Thursday, November 13, 2014

THE KILLER SHREWS: Iconic late-1950s, mini-budget scare-fest gets classy DVD release

If you suspect, as did I, that the late-50s horror movie THE KILLER SHREWS might turn out to be a killer snooze, not to worry. This old movie, said to be one of Stephen King's favorite horror films, is an interesting watch for several reasons. First, of course, there are those "giant shrews," which look an awfully lot like dogs costumed up to resemble what the movie-makers imagined might pass muster as monsters. They don't. Which is part of the fun. TrustMovies believes that he saw this film in its original theatrical incarnation back when he was a teenager -- or maybe caught it later on TV. More than a half century after, watching it again proved a surprisingly enjoyable trip down memory lane.

This is mostly due to the fact that the movie makes a near-perfect stand-in for so many of the cut-rate horror/monster films of that era. And in fact it may even have been a tad ahead of its time. From the opening scene (above), at sea, with the skipper and his more-or-less first-mate exchanging what passed at the time for witty repartee in movies like this (three years later, the first James Bond movie would raise action-movie repartee to new heights), we can't help but notice that that mate is a black man. Aside from Sidney Poitier movies, this was unusual for its time, and although -- yes, indeed -- the black man is the first victim of the monsters (a cliche now so imbued into our culture that it is referenced in every third horror film), at the time black men were seen seldom enough on screen that this first-death cliche had not yet fully come into being.

The monsters' second victim, by the way, is the Hispanic caretaker,so you can rest easy in the assurance that Hollywood has, as ever, understood the pecking order very well. The story is simplicity itself: The little boat arrives on an island to pick up some passengers. But due to an oncoming storm/hurricane, the boat must dock and its crew spend the night rather than removing the handful of people from the island. Why those people are so desperate to be removed is soon explained: they're scientists who have been experimenting on "nature" (never a good idea, right?) and in the process have created these mutant shrews (above) -- which the movie goes to great lengths to explain the nature of (the usual shrew info: vicious killing machines that must eat their own weight in live food every few hours, etc.).

Yes, there is a pretty girl involved (the daughter of the lead scientist, who, even though everyone is about to be eaten, insists on changing her clothes for dinner: It's that kind of movie), a villain (below: the cowardly would-be lover of the pretty girl), and another hard-working scientist (shown further below), who is, of course, expendable. Watching the movie unfurl, like the clockwork thing it is, proves fun, too, showing us how little has changed, plot-wise down the decades. The big difference between now and then are the special effects and the gore quotient. There's no CGI involved, so these "shrews" have to be scary on their own. Or at least funny. Which they are. And the gore? There ain't none. None at all. Deaths happen behind trees, or in the shrubbery, well out of our view. Compare this to what is thrown at us now, and you may find yourself more grateful for the grade B horror of this era.

The film's director, Ray Kellogg was known primarily for his special effects work, including Marilyn Monroe's movies (Don't say it! Those boobs were enhanced?) -- which, ironically, is the least convincing part of this movie. The cast -- pretty much unknowns, with the exception of leading man James Best (who is still going strong today!) -- is serviceable, as is the dialog and direction. This is the kind of film that could be made over a very short time, would be expected to turn a tidy profit, and often did.

The leading lady, pert and blond Ingrid Goude (center, three photos above), was a former Miss Sweden, and provides the sole bit of pulchri-tude in the movie. Otherwise, it's those dog-gone shrews that offer the major entertainment value in this zircon-in-the-rough from bygone days.

Hitting the street this past Tuesday, November 11, The Killer Shrews has been digitally restored via the Film Chest Media Group, and the restoration is pretty good, particularly given that most viewers will not expect pristine visuals from this kind of film. Running a thankfully short 69 minutes, the movie carries a reasonable price tag of $10 suggested retail. Maybe Netflix or some other streaming/digital sources will carry it, too, so the rental market will be served.

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