Ah, the carefree days of 1950s America. Suburban families had the white picket fence in the yard, the 2.3 kids in the living room, and the persistent anxiety of dying in a blast of radioactive flame. The Cold War had eyes tilted skyward in anticipation of the day the Kremlin decided to drop the big one on the US. And while there were “plans” in place (duck and cover, kids!) most people knew that there really wasn’t a whole lot they could do if a fifty-megaton warhead came to town.

As is often the case, the horror genre reflected this anxiety through the metaphor of scientists who, instead of creating giant weapons, created giant creatures. We had enormous lizards, gargantuan spiders, and even humongous blobs of unidentified slime. By 1959, if there was something that could have been made huge, it had likely been made huge. Enter Ray Kellogg, a former photographer for the Navy turned special effects guru. He wanted to get into the directing game, and he had an idea for an animal so vicious, so vile, so truly scary that no one had yet dared bring it to the big screen. But Kellogg had the steely nerve to give it a go, daring audiences to brave the terror of The Killer Shrews.

Now, bear with me as I try to make sense of this premise. Captain Thorne Sherman (James Best) and First Mate “Rook” Griswold (Judge Henry Dupree) are dropping off supplies at an island for Dr. Marlowe Craigis (Baruch Lumet), who has been performing experiments on shrews in order to see if he can manipulate their size. Fearing an impending overpopulation of the human species, Craigis believes that if he can figure out the key to making people smaller, we could live twice as long while using the same amount of resources (If you’re asking yourself exactly how this is supposed to control the population, you are not alone.). Alas, it seems something has gone awry with these experiments, as Craigis requests that Sherman take his daughter, Ann (Ingrid Goude), and leave the island as soon as they’ve unloaded their cargo. Unfortunately, an incoming hurricane has put the kibosh on any departure, so Dr. Craigis is forced to come clean that his experiments have produced giant, mutant shrews that are becoming increasingly aggressive as their hunger grows, and soon the small group of people on the island will be the only things left on the menu.

One thing I’d like to note is that while most of my choices for this column are based on actors or directors whose filmographies I’m already familiar with, Ray Kellogg is not someone I’d heard of until quite recently. But I couldn’t resist Kellogg and The Killer Shrews for one reason in particular: this movie, more than anything else, features dogs in costumes. Apparently, all one needs to do in order to create a menacing shrew is to slap some long teeth and scraggy hair on a dog and yell, “Action!” Well, that’s not entirely true. First, you need to spend 20–30 minutes of exposition to convey just how ferocious shrews can be in the right conditions. If you’re wondering why such extensive explanation is necessary, it’s important that you see what a shrew actually looks like (photo by Paul Adams):

Kellogg knew that two puffs of fur and a goofy nose wouldn’t scare many people, so he had to rely on some, let’s say “creative” marketing. That’s not to say that the claims made of shrews in this movie are inaccurate. They do indeed eat vast quantities of food for their size, and sure, hundreds of giant-sized shrews could be a real threat. But come on. Is anyone really going to believe the critter pictured above is a horrifying beast? Needless to say, rather than going for aesthetic accuracy, Kellogg decided to take some liberties in order to make the dogs look scary. And to be fair, he’s fairly effective given the budget. But when all is said and done, we’re still talking about dogs in costumes, so whenever a character is being swarmed and devoured by a pack of “killer shrews,” all I can think about is a man having his face licked by a bunch of happy dogs ignoring the mangy dreadlocks strapped to their backs.

With such a ridiculous premise, Kellogg could have created suspense by developing charming characters to get the audience invested. Instead, he gives us Jerry (Ken Curtis), Ann’s ex-fiancé and the island’s resident coward. Jerry is misogynistic, stupid, and when he gets drunk, he slips into a bad John Wayne impression. To be honest, it’s only in comparison to Jerry that our hero seems likeable. Thorne Sherman, after all, is the type of person who responds to pretty much any predicament with varying degrees of surly scolding, implied violence, or actual violence. Sure, the actual violence is perpetrated against Jerry, but they both just wind up coming off as schmucks. Dr. Craigis isn’t much of a prize either, considering this whole thing is his fault in the first place. Come to think of it, no one in this group is terribly likeable, with the exception of poor Rook, who is on-screen just long enough to take Thorne’s casual racism in stride before being devoured by the cute puppies… I mean, killer shrews.

There are a number of ways to create a bad horror movie. Big budget studios pour money into movies at the expense of perks like story and characters. Pompous “auteurs” take a basic premise and twist it into incomprehensible drivel. But sometimes we get guys like Ray Kellogg, who likely knew that he didn’t have much to work with in terms of budget or even talent. But that wasn’t going to stop him from making the movie that he wanted to make. There’s a certain nobility to utterly refusing to give a crap.

After all, in a sub-genre dominated by creatures that could cause worldwide catastrophies, Kellogg and company take great pains to explain that these shrews can’t get off the island and will kill one another before starving to death within a matter of days, meaning the only true danger is for the group of people who have proven themselves to be mildly irritating at best. You have to respect that kind of disregard for suspense, and once you let go of the expectation for a compelling narrative, you can sit back, relax, and enjoy watching people play with their dogs for a while.

  • Bryan Christopher
    About the Author - Bryan Christopher

    Horror movies have been a part of Bryan’s life as far back as he can remember. While families were watching E.T. and going to Disneyland, Bryan and his mom were watching Nightmare on Elm Street and he was dragging his dad to go to the local haunted hayride.

    He loves everything about the horror community, particularly his fellow fans. He’s just as happy listening to someone talk about their favorite horror flick as he is watching his own, which include Hellraiser, Phantasm, Stir of Echoes, and just about every Friday the 13th movie ever made, which the exception of part VIII because that movie is terrible.