blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Killer Shrews (1959, Ray Kellogg)

I’m not sure The Killer Shrews is the best movie with a protagonist with the first name Thorne, but it’s got to be very high on the list. James Best plays that lead—Captain Thorne Sherman of the S.S. Minnow, and he and first mate Judge Henry Dupree are on a three-hour tour… okay, no, but only because the script doesn’t put any thought into the setup.

Sherman’s delivering supplies to a remote island. It’s his first time doing the run; the other guy is sick. There’s a hurricane due in, so Sherman and Dupree are racing it to the island. They’re planning on holing up onshore until it’s done, then heading back. When they arrive on the island, they discover a peculiar setup.

Swedish mad scientist Baruch Lumet is trying to shrink human beings so we use fewer resources. Except they’ve been testing on shrews—oh, there’s an opening monologue about how shrews need to eat three times their body weight in a day, or they’re going to eat people (basically)—and one of their treatments turned the shrews into twenty-pound beasts. The shrews run the island, except they’re nocturnal (basically evil moles), so the movie’s first act is Lumet’s daughter, Ingrid Goude, trying to convince Best to stay in the house.

Most of the film takes place in the living room of the house. It’s an unconventional lab, but they’re an unconventional team. There’s Gordon McLendon as the brain, Lumet as the visionary, and Ken Curtis as the drunken screw-up whom Lumet’s paired off with daughter Goude. The general assistant, Alfredo de Soto, gets stuck making drinks and doing security rounds.

Everyone on the island is a big lush because they spend all their time waiting for the shrews to eat each other, except before then, the shrews will try to break into the house and eat the people. The people also don’t have radio, so they’re unprepared for the hurricane.

The movie is Best unraveling the initial mystery, falling for Goude, and fighting back 800 giant Killer Shrews. It’s a mix of labored exposition, dogs dressed up as shrews (badly; very badly), adorable, cheap rodent puppets (a quick FYI: shrews aren’t rodents; I was serious before: they’re really mole cousins), and violent love triangle stuff. See, Curtis isn’t ready to give Goude up to some flyboy skipper like Best.

Best, bless him, is a thirty-year-old man dressed up in a captain’s outfit like a five-year-old getting his picture taken. He deserves an award for keeping that hat on. While the special effects have considerable ambition, which they fail to deliver on spectacularly, Best’s hair is always great. Must have used so much product.

Best does not make the material good. But he manages not to embarrass himself too much in the film, which seems impossible thanks to director Kellogg’s failings as well as the supporting cast.

Lumet’s quite bad as the mad scientist. Goude may be worse as the daughter. Curtis isn’t good—though he does have a couple good scenes—and he sometimes does particularly poorly, but he’s nothing compared to Lumet and Goude. They’re atrocious.

Curtis also produced, which is funny since his character’s a complete shitheel.

Dupree and de Soto do all right considering they’re the two people of color in the film, and Shrews is definitely a horror movie if you’re wondering how to figure out who will get it first.

There’s some good photography from Wilfrid M. Cline and some bland photography from him. The house isn’t a great set, and Cline can’t make it not look like a cheap set. Certainly not with Kellogg’s tedious direction. Shrews is either talking, action, or waiting for action. Kellogg directs the talking and waiting exactly the same, leaving all the suspense for the action. Except Jay Simms’s script is all about the tension breaking people down. It’s practically a Southern Gothic, and Kellogg totally misses it.

Simms’s script deserves better, even with its not inconsiderable problems.

But, all things considered, Shrews isn’t bad for a no-budget fifties atomic-age sci-fi monster movie.

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