a lot in common. (No wonder I love this flick!)
Next we’re introduced to Captain Thorne Sherman (James Best) and Rook (Judge Henry Dupree – what a name!) who are in a very small boat on their way to an island to deliver very small supplies. Now here’s where I have to say that I’ve watched this movie a million times and I watched Dukes of Hazzard a million times, but it took me years to realize that the James Best in this movie is Roscoe P. Coltrane in Dukes. Wow, what a handsome, Elvis-ish, leading man he was in 1959. Quite the charmer.
Okay, back to the movie. There’s a hurricane a brewing so Rook stays on the boat to batten down the hatches (whatever that means) and Thorne (jokes about being a “thorne in his side”, anyone?) breaks the bad news to the island gang. “There’s a storm coming, we’ll have to cancel Christmas.”
Dr. Craigis (Baruch Lumet – where do they get these names from) is disturbed by this. He wants his lovely daughter Ann (the very Swedish Ingrid Goude) off the island right away. Sounds like there’s more than a storm brewing.
Thorne says, ‘no way’, then settles in to have a drink with the drunken, loudmouth Jerry (Ken Curtis (yes, of Gunsmoke, also looking very young and dapper), the nutty-professor Radford Baines and company.
It isn’t long before the truth is semi-revealed. Baines accidentally created the killer shrews while working on a solution to world hunger. Yeah, whatever. Drunken Jerry let the cats out of the bag one night and they multiplied faster than Charlie on Numb3rs. Now they’re hungry, really hungry and the only food source left on the island are the castaways themselves. Yum!
To prove this point, we see the hideously stereotypical Rook attempting to escape the vicious creatures by climbing a very thin tree. Is that the dinner bell I hear?
Like in Fiend Without a Face, the sounds these creatures make is more horrifying that the creatures themselves. Everyone has already said it so I will too; they look like dogs with matted shag carpet remnants thrown over them. Hey, they’re still scary.
To ratchet up the tension we find out that the shrew’s saliva is poison, so if they nick you you’re dead. Like the fact that they could tear you to bits with their razor sharp teeth wasn’t enough. We prove this point by nicking, and killing handyman / bartender Mario.
Ann chooses this moment to flirt with Thorne because there’s nothing like a dead guy in the basement to get those hormones a flowin’. Thorne makes a run for the boat and almost bites it when Jerry locks him out of the stockade. (Yes, I said stockade.) Then Jerry almost bites it when Throne thinks of throwing him into the yard as shrew bait. Cooler heads prevail but it doesn’t matter. Jerry’s already on the dinner menu by virtue of his bad behavior. It’s just a matter of time.
With the clever, not-so-little shrews digging holes in the adobe walls (“Can you say adobe? I knew you could.”), our heroes come up with an escape plan. They’ll lash together a set of chemical drums (um, fumes?), cut holes in the front for viewing then duck-walk over the river and through the woods to the beach where they can then swim to the boat.
So let me get this straight. Four metal, fume-filled barrels weighing 40 pounds each. One healthy boat Captain, an old man, and a beauty queen. Can’t stand up. Must walk in a crouched position over a down-hill, rock and branch littered surface with rabid dogs throwing themselves at them all the way.
Yeah, that’ll work.
Hey! It does work! They make it to the water. They all swim to the boat and despite the fact that three people have just died a horrible death, Thorne and Ann trade furtive glances as he suggestively utters, “I’m not going to worry about overpopulation just yet!”
Man, are they going to have a story to tell their grandkids! “How did your grandmother and I meet? Sit down on my knee, Susan and I’ll tell you all about how we nearly had our throats ripped out by poisonous killer shrews. . . ” Good times. Good times.
Desperate to see the movie? You can purchase a copy of The Killer Shrews to have and cherish on Amazon, of course.