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Film / The Killer Shrews

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"Looks like a rat, smells like a skunk - some call them bone-eaters."

A low-budget 1959 monster movie, directed by Ray Kellogg (who shot it in Texas back-to-back with The Giant Gila Monster) and starring James "Rosco P. Coltrane" Best.

Thorne Sherman is the captain of a small supply boat sent to bring provisions to a lab on an isolated island. When he arrives, inclement weather prevents the offloading of provisions, and he finds the resident scientists — Dr. Marlowe Cragis, research assistant Radford Baines, Marlowe's daughter Anne Cragis, Anne's (former) fiancee and lab assist Jerry Farrel, and a Mexican servant named Mario — nervously awaiting him with guns. Much conversation and beating around the bush ensues, until finally the truth comes out: The scientists have been performing experiments on overpopulation by genetically engineering shrews which grow to the size of sheep dogs, eat incessantly and breed profusely. These giant shrews have escaped and are overrunning the island, stripping it of food until the monsters must turn on the humans, trapping them in the small house/lab.

Unfortunately for the humans, the rains are weakening the house's adobe walls, allowing the Killer Shrews to burrow their way in. Although only a couple shrews actually make it inside, it's enough to kill Mario and Radford; the shrews also gobble up Thorne's sidekick Rook whilst he's attempting to bring items ashore from the boat. Realizing they can't stay in the house because the shrews are getting in, but can't go out of the house because the shrews are out there, Thorne gets creative and builds a portable tank out of empty oil drums. He and the Cragises all escape to the beach in this tank and finally ditch into the ocean and swim out to Thorne's boat (now safe, since shrews can't swim); but Jerry panics and refuses to join them in their escape, and so gets himself eaten. The shrews are left trapped on the island, where it is assumed they will eventually starve and die off.

For the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode see here.

After decades of making jokes about doing it, Best starred in a 2012 sequel The Return of the Killer Shrews alongside Bruce Davison and his Dukes of Hazzard-costars John Schneider and Rick Hurst.

This film provides examples of:

  • Absent-Minded Professor: Research assistant Radford Baines sits somewhere between here and Ambiguous Disorder. He's utterly focused on his work, to the point that even disasters like the deadly animals in the wilderness or the approaching hurricane barely register to him as important. Unlike the conventional examples of this trope, he's not portrayed as forgetful, just distracted. Even when he gets bitten by a Killer Shrew, he decides that the sensible thing to do is quietly die whilst recording the symptoms of the poison rather than tell the others about his having been poisoned.
  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: The shrews were released into the wilderness to grow and multiply without any restraints because Jerry got drunk and let them out in a random act of drunken stupidity.
  • Artistic License Biology:
    • Shrews can swim. They're also inclined to engage in cannibalism even when they haven't stripped their habitat of alternate prey, making them a poor choice of analog for experiments in human overpopulation.
    • The giant mutated shrews are shown to have the same insatiable appetite as their tiny, unaltered kin. However, the reason why shrews suffer from this Horror Hunger is specifically because of their small size as they need a supercharged metabolism just to maintain their body temperature and additionally, can't store any fat on their diminutive bodies. If anything, making them bigger would just make them less hungry.
  • Artistic License Gun Safety: When the Mexican servant is bitten in the leg by a shrew, Thorne tries to stop the bleeding with a tourniquet. What does he use to tighten it? The barrel of his loaded revolver.
  • The Big Damn Kiss: The movie closes on one between Thorne and Anne.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Rook, Thorne's Afro-American partner, is the first person to be killed in the movie. Mexican servant Mario is the second. Both of the final victims, Radford and Jerry, are white.
  • Claustrophobia: One reason that Jerry refuses the MacGyvering solution is because he suffers from this.
  • Closed Circle: The reason the whole plot takes place is because Thorne arrives just prior to an imminent hurricane sweeping over the island, preventing the residents from simply jumping aboard and sailing off during the day, whilst the Killer Shrews are dormant.
  • Deadly Scratch: this is how Radford dies; a shrew manages to bite him and, knowing that it was enough for its venom to kill him, spends his last seconds recording his symptoms at the typewriter.
  • Dirty Coward: During the second argument Jerry has with his former fiancee Anne, the latter mentions that when the Killer Shrews came after them the previous night, Jerry knocked her down and left her for dead in his efforts to escape into the safety of the compound. His second attempt at killing Thorne, by abandoning him to the Killer Shrews, is motivated as much by his cowardice as by his murderous jealousy of Thorne.
  • Face Death with Dignity: After being bitten, Radford spends his last moments simply writing down the symptoms he's feeling. He knows he's done for and sees no point in wasting what little time he has left with anguish.
  • For Science!: The creation of the Killer Shrews was actually an experiment to study the effects of overpopulation, an experiment which has Gone Horribly Right. Also, one of the scientists, Radford Baines, when fatally bitten by a shrew, calmly records the progression of symptoms right up to the instance of his death, rather than say anything to all the people in the room with him.
  • Forgotten Fallen Friend: Actually averted for Rook in the first film, rarity for the time. Heavily averted with the sequel, where Thorne is clearly very shaken by his first-mate's death with a flashback and tears shed over it.
  • From Bad to Worse: How can it get worse than being trapped inside a compound by a hurricane whilst ravenous predators with venomous bites are prowling outside? Have the compound walls be made of adobe — aka, dried mud bricks. Naturally, the torrential rain softens the clay walls to the point that the Killer Shrews can start digging right through them.
  • Giving Them the Strip: One of the girl's boots is torn off by a shrew, but she's not actually bitten. She apparently ditched her other boot herself, because when she's swimming out to the boat at the end, she's completely barefoot.
  • Godzilla Threshold: While scouting, Jerry pulled a rifle on Thorne with obvious intentions, only to be disarmed. Thorne later balks at giving Jerry a gun, even though he knows the shrews are nearby. It's only after seeing the boat away from the dock and realizing Rook is dead that Thorne opts to give Jerry that gun.
  • Heartbroken Badass: Thorne is devastated, upon seeing what became of Rook.
    Thorne: [holding the bloody clothes] They don't leave much, do they?!
  • Hope Spot:
    • While viewers see what becomes of Rook, Thorne spent much of the movie assuming he was safely on the boat and would be able to perform an easy evacuation once the storm was over. It isn't until the attempt to scout the area that Thorne finds bloodied leftovers and realizes what happened to Rook.
    • The group acknowledges the situation is severe, but Dr. Craigis thinks they can safely hide in the house, until the shrews inevitably cannibalize each other. Too bad the rain has weakened the adobe walls enough for the shrews to realize they can break through.
  • Island of Mystery: The setting for the film is, of course, a remote island without any inhabitants other than a small research team. The perfect place for dangerous experiments in bio-engineering to take place!
  • Jerkass: Jerry; a drunkard who released the shrews to wreak havoc in the first place in a bout of Alcohol-Induced Idiocy, he later compounds his asshole behavior by getting jealous of Thorne's growing closeness to Jerry's ex-fiancee Anne, to the point of trying twice to murder Thorne — first by simply shooting him, then by locking him out with the killer shrews.
  • Jump Scare: Near the end of the film, the survivors are recovering from Thorne and Jerry's harrowing return to the laboratory and Ann offers to make coffee for everyone as they weigh their options. She opens the door to the kitchen, and one of the shrews suddenly runs into the room and bites at Radford's leg. Thorne kills it moments later, but the damage is done and Radford quickly dies of his injury.
  • Karmic Death: Jerry, after repeatedly trying to feed the hero to the shrews, finally is taken down by them himself. For added karma, the whole mess with the shrews is his fault to begin with, as he was the one who got drunk and let them out. To say nothing of how his claustrophobia is the reason why he fails to escape with the others.
  • Love Interest: Anne Cragis is this to Thorne Sherman, of course.
  • Love Triangle: Of the two "interested parties and one superfluous party" variety. Anne Cragis and Thorne Sherman fall for each other as they fight to survive, whilst Jerry Farrel, who used to be Anne's fiance, until she broke up with him for being a cowardly drunken idiot.
  • MacGyvering: The solution to escaping from the house to the boat without getting bitten is to assemble makeshift armor from empty 50-gallon drums.
  • Mad Scientist: Averted, surprisingly enough. Dr. Craigis may have accidentally created a pack of giant shrews as a side-effect of his experiments, but he gives a reasonable justification for everything he does and takes care from the beginning that nothing that he did could endanger anyone outside the island.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Dr. Marlowe Craigis' daughter, Anne, of course.
  • Minimalist Cast: Only 7 characters in the entire thing.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Jerry plots to murder Thorne out of jealousy over Thorne's growing relationship with Anne.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Thorne tries to repay Jerry's attempts to kill him in kind by throwing him to the shrews. He's stopped by Radford yelling at him, and he's left troubled by the line he almost crossed.
  • Oh, Crap!: After trying to leave his rival to be eaten by the shrews, Jerry when he sees that Thorne managed to climb over the wall and is now looming over him.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Between Jerry pulling a rifle on him and then trying to leave him to be eaten, Thorne beats the hell out of him and then tries to throw his unconscious body to the shrews. Thorne only snaps out of his rage when Radford screams at him.
  • Poisonous Person: The killer shrews have venomous bites, so even if you don't get Devoured by the Horde, being bitten is a death sentence.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Rook, the hero's plucky sidekick (see also Black Dude Dies First).
  • Race Against the Clock: The group's best options were to ride out the storm and then try to reach the boat, as well as hope to hold out long enough for the shrews to get to the point of eating each other. The group outlasts the storm, only to learn Rook is dead, the boat isn't docked, and that the shrews can burrow through the weakened walls.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: The giant shrews having venomous bites? That's actually a trait some shrews have!
  • Rodents of Unusual Size: Shrews are sort of like rodents, although now all classified in different orders.
  • Scare Chord
    Sherman: How big do [the shrews] get?
  • Shout-Out: Dr. Barnes meticulously recording his poisoning symptoms before he dies might be a reference to herpetologist Karl Patterson Schmidt, who famously did the same while dying of a snake bite in 1957.
  • Slurpasaur: The eponymous shrews are played by dogs in very unconvincing masks.
  • Super Drowning Skills: Jerry can't swim, which is why he doesn't simply try to reach the boat when he and Thorne are scouting a path from the house to the dock.
  • Token Evil Teammate: Jerry Farrel, who is basically to blame for everything that goes wrong in this movie. The sequel even has him turn out to have survived his apparent death after being stranded on the island and become a mad hermit who feeds his surviving killer shrews with any human who stumbles on the island.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Subverted. Nobody on the island is oblivious to the danger that the Killer Shrews present, and whilst Marlow and Radford feel they have a moral obligation to stay on the island to continue documenting the experiment, they are intent on sending Anne and the sailors Thorne & Rook back to safety on the sea, with cowardly Jerry having every intention of joining them. Unfortunately for them, Thorne's ship arrived just before a hurricane is due to hit the island, so the inclement weather forces them to hunker down and wait it out. And then the adobe starts melting under the hurricane's torrential rainfall, letting the Killer Shrews burrow through their defenses...
  • What the Hell Is That Accent?: Lampshaded by the heroine herself, who chides the hero for not even commenting on her unexplained accent.

Alternative Title(s): Killer Shrews