Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Killer Shrews

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote that with “the introduction of the experiment…we prescribed man-thought conditions to natural processes and forced them to fall into man-made patterns,” developing “sciences of potentially irreversible, irremediable processes of no return.” A prophesy cloaked in dark, pessimistic overtones, with gaunt eyes that radiate forewarning, and a sly finger that points at the things with which no meddling should be done.

But did those white-coated, PHD-holding minions of scientific reason in The Killer Shrews listen? Were their ears puckered up in the direction of good ol’ Hannah when she scribbled those words (as vociferous as her pen was)? Did instruments drop to the floor in a startling outburst of realisation, clipboards and microscopes cast-off to dark corners in a fit of revolt?

Quite obviously not, but had they in fact done so, I’d happily suppose that they wouldn’t have engineered a pack of vicious, marauding giant shrews, desperate to consume ninety-times their own body-weight in succulent human meat. But at the same time, and here’s the paradoxical moment, if they had succumb to sensible rationales and ceased their heinous experimentation, the world would not have been gifted a fine film by the name of The Killer Shrews.

You could say that if it never exists, no one would be able to miss it – but my life would still somehow feel empty, there’d be a huge gap deep down in my sternum, one that pines for colossal rodents.

Spat out Hollywood’s B-movie latrine back in 1959, The Killer Shrews is about a guy – the awesomely named Thorne Sherman – who arrives on a small island carrying a shipment of supplies for the sole residents: head scientist Dr Craigis, his young lady daughter Ann, assistant scientist Dr Baines, quasi-scientist Jerry Farrell (not Falwell) and servant Mario. With a storm drifting towards the island, he must spend the night with these hermits. Soon any sort of façade concerning things not going on becomes translucent and Thorne learns that not only is he on the receiving end of ballistic missiles of seduction fired off from The People’s Republic of Ann, but also that those darn scientists have created mutant shrews, massive and hungry, who are now roaming the island somewhere in search of a bite to eat.

It’s difficult not to love a good science-gone-wrong story. Scientists with a tint of dementia are frequently wonderful to witness on-screen, and although these guys aren’t quite up to the level of Seth Brundle or Vincent Price’s brother, or even William Hurt’s devolving lunatic in Altered States, they still provide a fair bit of fun.

Turns out that a core of altruism prompts Craigis and co. to carry out their experiments. “Overpopulation,” the man says – that’s the underlying ethical issue. This dalliance in genetic mapping and all those double helixes is in order to control metabolism, or, to be more precise, to slow it down, decreasing the size of the organism and thus extending life-expectancy. “What?” you may say. Let Craigis explain it himself: “If we were half as big as we are now, we could live twice as long on our natural resources.”

It’s genius really. Forget Al Gore telling his truths. The Killer Shrews conveys a much more profound and inspirational message, and over forty years earlier too!

Just a shame it never quite worked out in the end. The shrews grow to gargantuan proportions and escape the confines of the laboratory, and, after eating everything reeking of flesh on the island, try to get into the house for the main course. And not only are they shrews magnified to the size of dogs, but their bite is also poisonous, “more poisonous than snakes!”

But, luckily for the residents, Thorne Sherman is here, and he’s “not concerned with all that theory.” Fuck your DNA, kicking ass is his job. Well, being a captain on a boat that delivers miscellanea to obscure islands off the US coast is his real job – but he kicks ass part-time!

It isn’t just the shrew-serpents circulating outside that breeds suspense, for Ann’s amorous advances and Thorne’s own innate sleaze-senses produce tension between he and Jerry, the latter being her former-fiancé. And so many dirty stares are exchanged, some fisticuffs ignite, lots of “well he’s coming into the room, so I’m going to leave”-type of action. This strained domestic setting, plus the wider house-on-an-island locale, bring to mind Key Largo, with its fun and games in the Florida Keys. Except Thorne, played by James Best, isn’t fit to lacquer even the scrotal hair of Bogart. But he does make an interesting antecedent for Bruce Campbell, with his initial attitude of selfishness and open hostility to others whilst gripping a shotgun. However, again the comparison is crippled by the most benign chin I’ve seen this side of Jude Law.

The ensemble being trapped inside the house, being assailed by a malevolent outside force, does tempt one to thrown in a reference to the Evil Dead trilogy, but also such fare as Night of the Living Dead and Tremors. Sadly this film has a lack of both intriguing sociological subtext and huge worms. To hell with shrews, give me some subterranean invertebrates any day.

Criticisms notwithstanding, there’s something wonderful about a film set entirely in one small location and featuring the leftovers of renegade-science and the renegade-scientists who effectuate it. It’s what makes films like Terror from the Year 5000 such classics. The Killer Shrews may not be up to that magnificent standard, but it is nevertheless an enjoyable sixty-nine minutes of sky-bound cutaways and stilted glances.


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