The Killer Shrews (Film Chest Media Group, NR)

Killershrews dvdThe setup for this film will be familiar to any connoisseur of black-and-white giant creature movies.

So much of a film critic’s viewing time and energy is expended on films that want to impress you as good (some of which might as well featured subtitles saying “Remember me at Oscar time!”) that it’s a relief to spend some time watching films that have no such pretensions. One such film is The Killer Shrews, a 1959 low-budget horror flick that is never really scary but does manage to be endearing, thanks primarily to its utter lack of pretension. This is a film, after all, that stars Miss Sweden of 1956 (whose diction is clearly not the reason she got the part) and features for the shrews of the title a hapless crew of ill-disguised dogs supplemented by the occasional hand puppet.

The setup for The Killer Shrews will be familiar to any connoisseur of black-and-white giant creature movies. Marlowe Cragis (the distinguished Yiddish theatre actor Baruch Lumet, a.k.a. Sidney’s dad) has been doing experiments on a remote island that have something to do with solving human overpopulation. As is often the case in such movies, things don’t go as planned, and Cragis has instead produced a strain of bloodthirsty giant shrews who live only to eat: humans and cattle if possible; each other if not.

Cragis lives in a house amply supplied with electricity, booze, and eye makeup, the latter put to noticeable use by his daughter Ann (Ingrid Goude, the aforementioned Miss Sweden). Also living on this cozy island are Ann’s fiancé Jerry Farrell (Ken Curtis, best known for playing Festus on Gunsmoke), research assistant Radford Baines (Gordon McLendon, whose teaky acting makes Goude look like Meryl Streep), and the stereotypical Mexican/shrew-fodder Mario (Alfredo DeSoto).

Into this island paradise-cum-ship captain Thorne Sherman (veteran actor James Best) and first mate “Rook” Griswold (Judge Henry Dupree, who isn’t terrible despite having only one other film credit). As if the giant shrews (about which Sherman and Griswold are not immediate informed) weren’t enough, there’s also a hurricane a-brewing, and some serious masculine jealousy adds to the fun when it becomes clear than Sherman and Ann are hitting it off.

The Killer Shrews is obviously a rock-bottom-dollar production, with sets that look pretty much the same no matter what room the characters are supposed to be in, and a “scientific laboratory” consisting of one microscope. It also has all the characteristics of a one-take production: The same setups are used repeatedly and the actors (Lumet excepted) deliver their lines as if reading a teleprompter, without the least effort to convince you that they are part of a story playing out on screen.

For all that, The Killer Shrews is not a bad watch, with admirable economy of storytelling and no attempt to alter the conventions of horror (you’ll have no problem guessing who will die, nor in what order), allowing you to enjoy the sublime badness of the special effects. Director Ray Kellog also deserves commendation for efficient recycling of stock footage and admirable use of shadows (what you can’t quite see is usually scarier than what you can). Hey, Stephen King found The Killer Shrews worthy of mention, and do you think you know more about horror than him?

A digital restoration of The Killer Shrews is newly available on DVD from Film Chest Media Group. The picture and sound are pretty good for a film of its type and era, and there’s nothing technical about this release that will interfere with your enjoyment of it. There are no extras on the disc. | Sarah Boslaugh

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