Monster movies are fun. Whether they play on serious fears, such as films like Jaws and Alligator, or take a more tongue-in-cheek approach, with Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Slugs: The Movie, monster movies make for great horror films. The classic science fiction era of the fifties had no shortage of cool monster movies, and filmmakers were tripping over themselves to find the most outlandish and improbable animals that they could mutate into killer beasts. In 1959, special effects man-turned-director Ray Kellogg (The Green Berets) thought of the cutest animal he could, gave it poisonous teeth, and came away with The Killer Shrews.
The Killer Shrews begins with boat captain Thorne Sherman (James Best, better known as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on “The Dukes of Hazzard”) and his first mate, Rook Griswold (My Dog, Buddy’s Judge Henry Dupree) delivering supplies to a scientist named Dr. Marlowe Craigis (The Pawnbroker’s Baruch Lumet) and his research team on a remote island. Once Thorne and Rook arrive at the island, they are met by the Doctor, his rifle-toting assistant Jerry Farrell (Ken Curtis from “Gunsmoke”), and his daughter Ann (Ingrid Goude, Ingrid the Secretary on “Steve Canyon”). Dr. Craigis asks Thorne to take his daughter back to the mainland, but an impending hurricane forces Thorne and Rook to hunker down and spend the night on the island. As Thorne gets to know the scientists, he learns that Dr. Craigis is working on a genetic project that he believes will end world hunger; he says he can breed smaller humans that need less food, and larger animals to supply it. When the sun goes down, Thorne learns why Jerry carries a gun with him – the island is overrun with one of Dr. Craigis’ failures, a fast-breeding colony of giant shrews. Having depleted the island of their natural prey, the hungry shrews are attacking the scientists’ base camp. With Thorne’s help, Dr. Craigis and his team have to find their way to the boat and get off the island while avoiding the killer shrews.
In order to economize their schedule, producers Ken Curtis (who plays Jerry in the film) and Gordon McLendon (who also plays one of Dr. Craigis’ research assistants) shot The Killer Shrews concurrently with another Ray Kellogg creature feature, The Giant Gila Monster, with much of the same crew, including cinematographer Wilfrid M. Cline (The Tingler) and editor Aaron Stell (Silent Running, Touch of Evil). Because of this, the two films are often seen as companion pieces to one another, and share a similar look and feel. Like The Giant Gila Monster, The Killer Shrews was written by Jay Simms (Panic in Year Zero!, Creation of the Humanoids) and directed by Kellogg, and follows a rather typical man versus mutated nature theme. The production value of The Killer Shrews is on par with its budget, with the film looking exactly like what it is: a fifties sci-fi B-movie. And it’s awesome that way.
The titular creatures in The Killer Shrews are perfect representations of 50s sci-fi monsters. Kellogg, a special effects technician at heart, brings the beasts to life through a mixture of simple puppetry in the close-ups and what looks to be costumed dogs for the long shots. The effect is somewhat similar to that of Bruce the shark in Jaws; the shrews look pretty silly, but they are scary enough to not want to meet while walking alone at night in real life. In a cinematic climate of stuntmen in rubber monster suits, the live animals are a nice touch. The shrews in The Killer Shrews fit right in with the more popular creature-feature monsters of fifties science fiction.
Like many sci-fi and horror films of the era, The Killer Shrews uses generic stock music. The score was provided by Emil Cadkin and Harry Bluestone, a pair of musicians whose work can be heard, in some capacity, in everything from Night of the Living Dead to Paranormal Activity 4. The compositions in The Killer Shrews are typically over-the-top and grandiose, the kind of music that is expected from a sci-fi B-movie. It’s all the very familiar string-and-horn fanfare played at too-precisely the right time and volume, but it is extremely effective in the context of the low-budget monster movie.
The music isn’t the only thing that rings familiar about The Killer Shrews. The film seems to have influenced many aspects of the modern day zombie movie, with shrews in place of zombies, of course. The relentless stalking and seemingly never-ending numbers of the shrews are very zombie-esque. The climactic siege by the shrews on the trapped humans is very much like the main story in Night of the Living Dead. The compound in which the scientists take refuge looks a lot like the safe havens in “The Walking Dead.” The ingenious method in which the people have of reaching the boat is reminiscent of the armored vehicle escapes that are plentiful in films like the Dawn of the Dead remake and World War Z. Even the deadly bites of the hungry shrews bring up visions of ravenous zombies. The behavior of the shrews and the evasive tactics of the humans in The Killer Shrews pave the way for the post-Romero zombie film.
Made during an era in which campy sci-fi creature features were running rampant, The Killer Shrews is a memorable example of the genre. Although it’s often overshadowed by its more popular cousin, The Giant Gila Monster, The Killer Shrews still holds its own as a fun and unique monster movie.