The Killer Shrews (1959)

It came as a mild surprise to me to learn that this one was made in the Fifties.

I’d pictured it as a product of the wave of environmentally-themed nature run amuch films of the Seventies, like Night of the Lepus or Frogs.  Instead we have a black and white B-movie made with a B-movie cheapness that was already mostly a thing of the past.

A shrew, for those of you who aren’t familiar with them, is a small, mouse-like carnivore that is actually more closely related to moles.  They have a fantastically high metabolism and eat up to three times their own body weight every day.  Which might, sound frightening if it weren’t for the fact that they are also the smallest mammals in the world.

That incredible metabolism is largely because they are so small — but what if you could somehow make them big without changing it?

Why, then you’d have a great monster for a cheap Sci Fi movie!

So we have that familiar horror film situation (which goes the whole way back to H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau) where a stranger — in this case the skipper of the little boat bringing in their supplies — arrives on an isolated island and discovers a scientist engaged in dangerous secret experiments.  And, as this was made in Hollywood, the scientist has a beautiful daughter.

While we are in familiar territory, it is done with the sort of modest competence these films strove for.  A large part of the movie takies place within a single cabin, as the shrews attack, leaving the few human survivors surrounded and besieged within. Naturally, the survivors soon turn on one another, although this may not have been as familiar a situation before George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead came out. 

If you stop and think about it, though, that basic situation is not that different from some of those old Westerns:  instead of Indians attacking the fort, we have…dogs in wigs.

Seriously.

This is what has made this one a bad movie classic.  The monsters are…well, silly.  When we see them at a distance, they are obviously dogs with extra fur, and while there are puppets for the closeups, there are actually two very different shrew heads:  one which is identical to the dogs in costumes (complete with the strange double sabertooth canines on both sidse) and a second one which shows up in a few of the shots (particularly when we see just the heads of the creatures through a hole) which looks more or less like a big mouse — but has the unique cone-shaped front teeth found on shrews.  But fortunately (if that’s quite the right word for it) the dogs in wigs look so silly, and the puppets are so obviously puppets, that no one seems to have noticed this little discrepancy.

It’s interesting to note that the director, Ray Kellogg, made this one back to back with another “classic” midnight movie, The Giant Gila Monster, which features hot rod teenagers trying to stop a very bored-looking, photographically-enlarged lizard.  However, this one is by far the better of the two, even with its silly monsters.  The film is tense, reasonably well constructed, and has a few reasonably good scares along the way.  it ain’t a great classic, but then it never really tried to be.  it’s just another modest B-Movie, with a solid cast of nobodies and not enough money to make their monster all that impressive.

But with a few friends and a generous supply of popcorn, it should keep everyone entertained.

Although not necessarily for the reasons they intended!

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