AVAILABLE ON DVD: NOW, from www.killershrewmovie.com
RUNNING TIME: 84 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Dr. Murdock and his assistant are doing something to a brain when something suddenly kills the assistant. Meanwhile Professor Charles Perry is having a little get together with his publisher Lewis, Lewis’s girlfriend Cassandra, and actress Fiona Rae, to celebrate the publishing of Perry’s latest book. Fiona’s car break down en route, but she’s given a lift there by Sheriff Blake and all seems fine until a blood covered Murdock turns up at the door warning them that giant shrews – the result of his trying to find a cure for rabies – are on the loose….
Although I have a distinct fondness for horror and science fiction ‘B’ movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, one film I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing is the 1959 ‘so bad it’s good’ classic The Killer Shrews [which, confusingly, is also known as The Attack Of The Killer Shrews], where dogs with masks on apparently masquerade as large man-eating shrews. It’s easy to laugh, but I can’t help but have an admiration for the makers of films like these who obviously has very little money but who tried their best to realise the creatures in their scripts the best they could, sometimes coming up with something that’s highly ridiculous looking – but at least they tried. It’s far less fun these days when CGI seems to be ‘go to’ method for similar films, and I would make a claim for cheap CGI often looking worse than cheap handmade effects. In any case, the makers of Attack Of The Killer Shrews have commendably decided to try to realise their overgrown rodents in a similar fashion; dogs wearing masks with a little help from some puppets , though it’s probable that only one or two dogs and only one or two puppets were used considering that we only ever see one ‘shrew’ at a time.
Though it subsequently took two years to edit and release, Attack Of The Killer Shrews was shot in just two weeks on a budget of around $2000. One has got to respect ilmmakers who can create something worthwhile despite having virtually nothing at their disposal. Unfortunately, I can’t really say that Attack Of The Killer Shrews, a film which I was much looking forward to checking out, is very worthwhile. The aim was to make a parodic semi-remake of the 1959 flick. As far as I can tell, the basic premise has been retained, as has of course the method of creating the creatures, though the characters and storyline are quite different. It’s always easy to fall into the trap of mocking the movies you’re spoofing too much, so that so there doesn’t seem to be much actual affection being shown, and to its credit Attack Of The Killer Shrews doesn’t really do that. The other major trap films of this ilk tend to fall into is that the laughs cancel out the scares and vice versa, the result ending up not working too well either as a comedy or a horror. This particular movie never even tries to be frightening, so that problem doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, it’s rarely actually funny, which is a big problem indeed. It doesn’t require a lot of money to write a script, and sad to say writer/director Ken Consentino’s screenplay isn’t anywhere near good enough. Its idea of humour is having characters look into the camera with worried looks and say: “The killer shrews”, something which I guess may work one or two times but not throughout the whole film. It’s possible that the screenplay was thought up extremely quickly, but that’s not really a good enough excuse.
I’ll say one thing though: this film begins with an opening scene that is rather neat. It may be the best bit in the whole movie. We are shown parts of an obviously model – but very intricate – graveyard, then stop motion shrews who burst out of the ground and head for a nearby cardboard town where they bloodily attack action figures. It’s quirky and charming and a lot of work was obviously put into it. Then we cut to none other but Troma’s honcho Lloyd Kaufman, who has a very eclectic collection of movie posters in the background [ The Toxic Avenger, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Diamonds Are Forever and Rear Window!] who introduces the “horrifying” and “bloodcurdling” movie to follow in tongue in cheek fashion. While I haven’t been overly keen on the Troma films that I’ve seen [and come to think of it Attack Of The Killer Shrews does often come across as an even cheaper than usual Troma picture], I’ve always liked Kaufman with his independent spirit, his showmanship and his friendliness to fans, so it was nice to see him crop up, even if he’s delivering lines like: “There’s no business like shrew business”. Then we go into the film ‘proper’ and two scientists fiddling around with a brain [which looks surprisingly convincing] before something off screen kills one of them. These are, of course, the two fools who create the giant shrews. They were attempting to find a cure for rabies, which isn’t anywhere near as daft as in the 1959 film – a film which is played straight – where a scientist was looking for a way to shrink humans down to half their size to solve overpopulation [!]
We switch to the house of Dr. Murdock having his little do, and our principal characters all start to gradually show up there. There’s some rather painful acting to sit through [Cheryl Szymczak] and some acting that really is quite good [Elizabeth Houlihan], but we shouldn’t be too harsh on what are probably mostly amateur performers or performers who have never acted before whatsoever. Thank goodness though that, after Dr. Murdock has appeared to scream: “There are gigantic killer shrews roaming these woods, you’re all going to die!”, a shrew does indeed appear to be bloodily shot to death, than another one who then proceeds to bugger one of the male cast members. Unless you really are sensitive it’s impossible to be offended and I’ll happily admit I chuckled at the absurdity of it, but sadly the laughs thereafter only materialise very occasionally as Fiona, Sheriff Blake, Lewis, Cheryl, Perry and Blake’s deputy Wayne split up into two groups [for some reason] as they flee the shrews. Along the way we also meet Wilkens, a Scotsman who offers up an alternative origin for the shrews, and some army folk who think they’re all tough but whom we know may soon meet their match in the shrews, whose attacks are pretty constant. Blood spatters throughout, though the budget didn’t stretch to showing much actual injury detail, and by the time a shrew puppet with totally undisguised metal feet shows up the joke has worn a little thin.
Wilkens gets a funny moment when he leads his group into a barn where they would obviously be trapped against a wall if the shrews show up. He thinks it’s actually a good idea because the shrews can’t sneak up on them. But otherwise it’s all a little lame. One character constantly says: “What the f*** is that?”. Another drools in her sleep. A barber polishes someone’s bald patch amidst squeaky sound effects. The fourth wall is sometimes broken. Two people wearing creepy masks turn up for no apparent reason and are then quickly shot. One character becomes a kind of were-shrew but spends the majority of the film not interacting with anybody. On the other hand two moments – a car flip which has obviously been edited together but still looks quite good – and the genuinely bonkers climax – are quite well achieved all things considered. Consentino not only wrote and directed but also shot and edited the thing. One handheld camera seems to be all that he had. He has trouble keeping it still and makes one particular chase sequence an eye-hurting blur, but this does give the proceedings a ‘found footage’ feel which may appeal to fans of that genre. I just felt dizzy for much of the time.
Jay A. Wollin’s synthesiser score goes generally for comedy and the end titles have a rap – well, calling it rap would probably be stretching it as it’s more just spoken word’ – which basically tells the story. Even being entirely aware that it was as low budget and lo-fi a film as you can get, I have to say that I was rather disappointed with Attack Of The Killer Shrews, though I reckon that with a few beers down you and a few similarly inebriated mates round it might be a much more fun experience. While it does indeed partly pay homage to the film that inspired, it’s trying to be a comedy more than anything else, and to this sober viewer mostly failed at that. I would imagine that the 1959 film is a hell of a lot funnier because it tries to take it all seriously, and I wish that more filmmakers attempting to send up older movies would realise that.
*making of featurette