Second Breakfast Octoberween: “The Killer Shrews”

“Those who hunt by night will tell you that the wildest and most vicious of all animals is the tiny shrew. The shrew feeds only by the dark of the moon. He must eat his own body weight every few hours or starve. And the shrew devours everything: bones, flesh, marrow… everything. In March, first in Alaska, and then invading steadily southward, there were reports of a new species: the giant, killer shrew.”

Spooky. Well, this is my last Second Breakfast before Halloween, so I figured it’d be most appropriate if I delved into something truly horrific, truly disturbing, something devastatingly terrifying. If, as my editor has asserted in the past, Octoberween gets at the very roots of life and death (what Edgar Allan Poe characterized as “Much of Madness, and more of Sin, and Horror the soul of the plot”), then truly there’s no better way to round out the month than…

The Killer Shrews (1959)

Hollywood Pictures Corporation

The Plot: A hurricane forces ship captain Thorne Sherman (James Best) and his mate Rook (Judge Henry Dupree) onto a small island where a team of scientists have been conducting experiments to combat overpopulation. Naturally, some of the experiments have yielded hideous monsters: mutant, venomous, conveniently dog-sized killer shrews—and they’re hungry. Together with the scientists (including one obligatory beautiful woman played by Ingrid Goude), Thorne (and not Rook, who does not last long, spoiler alert) must find a way off the island amidst the storm before it’s too late.

So, that big block quote I posted up at the top is the opening narration to the movie. As the filmmakers deemed that an appropriate beginning, I feel I ought to begin there myself.

“Those who hunt by night will tell you that the wildest and most vicious of all animals is the tiny shrew.”

Huh.

Hollywood Pictures Corporation
“Have you ever hunted by night, captain?”

I…yeah? OK, let’s poll some hunters. I’m not interested in hearing from biologists or zoologists, mind you, but I would like some anecdotal evidence from hunters. I’m not interested in just any hunters, however. If you hunt in the daytime, keep your thoughts to yourself. If you poll nocturnal hunters, they’ll tell you the deadliest creature of all is the shrew. Are they sleep-deprived? Where and what are they hunting in the dead of night that they consider shrews the deadliest? Go home, night hunters, you’re drunk.

Also, “The shrew feeds only by the dark of the moon. He must eat his own body weight every few hours or starve.” These two sentences rather contradict each other, don’t you think? If the shrew has to eat its own body weight every few hours or starve, then only feeding at night doesn’t seem like a viable option, does it?

Regardless, The Killer Shrews takes this premise as an accepted fact and then just really leans into it in a very earnest way. Though awfully campy and cheap, there’s no snickering or rib-nudging here, and one must appreciate that. Imagine you shore up on a remote island during a hurricane and the locals tell you about the deadly killer shrew. When in Rome, I guess.

Hollywood Pictures Corporation
I really love that this production company is called Hollywood Pictures Corporation. That just sounds like a production company that would’ve been operating illegally behind the Iron Curtain to release bootlegs. Don’t tell Khrushchev.

The shrews themselves appear to be portrayed by dogs wearing mopheads or bits of shaggy carpet, plus some long fangs. I would venture to describe it as “inspired” monster design.

For all movies like this are extremely easy to poke fun at, I must acknowledge that if I saw The Killer Shrews as a child, I think it would have thoroughly freaked me out. The fact that it unfolds without a hint of tongue-in-cheek contributes to a surprisingly decent atmosphere, one that a movie with a proper budget would have been unable to achieve. There is, genuinely, a certain sense of eerie uncanniness that you can only find in very low budget black-and-white horror movies. Even the laughable design of the shrews, to a young viewer, would probably be a little disquieting.

My personal favorite result of the low budget is the island itself. We’re not talking about a lush tropical island—no soundstage opulence here. The island is mostly flat and innocuous, without distinguishing geographical features, and blanketed in a forest of oddly low and uniformly leafless trees. Then, the house where we spend most of our time is also startlingly normal, like they just filmed it in an actual house. The cheap walls and barebones fence aren’t exactly reassuring if you’re worried about monsters breaking in.

All those elements combine in a way reminiscent of childhood nightmares: a sinister blend familiar, every day objects and scenes that are each of them just not quite right. Like I said, I think it would be quite scary to view as a child.

Of course, I did not view it as a child. Still, what better way to celebrate this particular Halloween? All of the familiar elements are there this year, but they’re just not quite right, are they? Not sure how to celebrate this year? Spend the evening with that “wildest and most vicious of all animals”: the KILLER SHREW.

Hollywood Pictures Corporation
Happy Halloween, everybody!

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