Starring: James Best
Running Time: 69 minutes
Release Date: June 25, 1959
Now, if you’ve already seen this film you may be thinking, “But Ursula, this isn’t an apocalyptic film!” I beg to differ, however. This is not apocalyptic in the world-ending sense of the word, but The Killer Shrews is apocalyptic in the sense of the end of a microcosmic small island. Rife with racial stereotypes that I will get to later, The Killer Shrews does deserve some praise. For one thing, the lead lady Ann, played by Ingrid Goude, is actually a strong character. Unlike the women characters in Panic in Year Zero!, Ann actually takes action–and doesn’t seem to feel too sorry about it either.
Well, who is Ann and what is her part in the mini-apocalypse? Ann is the daughter of Marlow Cragis, the scientist. Again, unlike other movies where the scientist’s daughter remains blissfully unaware of the horrors her father concocts in a deep, dark basement somewhere, Ann is actually very aware of the monstrous killer shrews reeking havoc on the island–she may even have helped in the initial experiments… Before any of her male counterparts perceive the gravity of their ecologically screwed situation, Ann expresses doubts and guilt right from the beginning. Is this social commentary? Well, I don’t think so. In my opinion, Ann is meant to represent the audience–someone who saw it coming from a mile away and just wants to know how and when it’s going to be over. In this way she is a sympathetic character, leaving her as easy prey for the male lead.
In any case, while her character defies at least some stereotypes, there is another character that simply exemplifies them. A black boat driver, whose name escapes me due to his apparent insignificance, is the first one to be consumed by the giant shrews. From the branch of a small tree, he yelps unintelligibly for help–in vain. In most science fiction or horror films of this time, “people of color” of any kind are simply absent, but when they are present they are either objectified, horribly stereotyped, comic relief–or all of the above. This should serve as no surprise.
The movie’s dismal budget leaves a great deal to be desired, depending on your perspective. The killer shrews themselves, of course, have static faces that float around on the screen–presumably moving the remainder of their invisible bodies. There actually are plenty of shots of supposed killer shrews running around shrieking and poking their terrible snouts desperately under doors. But these animals are dogs dressed cleverly in shrew suits. Nothing wrong with that.
The other budget pitfall occurs on the set. All of the nail-biting suspense takes place in one large room, with people simply disappearing behind its one door when they are no longer needed. One of the scientists emerges from the door holding a tiny shrew, explaining to the male lead, played by James Best, how they came to be transformed into man-eating beasts. The audience, however, sits waiting to be let into this elaborate lab of theirs. No cages of irate shrews, no smoking beakers or vials of any sort. Just a door.
The real kicker comes at the end, when the only surviving members of the cast, Ann, Thorn, and Marlowe crawls into “impromptu armor” in order to escape to the abandoned boat. Don’t take my word for it, check out the film.