23 October, 2008

Movie Review: The Killer Shrews (1959)

In 1959, special effects artist Ray Kellogg (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The King and I) was given the resources to direct two back-to-back creature features: The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews. I haven't seen the former, but the latter is a horrifying adaptation of the classic 1957 World Book Encyclopedia entry on the fascinating red-toothed soricinae soricini, a mouse-sized, 100 gram, land-dwelling insectivore and nuteater with a quick gestation time, a high metabolism, poor eyesight, and the need to eat up to 80 per cent of its mass each day simply to survive (that's 80 grams!!!!). What better source of horror and suspense than the shrew, a creature already so abundant, loathsome, and fearful, a being so ingrained in our evolutionary psyche, our cultural mythology, our frightened collective subconsciousness?

Okay, it's just a shrew. But what if it were giant--like, the size of a small dog! And what if there were, like, a couple dozen of them? Apparently that wasn't quite enough, so midway through the film they decide to make them poisonous, too. One scratch from their venomous, giant teeth merits instant death! Terrifying!

Strom Thurmond--wait, Thorne Sherman (James Best)--wait, really? Thorne Sherman?--is the typical, B-movie leading man: pragmatic, condescending, white, male, racist, middle aged, emotionally vacant, not very handsome but not disfigured either. He and his first mate, who being black dies as soon as we can dismiss him as a fearful, dixieland jazz playing goofball, are delivering resources to the formidably named Dr. Marlowe Sturgis (Baruch Lumet, director Sidney Lumet's father), the exotically accented scientist who's like Dr. Moreau minus the genius, obsession, controversy, and god-complex. Instead of fleeing civilization to conduct blasphemous splicings of animals into men on a remote, tropical island, Dr. Sturgis has relocated to the island simply because it provides a good control environment for the isolation of shrew genes during his research on overpopulation. Almost as villainous, almost as fascinating.

Accompanying him is Dr. Radford Baines (Gordon McLendon), the fat-cheeked, bespectacled research assistant who speaks entirely in scientific-sounding gibberish and fittingly dies at the hand of his own mad science; Mario (Alfred DeSoto), a fat, skittish Mexican who dies because he's not white; Ann Craigis (Ingrid Goude), the doctor's flustered sex object, err, adult daughter, who accompanies her father because there needs to be someone on the island who doesn't have a penis; and Jerry (Ken Curtis), Ann's fiancee, a jealous alcoholic who shouts a lot and generally fucks things up. He's there because Thorne needs someone to get in a fist fight with, and he can't very well give a black eye to a shrew or a scientist.

A hurricane has trapped them all on the island, and the voracious, dog-sized shrews, having inexplicably exhausted their food supply, have turned on the humans as prey. The research facility is made of rotting, chalk-thin adobe (easily gnawed through), and there apparently aren't enough weapons (like, say, a sturdy shovel) to fend off the dozen rodents. Verminous nuisance ensues, with numerous extreme closeups of squirrelly eyes and buckteeth chewing at knotholes in fence posts.

Thorne gets the job done, translating Dr. Baines's raw, inhuman data into a practical solution that involves tying steel drums into an armored tank with peepholes and in the process stealing Ann from her no-good lover. What's most interesting about The Killer Shrews is its self-referential mockery of the 1950s hero trope, the overgrown adolescent who is condescending to his companions, gains the powerless female without any romance or effort, never loses his cool except when it's time to throw punches at lesser humans, speaks in a hokey patter that sounds nothing like human speech, and in general seems more like a problem solving robot then someone you'd actually want to be saved by. When Thorne discovers the scrap of clothing that is the only remaining artifact of his jazz-playing companion, he apathetically dismisses it with neither fear or sadness: "They don't leave much do they?" His unnecessary foreign love interest criticizes him while mocking herself: "I've never met anyone like you. You seem disinterested in everything. Aren't you the least bit curious? Aren't you interested in the unusual things around here? The guns, the fence, the shuttered windows... my accent?"

A delightful bit of post-modern irony in a delightfully bad film.

The Killer Shrews (1959)
d: Ray Kellogg w: Jay Simms
(James Best, Ingrid Goude, Baruch Lumet)

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