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  • Benjamin May

The Killer Shrews (1959) Review

Long before Alexander Payne's 'Downsizing,' Ray Kellogg brought us this science-fiction epic about Baruch Lumet's cunning plan to curb overpopulation and its' effects on the world's resources by shrinking humans down to half their size. Sadly, before Dr. Lumet could save the world with his ingenious idea, the shrews he had been experimenting on mutated, growing to enormous sizes and becoming terribly ferocious (how his experiments yielded the exact opposite results that he was looking for is never explained). The creatures then broke loose, escaped his compound and fled into the forests of his isolated island. Now, they stalk the night, fangs bared, waiting to turn anyone they come across into mincemeat.

'The Killer Shrews' follows sea-captain Thorne Sherman- played by James Best- who is stranded on Lumet's island and- alongside the good doctor and his scientific accomplices- forced to battle the titular mutants for the sake of humanity itself. Trapped in the minimally decorated compound with shrews on every side, the gang drink endless martinis, rattle off ridiculous speeches and plot how to escape the island without becoming the ghastly creatures' next meal.

'The Killer Shrews' is a hilariously cheap-looking affair that is surely the prototypical film that's "so bad it's good." On every level the film is laughably inept, from the performances by the actors, to the set design and decoration and of course, the stars of the show, the shrews themselves. Although the coonhounds covered in shag carpet who play the shrews in long shots look better than the puppets used in close up, it's not by much. Kellogg designed the beasts himself, and he must have been drinking more martinis than his characters to be content with the finished product.

The cast have nothing to do but neck back martinis and recite ridiculous, poorly-written dialogue from Jay Simms's screenplay when they're not running from the shrews, so it's no wonder they all appear totally flummoxed. Lumet, who usually does fine work in small roles (see his brief appearance in his son Sidney's 'The Pawnbroker' for proof of this) here seems confused and a little scared by all the faux-scientific lines he has to spout throughout the film. Ingrid Goude, who plays his daughter, is just as out of her depth, with her wooden delivery and lack of screen presence betraying a dearth of acting talent.

James Best and Ken Curtis- who plays the alcoholic Jerry- come off the best, actually giving the film a bit of life and energy in its slower, martini-based moments between rampant shrew attacks. The other actors in the cast leave the same impression on the viewer as Lumet and Goude except they aren't nearly as memorable. The common denominator between them all is that they approach the material with an over-the-top earnesty and dead-pan seriousness that makes it all the funnier to hear lines like "those who hunt by night will tell you that the wildest and most vicious of all animals is the tiny shrew."

Then there's the set decoration- if it can even be called decoration- which is laughably sparse. Lumet's compound looks like a low-rent motel room from the 30's that someone stole all the furniture from; leaving only the bar in place. The laboratory where the shrew experimentations took place may be the least scientific-looking set ever captured on film, based entirely on the canny inclusion of a couple of microscopes and a few test tubes. Also, the score from Harry Bluestone and Emil Cadkin is so melodramatic and overblown it makes the music in your average soap opera seem practically subtle.

Everything about the film is funny because it's all so mediocre. Though there are a couple of half decent performances, the cast are generally hilarious, their dialogue ridiculous and the story they're trapped in completely fatuous. There is never any suspense in the film because the shrews are so obviously coonhounds and hand-puppets, not to mention the fact that Kellogg isn't a particularly talented director and would probably have struggled to create tension even if his shrews looked like the work of Ray Harryhausen.

'The Killer Shrews' is so entertaining because it's so Godawful, though people who don't find over-the-top ineptitude humorous might be left a little cold by the experience of watching the film. If you do find the awful and the melodramatic funny (like Claudio Fragasso's 'Troll 2') then watch 'The Killer Shrews.' It's not just so bad it's good; it's so bad it's brilliant.


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