by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I stayed up and watched a movie I’d just recorded from TCM’s “Underground” feature, The Killer Shrews, one of the films listed in Harry and Michael Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards and a pretty dismal film even by the meager standards of low-budget horror/sci-fi of the late 1950’s. This was one of the productions of the short-lived “Hollywood Studios,” which weren’t in Hollywood at all but in Texas, and was made to be shown on a double bill with a similarly themed film called The Giant Gila Monster (in which the title character was played by a normal-sized Gila monster — actually a Mexican beaded lizard — shot on miniature sets; it’s a film that’s found a place in political trivia because the young Robert Dornan supposedly played a teenager eaten by the monster in the opening scene).
Though it would have made excellent fodder for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew (and indeed they did do an MST3K version in 1992), The Killer Shrews is pretty dreary watching au naturel. It takes place on a deserted island in the Caribbean and features a young, (presumably) hunky boat captain, saddled with the indigestible character name “Thorne Sherman” (and played by James Best, who later appeared with Jerry Lewis in the 1966 film Three on a Couch, who here seems undecided whether he wants to imitate James Dean, Rock Hudson or Elvis). Racing to get into a cove on the island before a hurricane hits the area in general and his boat in particular, Sherman lands and announces he has a cargo for Dr. Marlowe Craigis (Baruch Lumet, father of director Sidney Lumet — odd to think that someone associated with a brilliant film like Network has a familial connection with someone associated with a piece of cheese like The Killer Shrews! — and such a perfect oy vey Jewish type he’d have been good casting for the landlord if Rafter Romance had been remade in the 1960’s), only he doesn’t want to unload it until the storm passes because the weight of the cargo will help hold his boat in place during the hurricane.
Sherman and his Black assistant (and, it seems, only other crew member), ‘Rook’ Griswold (Judge Henry Dupree), land on the island and Sherman is immediately smitten with Craigis’s daughter Ann, played by Ingrid Goude, Swedish beauty and winner of the 1957 Miss Universe contest. (Just how this gorgeous Scandinavian Aryan type who would have been perfect for one of Goebbels’ propaganda newsreels was supposedly sired by the decidedly Jewish loins of Baruch Lumet is never explained in Jay Simms’ script, though there’s a hint when she lists some questions she’s surprised Sherman hasn’t asked and one of them is “about my accent” — I was expecting a line about how she was only Dr. Craigis’s adopted daughter but none materialized.)
Anyway, like a lot of other 1950’s horror films we get about a half-hour of boring exposition before this 65-minute movie finally gets to the nitty-gritty: it turns out that Dr. Craigis has hatched the interesting notion that the way to solve the world’s overpopulation problem is to shrink the average size of human beings to half of what it is at present so the world will be able to support more of them with the same amount of resources. To do this, he explains, he will have to figure out a way to counteract the usual rule that the rate of an organism’s metabolism increases as its size shrinks, and he’s using shrews as a research animal to figure out how to do this. Only — wouldn’t ya know it? — he’s made a serious miscalculation in his experiments and inadvertently bred a race of 100-pound shrews (“That’s the size of an average wolf!” Sherman exclaims) that, though they don’t hunt during the day, are rapidly denuding the island of all other species at night and forcing the members of Craigis’s team — Ann, Jerry Farrell (Ken Curtis), Dr. Radford Baines (Gordon McLendon) and their manservant Mario (Alfredo DeSoto), of whom Jay Simms never quite decided whether or not he could speak English (in some scenes he can, in others he can’t) — to lock themselves in their cabin at night.
Sherman points out that the cabin’s walls are made of plaster-covered adobe and therefore the shrews can dig right through them once they get wet, which they did in that hurricane, and this being a monster movie, one by one the lower-billed cast members end up as giant-shrew food. It turns out that a previous attempt by Dr. Craigis to kill the shrews by poisoning them has backfired big-time; not only did they assimilate the poison but their bodies learned how to manufacture it themselves, making the merest scratch from their fangs fatal and leading Dr. Baines to exclaim, “There’s an extremely high poison content in this shrew’s saliva!,” after he’s had a chance to analyze the shrew that killed Mario and which Sherman subsequently shot. It also turns out that Jerry was once Ann’s boyfriend and he’s having a series of jealous hissy-fits over her new attraction to Sherman (personally I thought Ken Curtis was hunkier than James Best!), and that these characters are going through their supplies of alcohol at such a rate one’s surprised William Powell and Myrna Loy don’t turn up to solve the mystery.
This being an incredibly tacky production (so cheap that its producers, Gordon McLendon and Ken Curtis, took roles in the film themselves to save the costs of hiring two more actors), it’s not surprising that the killer shrews themselves are played by a pack of mangy old dogs with ill-fitting saber-toothed masks (though I suspect some of the extreme close-ups of their faces appearing at holes in the walls were made by humans manipulating the “killer shrew” fangs), or that the climax revolves around an ultra-low-tech solution worked up by Sherman: he ties four old metal drums together and he, Ann and Craigis each get in one and use it as an improvised tank to walk to the shore of the island while the shrews hurl themselves futilely at their improvised armored vehicle.
Whatever meager terror the shrews provide is due almost entirely to the noise sound-effects man Milton Citron cooked up for them to make — sort of like the squeak of a mouse multiplied tenfold — and an ingenious shot devised by director Ray Kellogg, whose work through the rest of the film is pedestrian, to say the least (like Ed Wood, Kellogg pads out his movie with clips of stock footage used so often we start wanting to wave to them and say hello to our old friends), to emphasize the terror of the shrews by having them stick their fangs into the metal barrels through the eye slits Sherman cut into each one so the people using them could see. The general idea is that once they get into the water, the shrews won’t follow (since they can’t swim) and they can swim under the barrels, reach Sherman’s boat and escape, while the remaining shrews, having nothing else left to eat, will devour each other. At the end, like a good 1950’s heroine, Ann Craigis announces that she’s giving up her career as a zoologist to become Mrs. Thorne Sherman, who declares to his future father-in-law, “You know, I’m not going to worry about overpopulation just yet.”
I ran Charles one of the items on one of his recent “Digital Archive” download discs of Mystery Science 3000 because it contained a legendarily bad movie I’d long wanted to see: The Giant Gila Monster, second of two bizarre cheap horror/sci-fi films made in Cielo, Texas by producer Gordon McLendon — who called his company “Hollywood Pictures” even though they never got anywhere near the real Hollywood while making them. The other one was The Killer Shrews, set on a desert island where a mad scientist (played by Baruch Lumet, whose son Sidney went on to make great movies like Network) had the idea of shrinking people so the earth’s growing human population didn’t outstrip its resources (a plot premise later picked up by Kurt Vonnegut as the survival strategy pursued by China in his novel Slapstick, a comic masterpiece and probably Vonnegut’s most underrated book — the gimmick being that the miniaturized Chinese not only have become the size of germs but they act as germs when ingested into the body of a normal-sized human, causing disease and a quick but painful death), only his experiments produced a bunch of man-eating shrews played by dogs with awfully ill-fitting sabre-toothed masks to make them look properly “shrewish.”
The Giant Gila Monster is a movie of such total tackiness it makes The Killer Shrews look like a horror classic by comparison, but it has its own quirky charm. Incidentally I’ve heard for years that Congressmember Bob Dornan plays an acting role in this film but I’ve been unable to confirm that — he’s not listed for it on imdb.com and no other Web site identifies him with his role — even though he was publicly identified with it as early as his 1960’s days as a Right-wing radio talk show host before he got into politics (so much for the idea that you couldn’t do a Right-wing talk show under the Fairness Doctrine!). I was under the impression that he played the male half of the couple whose car overturns and crashes in the opening scene, but imdb.com lists this actor as one Grady Vaughn.
Anyway, The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews were both produced by Gordon McLendon, who owned a chain of country radio stations and was apparently a born-again Christian before born-again Christianity became cool. Unlike the similarly religious mogul wanna-bes who put up the money for Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space, McLendon decided to make a sci-fi horror film aimed at teenage audiences but also to sneak in “moral” messages into the movie, notably in “The Mushroom Song,” an unbelievably sappy limp-rock ballad written and sung by the film’s star, Don Sullivan: a setting of the Garden of Eden story as sap-rock. The script was written by Jay Simms from a story by Ray Kellogg, who also directed, and not surprisingly given that McLendon’s special-effects budget was probably a $50 gift certificate at Toys ’R’ Us (or whatever its equivalent was in 1950’s Texas) the title character was played by a normal-sized lizard walking around miniature sets. What’s more, according to one imdb.com “Trivia” poster, the reptile we see on screen isn’t even a gila monster, but a Mexican beaded lizard!
Needless to say, any thrill potential of this story is horrendously compromised by the filmmakers’ inability to show the [supposedly] giant [supposed] gila monster in the same frame as the people it’s [supposedly] killing — though at least the matchups between the model sets the lizard is working on and the full-sized ones that accommodate the human actors (if, to rip off Dwight MacDonald’s famous line about Haya Harareet in Ben-Hur, I may use that term for courtesy) are surprisingly well done by effects people Ralph Hammeras and Wee Risser (I’m not making these names up, you know!).
The bulk of the plot is boring and the action seems to center around the coffee shop where the kids hang out (an obligatory setting in a teen movie of the day) and the garage where the film’s protagonist, Chase Winstead (Don Sullivan), runs his towing and repair service and, with the connivance of Jeff (Fred Graham), the local sheriff, steals parts from the wrecks to improve his own hot rod. He’s also got a girlfriend with a very thick Latina accent but he seems a good deal more interested in both the car and the sheriff than in her, and he lives with his mom and his sister, who (as we learn in a jarringly inserted scene about two-thirds of the way through) is sucking all the money he makes because she has some sort of crippling disease and she continually needs braces and other medical equipment. (Thinking it must have been polio and recalling Sister Kenny, I joked, “Where is Rosalind Russell when we need her?” “Miles away from this movie!” Charles fired back.) The garage setting has the unlived-in feel of similar garages in Gay porn films, and quite frankly despite his deficiencies as an actor (he is the best performer in the cast, though that’s not saying much) and a singer (his nerdy little voice wasn’t going to keep Elvis awake nights worrying about the competition), Don Sullivan is actually rather handsome in a tall, gangly way and one can readily imagine him as a Gay-porn performer, especially since even in the baggy pants common in the 1950’s he’s still flashing a pretty impressive basket.
Anyway, the giant gila monster who’s really a normal-sized Mexican beaded lizard wrecks a (model) train (he crosses a gully under a bridge, thereby weakening it and making it impossible for the bridge to support the train’s weight — had the monster, or this film’s writers, seen Buster Keaton’s The General?). I joked at this point, “No animals were harmed in the making of this movie. However, the director’s five-year-old son was severely traumatized when dad sacrificed his electric train set for this sequence.” Thereafter, the sheriff and all the assorted rustics who seem to make up the entire population of this area (aside from the teenagers) finally take the monster’s threat seriously, though it’s up to our hero Chase Winstead to kill the bloody thing. He does this by turning his car into a mobile bomb, loading it with four cans of nitroglycerine and ramming the monster with it, bailing out himself just in time to avoid being consumed by the flames himself à la V for Vendetta.
A number of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fan Web sites have called this the worst movie they ever parodied (which they did rather well, especially when Joel Hodgson and his robot cast members riffed on the incredibly repetitive lyrics of Sullivan’s song, “My Baby, She Rocks”: “My baby she swings, and sings/and swings whenever I bring her things/she swings, and sings/and swings for little diamond rings”), which I doubt (if pressed I’d name Space Ghost and The Giant Spider Invasion as the worst MST3K targets of all time, with Jack Frost probably up there as well); they actually did pretty well by it, especially in their interstital skits based on it (the sight of Joel Hodgson trying to play the rustic town drunk from the movie is especially treasurable).