The Killer Shrews (1959)

During World War II, Ray Kellogg was a US Navy Lieutenant as part of the O.S.S. Field Photographing Branch. That’s where he met John Ford and when Kellogg came back to the U.S., he headed off to 20th Century Fox, where he eventually became the head of the special effects division and helped invent CinemaScope.

He directed four films: The Giant Gila Monster; My Dog, Buddy; and The Green Berets, which he co-directed with John Wayne and Mervyn LeRoy.

But today…today we’re here to discuss the fourth of his films: The Killer Shrews.

James Best has the lead in this movie as Captain Thorne Sherman. Best is probably best known for playing Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard, but he was a classically trained actor. So was Sorrell Brooke, who played his partner-in-crime Boss Hogg. The two often delighted in improvising most of their scenes together. And while they were working with younger and even untrained actors, by all reports they treated everyone incredibly well.

In addition to acting, Best was also a painter of some renown, a writer, a black belt and even ran an acting school, counting Burt Reynolds, Gary Busey, Clint Eastwood (who posted the insurance bond on Best so he could be on Dukes as the actor had a history of heart attacks), Roger Miller, Glen Campbell, Regis Philbin, Lindsay Wagner (who was his family babysitter before he encouraged her to act) and Quentin Tarantino as his students. Here’s some trivia: he was also a cousin of the Everly Brothers.

So why did he do this regional horror film? “I did the original The Killer Shrews as a favor. I made a movie with Sammy Ford, who was friends with a special effects man, Ray Kellogg, who wanted to direct his own picture. And we looked at the original’s script, and he didn’t have hardly any money whatsoever, but I did him a favor by acting in it. Ken Curtis, of course, was producing it from the start. I like Ken, and he wanted me to do it, so I went down there to Texas where we shot this thing. I didn’t realize it was so cheap. I mean, it was really cheap. For me it was a blast, but it was so bad! I think it was voted the worst picture of the year at the time. And then it caught on as a drive-in cult film, and believe it or not, after so many years I noticed that it was playing all over the place.”

Sherman and his crew are delivering supplies to a remote island that’s manned by a group of research scientists led by Marlowe Cragis (Baruch Lumet, who was a Yiddish theater actor), research assistant Radford Baines (Gordon McLendon, a former pirate radio operator who went on to create one of the first mobile news units in American radio, as well as the first traffic reports, jingles, all-news radio station and “easy-listening” programming; he also produced this film, The Great Gila Monster and Escape to Victory), Marlow’s daughter Ann (Ingrid Goude, the Swedish daughter of a steel factory manager that had been Miss Sweden for 1956; her Universal Pictures contract wasn’t successful, although she was in the TV show Love That Bob and the Rowan and Martin movie Once Upon a Horse…), her about to be cucked fiancee Jerry (Ken Curtis, who was the lead singer for the Sons of the Pioneers on their big hit “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” before he was Festus on Gunsmoke) and the man who takes care of all of them, Mario.

They picked the wrong research lab to visit, because it turns out that the scientists have been experimenting on shrews to test a serum that will shrink humans to reduce world hunger. But the problem is that the drug makes shrews twice as big. You’d think they would have figured that out long before they started injecting shrews, but I’m no scientist.

Before long, the shrews show up — The Rats Are Coming! The Shrews Are Here! could be another title for this — and chew right through the walls of the lab, along with anyone that gets in their way. The humans confound these monsters by using oil drums as suits of armor and making it to the beach, just in time for Ann’s fiancee to get eaten alive when he stays behind. She and the manly hero celebrate with a kiss as they leave behind the island and the shrews to their fate.

The beauty — or horror — of this film is that the close-ups of the shrews are all hand puppets, while the long shots are coonhounds with giant rugs over them. This is the same effect technique that was used in the rat movie Deadly Eyes twenty-three years later.

A sequel, Return of the Killer Shrews, was produced in 2012, bringing back best after fifty-four years as Thorne while Bruce Davison (Willard himself!) taking over the role of Jerry. It also features Best’s Dukes co-stars John Schneider and Rick Hurst. There was also a parody remake in 2016.

You can watch this on Amazon Prime and Tubi. It’s also available in color on Amazon Prime or you may choose to hear riffing over the movie from Mystery Science Theater on Amazon Prime and Tubi.

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