Killer Shrews: Schlock at its finest. Poor special effects, hackneyed plot and ham acting. They used hand puppets of the giant killer shrews for up-close shots. They looked like an oversize stuffed mouse with chopstick fangs glued in and black ping pong balls for eyes. For action sequences, they used coon hounds with carpet and fur attached to them and never shot them close up. The coon hound shrews supposedly ate the token Black man in the movie, which would be protested today.
The premise is that a Swedish scientist was working on the then threatened coming food apocalypse. He had a Hispanic servant (Alfredo de Soto; more racist tokenism), a cowardly assistant (played by Gunsmoke’s Festus, Ken Curtis, who was an investor in the film and also a fine western actor and amazingly good singer), a beautiful Swedish daughter (played by the attractive Swedish actress Ingrid Goude) and an American assistant scientist played by Gordon McLendon. They are on an isolated island somewhere in the Atlantic hurricane zone so they can be left alone, especially by federal inspectors. James Best (most famous for playing Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrain on Dukes of Hazzard) plays the captain of the small motor ship bringing them supplies. With him is the faithful Black actor Judge Henry Dupree who is his first mate and apparently engineer, playing the character Rook.
A hurricane is approaching, so they have to anchor in the protected harbor and wait it out before unloading. The captain goes ashore to meet with the scientists while Rook runs extra anchors and has to tie the boat to a tree ashore. The captain is met by Ken Curtis’ character who is armed and takes him to the residence. There he is told what all is happening, that the experiment went astray and they accidentally created giant killer shrews who must eat their body weight daily to survive, that other animal food is running out, that the shrews are mostly nocturnal and that they will eat humans with gusto.
Poor Rook is chased and run up a tree by the coon hound shrews and the effects are so poor you can see the lines pulling the tree down supposedly under Rook’s impressive weight to his doom of being eaten alive. The shrews then surround the residence like the Little Big Horn and try to get in to eat the humans. They dig through the adobe walls and have to be shot or burned. One grazes the assistant scientist’s leg and they therefore find out that the shrews are also deadly venomous, as he dies shortly thereafter. The Hispanic servant also dies from a shrew bite. The shrews make a very distinctive noise that sounds something like “aaawk-ch-ch-ch!”. The shrews are also enthusiastically cannibalistic and will eat any form of meat, including each other, to quell their ravenous appetites.
The surviving humans decide they must escape and create a human-powered tank made of barrels roped together. Ken Curtis refuses as he is deathly afraid of the shrews and stays behind. Creeping in the tank the Captain, the Scientist and his lovely daughter make it, barely, to the water where the shrews, who cannot swim, leave them and go back to eat Ken Curtis who, instead of camping out on the roof and safe for a couple of days until the shrews turn on each other, stupidly tried to run off through the woods and he suffers Rook’s fate. As the shrews take him down he screams like a 12 year old girl with a spider on her face. The survivors swim to the motor launch and the Scientist declares; “In twenty-four hours there will be only one shrew left on the island, and he will die of starvation.”
This movie and it’s double feature The Giant Gila Monster made a surprising amount of money on the drive-in circuit. Although they were both low budget and schlocky even for 1959, I enjoyed the two movies at the drive-in. An amazing fact is that James Best reprises his role as the captain in the remake “Return of the Killer Shrews” in 2012, which was mostly a mockumentary of the original with even worse special effects and played for laughs. I am probably one of the very few people who have seen both movies. It is also a break of 53 years between the original and the sequel. Has to be some kind of record.