Sunday, October 16, 2016

Hubrisween 2016 :: K is for The Killer Shrews (1959)

Our latest feature begins at sea, slowly puttering along with a cabin cruiser as it sails once again to a remote island on a monthly resupply mission. And with all meteorological signs pointing toward a massive hurricane brewing, Captain Thorne Sherman (Best) and his first (and only) mate, Rook Griswold (Dupree), agree the best course of action is to just ride out the storm on the island. When they reach the shore, however, they’re greeted by Dr. Milo Craigis (Lumet), whose home and research lab they are resupplying. His daughter, Ann (Goude), and her fiance, Jerry Farrell (Curtis), are also waiting with him. Apparently, Craigis would like to evacuate his daughter off the island as soon as possible, for reasons he’s hesitant to discuss, and is extremely disappointed when informed about the rapidly approaching storm. Surprised he wasn’t aware of it, Sherman is told the island has no radio.

Stuck and thus, they unload the supplies and Sherman accompanies the others back to their fortified compound, leaving Rook to move the boat out into deeper waters to ride out the storm better. Pressing for reasons on why Ann must leave over a round of drinks, Sherman is told it's not safe because there are dangerous animals loose on the island. This, of course, is a lie. Well, more like a half-truth, with the other half revealed in bits and spurts, beginning with Craigis’ colleague, Dr. Radford Baines (McLendon), who excitedly brings in one of their recent test subjects: a shrew, a small voracious mole-like mammal that, according to the opening narration, must eat three times its own body weight every day or starve to death. Thus, known for a high metabolism and breeding prowess, this makes the shrew ideal for Craigis and Baines’ genetic research into a possible cure for the pending food crisis once the population bomb detonates; a bizarre reversed-polarity twist on your usual sci-fi fare, where they intend to make the consumer smaller instead of making the food bigger.

Well, we all know what happens when well-meaning scientists start tampering around in “god’s domain” right? Right. Anyhoo … Worn out by all the sciencey gobbledygook, a frustrated Sherman eventually corners Ann, who constantly refuses to let him leave the compound to check on Rook, for some straight answers, who finally reveals the real truth: seems one of her father’s experiments backfired, resulting in something larger, not smaller, and extremely deadly. And to make matters even worse, Ann’s drunken foul-up of a fiance left the wrong gate open, allowing these giant shrews to escape containment. Now loose, they have essentially picked the island clean, and so it's only a matter of time before they come after the only food left -- namely them, starting when the storm hits, knocking out the power, and the shrews manage to break into a nearby barn and kill all the livestock.

All this blabbing by Ann and her constant close-contact with the new guy does little to improve the already established open hostility between Sherman and the jealous Farrell, who constantly consoles himself over his colossal cock-up with copious amounts of alcohol and heaped abuse on his girl. Still, he does agree to tag along with Sherman in the morning to round up Rook and bring him back to the safety of the compound; but it’s already too late for that. See, back at the beach, Rook has just finished securing the boat when a herd of shrews swarm and attack and run him up a tree. This refuge proves fleeting, however, and when they’re done feeding, all that’s left to find are some bloodied shoes and an empty revolver...

In 1957 a visiting beekeeper in Brazil accidentally removed all the proper filters at an experimental apiary, allowing a grand total of 27 swarms of Africanized honeybees -- soon to be known as killer bees -- to escape quarantine, allowing the more aggressive and deadly insects to spread all over the continent, migrating north, causing a massive panic, and several speculative feature film adaptations, before eventually reaching North America in 1985, killing over 1000 people and untold numbers of livestock as well as wreaking havoc on the domestic bee populations along the way. Now, I have no idea if Jay Simms based his story for The Killer Shrews (1959) on this outbreak but I think we should probably thank that ‘Great Petri Dish in the sky’ that doctors Craigis and Baines weren’t experimenting with anything with wings and chose to work on an island.

Alrighty, then, Gordon McLendon was a well-diversified Texas tycoon, making most of his money in real estate and oil before expanding into TV and radio, owning and operating the Liberty Broadcast Network, which had stations in Dallas, San Francisco and Tijuana, Mexico, which were instrumental in the propagation of rock ‘n’ roll and set the template for what was to become the Top 40 survey. In the late 1950s he expanded his media empire further by forming a new theater chain, opening a bunch of drive-ins in Texas. And like a lot of theater owners back then, McLendon decided to finance and produce his own double-bill to get all of the box-office pie.

Recruiting talent from Hollywood, former Sons of the Pioneer crooner turned actor Ken Curtis signed on to produce both proposed creature-features, The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster (1959) for McLendon’s newly formed Hollywood Pictures Corporation, which, funnily enough, was based out of Dallas, Texas. Both films were shot there, too, using one of McLendon’s TV stations as an impromptu studio. Curtis brought James Best along with him to play the lead, and while somewhat unjustly “defined” by his later buffoonish performance as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard, Best had a long career in features dating back to the 1950s before that, playing the captured criminal headed for the hangman’s noose in Ride Lonesome (1959) and one of the pivotal mental patients who witnessed a murder in Shock Corridor (1963). Best really plays up Sherman’s character flaws, here, whose temper almost leads to tragic regret. Swiss beauty Ingrid Goude was a former Miss Universe and Baruch Lumet was a theater veteran who was also the father of Sidney Lumet.

Both Curtis and McLendon took roles in the film as well, with McLendon also serving as the opening narrator. And while McLendon gives quite the eccentric performance as the bumbling Dr. Barnes, Curtis lays it on a little thick as the cowardly Farrell, who already put his fiance in danger to save himself, shoving her out of the way so he could get through the gate first before Sherman ever arrived; and now he pulls the same thing again by getting crocked and slacking off while he’s supposed to be on watch, putting them all in danger. 

Meanwhile, the incessant rain starts to break down the adobe walls of the compound, allowing one of the monsters to burrow into the cellar. When it’s discovered, they all realize they’re in more danger than they think when the giant wolf-sized shrew takes a chunk out of the leg of Craigis’ other assistant, Mario (DeSoto), before Sherman can shoot it dead. This wound doesn’t appear life-threatening and yet Mario quickly dies. On a hunch, Baines analyzes the shrew’s saliva and discovers the monsters have mutated further, somehow assimilating the highly toxic poison the group employed, hoping it would eradicate this new strain. Instead, these monsters have now become lethally venomous -- so venomous, even the slightest scratch could prove fatal.

After a harrowing night, the storm has cleared off and Sherman decides to make a run for the boat. Ann nominates Farrell to go along. Once clear of the compound, Farrell cracks up and tries to shoot Sherman in the back for coming between him and Ann. Sherman quickly turns the tables but refuses to kill him, saying they’re gonna need all the help they can get if any of them want to get off the island alive. They make it to the beach and see the boat is still there but no sign of Rook. Further searching finds what’s left of him. Then suddenly, they hear the shrews trying to cut them off from the compound. 

Both men flee but Farrell is the first one back, who slams the gate shut, and then refuses to open it for Sherman. As the herd of shrews close in for the kill, Sherman manages to scale the fence and then proceeds to put a holy beat-down on Farrell. And so enraged is he, Sherman is about to toss the unconscious Farrell over the wall before the others call on him to stop and he comes to his senses. Barely.

But just as things settle down, a shrew has somehow managed to get inside the house and attacks. Sherman kills the thing but it managed to nick Baines in the leg, who proceeds to type up his own death scene before expiring (-- which is eerily prescient of Henry Fonda’s dictation death in The Swarm).

And as the saturated adobe around the foundation continues to crumble under shrew claws, and the group grows desperately low on ammunition -- once again, thanks to a panicky “shoot first and give me another drink” Farrell, the only good news is twofold: one, the shrews hate the water and cannot swim, and two, the creatures aren’t adverse to cannibalism if no other food is available. And so, they can either make another run for the safety of the boat or try to hole up and wait until they all eat each other. It quickly becomes apparent as the shrews break in en masse that option one is no longer tenable, and so, option two it is.

Knowing there is no way they can outrun the creatures, Sherman hits upon a plan to lash a bunch of upturned barrels together, forming an ersatz armored tank they can use to duck-walk themselves in limited safety to the beach. And while Sherman uses a blowtorch to cut some eye slots, the others desperately struggle to barricade or reinforce their last refuge in the courtyard. Once it’s ready to waddle, I don’t think anyone will be all that surprised when Farrell chickens out, climbing up to the roof instead and then refuses to come down. Unable to persuade him, the others go on without him. But once they’ve drawn off the shrews, Farrell makes a break for it. He doesn’t get very far before he is run down and killed.

Meantime, the makeshift tank is performing remarkably well at keeping the shrews at bay but everyone is soon exhausted from the excessive weight and stress of the shrews trying to get at them through the slots or tipping them over from below. And after a few harrowing near misses, the group is reinvigorated when they hit the sand, then the water, and then they abandon the barrels and swim for it. Thankfully, the mutated shrews also didn’t sprout any gills, allowing our surviving trio to reach the boat. From there, Craigis comments that in less than 24 hours there will only be one shrew left on the island, and then it, too, will die of starvation; an excellent example of overpopulation. To which Sherman replies, as he embraces Ann, that he isn’t all that concerned about that problem just yet.

A regional film where the producers took on acting roles, set in a secluded location, where seven people are trapped, and trapped by monsters who devour everything, spread infection by biting, and are maddeningly persistent as they lay siege, with those stuck inside squabbling with each other over the proper course of action, drawing attention away from who they really should be fighting, as they desperately try to barricade themselves in, with an escape attempt that goes staggeringly awry, where the most cowardly of the bunch refuses to let the hero back inside, and once the hero does get inside, he threatens to feed the coward to the monsters -- add all that up and, man and boy-howdy, are there ever some startling correlations between The Killer Shrews and Night of the Living Dead. (They even share some of the same stock music.)

The film was the directorial debut of Ray Kellogg, who had served for years in 20th Century Fox’s special effects department, taking over the head position of the unit in 1954. (Kellogg would also direct The Giant Gila Monster.) The film is a little too talky due to budget limitations, but the rare action sequences are pulled off well and carry some surprising punch.

It’s kind of sad, really, that this film gets written off so quickly by critics and viewers alike due to the shoddy execution of the monsters, which split time between several trained coonhounds covered in shaggy fur blankets, clipped on rat tails, and fanged fright masks, and a mock-up puppet of the head, which fares better due to some quick cuts, obstructed views, and some *ahem* spirited animation.

Granted, there are a few squirrely bits in the film aside from the lackluster monsters, too, namely some sad stereotyping -- especially the protracted death of Rook, but I honestly believe the film overachieves with some genuine shocks and creepiness, especially in the outdoor settings, which were obviously shot in winter because all the trees were stripped bare, giving the barren landscape a real sense of being stripped clean by the shrews.

Sadly, these would be the only films McLendon would produce as both are a ton of fun. Originally, the double-bill of The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster were only supposed to play regionally in Texas but proved so popular McClendon was able to get them a national release, and with the budget to box-office ratio, the pair were regarded as the most successful regional films of all time until it was dethroned by, you guessed it, Night of the Living Dead

Other Points of Interest:

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The Killer Shrews (1959) Hollywood Pictures Corporation :: McLendon-Radio Pictures Distributing Company / EP: Gordon McLendon / P: Ken Curtis / D: Ray Kellogg / W: Jay Simms / C: Wilfred M. Cline / E: Aaron Stell / M: Harry Bluestone, Emil Cadkin / S: James Best, Ingrid Goude, Ken Curtis, Gordon McLendon, Baruch Lumet, Judge Henry Dupree

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