Who’s in it?: James Best (The Dukes of Hazzard); Ken Curtis (Gunsmoke)
What’s it about?: A pair of sailors are forced to wait out a hurricane with some scientists on an island infested with giant, poisonous shrews.
How is it?: Rosco vs. Festus!
The Killer Shrews is twenty times better than it has a right to be. It was produced by the same people who made The Giant Gila Monster and was designed to run as a double feature with that movie. I like Giant Gila Monster a lot, but The Killer Shrews is even better, thanks mostly to James Best.
Best is so very excellent as Rosco P. Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard, but if that’s all you know him from, you’re missing out. He was in a ton of Westerns (both movies and TV shows) in the ’50s and ’60s, but I highly recommend him in Ride Lonesome, starring Randolph Scott, Pernell Roberts (Adam from Bonanza; Trapper John M.D.), Lee Van Cleef, and James Coburn. Young James Best drips with Southern charisma and he brings all of it to The Killer Shrews as Thorne Sherman, captain of a small boat hired to supply a group of scientists on an isolated island.
Sherman’s boat arrives just ahead of a hurricane, so he and his mate make plans to stay overnight with the scientists until the storm blows past. Unfortunately, the scientists’ experiments have gotten out of control and the island is now swarming with mutant shrews. It’s a classic setup as the diverse group has to hole up in the scientists’ compound and hope that the monsters don’t dig through the adobe walls before morning. Like any good horror movie, the focus is on the characters, who have to survive not only the creatures, but also each other.
Ken Curtis (Festus from Gunsmoke) plays Jerry Farrell, a cowardly, drunken scientist who’s engaged to the boss’ daughter and feels threatened by Sherman. He’s a classic archetype, but Curtis plays him especially well and he’s hatable without being a cartoon. Farrell’s feud and mutual distrust with Sherman drives the drama as much as the monsters (played as convincingly as possible by puppets and disguised dogs). Ingrid Goude plays the daughter and has real chemistry with Best.
Curtis was also one of the producers of the film (and Giant Gila Monster) along with Gordon McLendon, who also plays an especially detached, clinically-minded scientist. McLendon owned a chain of drive-in movie theaters and network of radio stations, so it was his money that paid for the two movies. It was also his radio connections that created the DJ subplot in Giant Gila Monster.
The reason I bring that up though is to point out that this wasn’t Hollywood money. Killer Shrews is an independent film and it looks like it. But it has some great acting and drama that lift it above its budget and goofy concept. It’s not quite on the same level as Night of the Living Dead, but it’s up there.