April 18, 2004
Remake The Killer Shrews
Chances are you've never seen the movie, Night of the Lepus (1972). If
you have, chances are you'd rather forget the experience. A
"lepus", for those Faithful Fiends who don't already know, is just a
fancy schmanzy word for "bunny rabbit". So, there -- now you can
probably guess why you might want to forget the experience.
Presumably, some eager young film exec was hunting around for a new
idea and thought to himself: Say, I wonder why no one ever made a movie
about killer bunny rabbits the size of horses? Well, now he
knows. They had never made such a movie because it really was as terrible an idea as it
sounds. Any movie which climaxes with the mass
electrocution of a herd of great big cuddly bunny rabbits and expects
us to cheer the said electrocution of those great big cuddly bunny
rabbits is ipso facto a bad
idea. Clearly the eager young film exec recognized this fact at
least on some dim subconscious level; hence, why he didn't call it Night of the Great Big Cuddly Bunny
Rabbits Who Get Electrocuted. No, he called it Night of the Lepus -- and hoped we
wouldn't catch on.
All the same, for all that it was a pretty terrible movie, I mention
it now, not because I derive pleasure from mocking its ineptitude
(although that is certainly a plus), but because in amongst that
mountain of ineptitude, there resides a small gem of exquisite
brilliance. Honest to god, I come not to bury but to praise it.
You see, Night of the Lepus
was a very low budget affair. As a result, the special effects
were equally low budget. However this was not a total loss.
One thing we learn from the experience is that a bunny is still cute no
matter how much blood you smear on its nose. The second thing we
learn is that a man in a bunny costume doesn't intercut well with a
real bunny. Did you get that? -- doesn't. It is precisely for
this reason -- that is, because
it was such a low budget affair -- we are taken totally by surprise
when, for one precious moment, those special effects really work. I am not making this
up. There is a moment when we are looking out the front
windshield of a pickup truck, the truck driving down a country road,
when suddenly, up ahead...your jaw just drops and all you can think is,
Omigod, it's a bunch of rabbits the
size of horses!
The reason that moment works so well is because, up until then, the
special effects have been so lame. It lulls you into a false
sense of superiority. Also, credit must go to the fellows who did
the miniature work. You see, obviously the way the effect was
done was that the whole set up -- the pickup truck, the wooden fence
beside the road, the road and trees, everything -- was really done in
miniature. But the miniatures are sufficiently convincing that we
don't know they are miniature. So, when the rabbits enter the
scene (galloping in slow motion, to suggest bigness), for just a moment
really does look as if the rabbits are the size of horses.
I wanted to mention that scene for two reasons. The first is
that I think the filmmakers deserve credit for pulling off such an
unlikely triumph in such an otherwise ill considered enterprise.
The second is that finding something to praise in a little stinker like
Night of the Lepus makes it
that much easier to segue into praising the film I really wanted to
talk about. A film which looks like Citizen Kane in comparison to Night of the Lepus.
I am of course speaking of the 1959 black and white monster movie, The Killer Shrews.
Last editorial I lamented the death of the really scary movie. Well, in all
honesty I can't claim The Killer
Shrews was one of those scary movies, because it wasn't.
It was a terrible movie. But was it as terrible as Night of the Lepus? It wasn't
that either. In fact, it was one of those really rare breed of
film -- a film that DESERVES TO BE REMADE UNTIL SOMEONE GETS IT RIGHT.
The story is simple enough. A group of people are stranded on
an island with a dead radio and a storm closing in...an island which
also hosts a bunch of Killer Shrews the size of doberman
pinchers. That's pretty much it. But, then, Jurassic Park was just as simple
and I didn't hear too many complaints. The main problem with The Killer Shrews -- and the main
reason you will probably never again hear it mentioned in the same
breath with Jurassic Park --
is once again the low budget special effects. The eponymous
Killer Shrews are portrayed variously either by dogs covered in lots of
fur or by really unconvincing puppets. The combination is not a
happy one, needless to say. Not for a moment do we believe these
things are really Killer Shrews. In fact, they look like what
they probably were -- really pissed off dogs.
(A shrew, by the way, is a small but voracious rodent. A fury
little Jaws, if you will. What this creature had to do with
Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew
is beyond me. Presumably they nag you before they eat you, or
I saw The Killer Shrews a few
years ago for the second time in my life and, I have to admit, was
seriously disappointed. To my modern self, the main point of
interest was the identity of the film's heroic leading man...believe it
or not, none other than James Best,
The Dukes of Hazzard's "Rosco P. Coltrane". I always
thought Rosco P. Coltrane was the best thing about The Dukes of Hazzard and seeing him
in a serious role was certainly some kind of thrill. And, yes, he
acquitted himself well
enough, thanks for asking.
But, Rosco P. Coltrane not withstanding, I just couldn't get past those
pissed off dogs. I don't really know what a shrew the size of a
doberman ought to look like, but I felt pretty certain that this wasn't
it. But here's the thing. I had previously seen The Killer Shrews many years
before when I was just a little kid, a really little kid. This was
back in the bad old days before the two hundred channel universe when
we got all of two channels on our TV...three if we sacrificed a
goat. It cropped up on a nifty local program called Monster
Movie Matinee (which opened with a really fake but really cool looking
model of a spooky house, complete with crawling wisps of dry ice) and,
as a kid seeing through a kid's eyes, I didn't
notice the shoddy special effects. Not a bit of it. All I
saw were...Killer Shrews! And that film scared the bejeesus out
Now I know what you're thinking. Big deal. It doesn't take much to
scare the bejeesus out of a little kid. And didn't I
already admit that,
having seen the film years later, I didn't find it scary? True
enough. But I've seen plenty of scary films throughout my life
and few of them have stayed with me the way The Killer Shrews did.
Moreover, the more I have thought about it (and I've probably thought
about it more than is healthy), the more it has occurred to me that,
for all its shoddy special effects, The
Killer Shrews had some really kick-ass scenes...conceptually
speaking, that is.
Three scenes in particular have stuck with me. In one, the hero's
friend (played by Judge Dupree) gets chased by the Killer Shrews and
desperately seeks refuge by climbing a big, dead tree. This
proves to be a bad idea. Almost as bad as Night of the Lepus and, that, as we
have already established, is pretty bad.
These Killer Shrews, like most rodents, can gnaw through just about
anything. And, being the size of dobermans (dobermen?), they set
to work gnawing away at the base of the tree. Pretty soon, the
unfortunate Mr. Dupree finds himself sinking lower and lower, but
there's not a damn thing he can do about it. All he can do is
hang on, wishing to god he had done anything, anything but climb that tree.
At last, the tree collapses and he plunges into the mass of snarling
Killer Shrews perishing with a horrible scream mercifully hidden from
The scene has a nightmare quality. In fact, it is precisely the
sort of scene I associate with director Steven Spielberg. Think
of Roy Scheider perched on the mast of the Orca, sinking into the
water, while Jaws approaches. Think of Robert Shaw sliding down
the deck into the teeth of the shark. Think of Richard Dreyfuss,
in Close Encounters of the Third Kind,
struggling to climb the slope of Devil's Tower before the helicopters
reach him. All evoke that same feeling of helplessness, or
struggling against the force of gravity itself. Brilliant.
Later on, our trapped characters take refuge in a house only to
discover that the Killer Shrews can gnaw their way through the
walls. Through the WALLS! Even walls offer no haven.
It may take them a while, but the Shrews are determined little cusses
and they have all the time in the world. The characters can only
look terrified, listening to the creatures
gnawing away, munch, munch, munch,
coming closer and closer and closer...
Now, I'll freely admit, that munching
sound may have worked better on me because we really did have ground
hogs in our walls which made just that sound when they earnestly tried
to dig through into the living room, but I think it was creepy as hell,
ground hogs or no ground hogs.
That's two things that have stuck with me. The third?
In the climax, the survivors realize they can't stay in the house, what
with all that munching through the walls business, and they come up
with a plan. A plan? Whatever General Custer was working on
at the conclusion to the Battle of Little Bighorn, that was the sort of
plan our survivors came up with. It went something like
this. If they could get to the boats moored at the dock across
the island then they would be safe. Unfortunately, the Killer
Shrews were between them and the boats. So, they decided -- and
believe it or not, they weren't drunk -- to cut
little slits for eye holes in several empty steel barrels, turn those
barrels upside down and use them like tiny protective turtle
shells. Sure. Uh huh. Now that's the sort of thinking
we expect from Scooby
Doo, but damned if they didn't try it and damned if it didn't work --
for most of them, anyway. For some, not so much.
I can only describe the resulting scene -- in which our heroes must
work their way through the snarling Shrews protected only by their
barrels -- as conceptually genius. And it might have gone down
in history as a classic of cinema -- if not for those fake-looking
Shrews. But, so long as the Killer Shrews looked fake, all those
scenes were robbed of their impact. The collapsing tree, the
digging through the walls, the upside down barrels -- all were undone
by unconvincing effects.
And so we return to my main point. Filmmakers are always
remaking classics, films which worked great the first time. Why
can't they remake the films which didn't work the first time, but which
had a lot of potential? Like The
Killer Shrews. All it needed was a little
cash. Imagine what could be done with the idea if you gave it a
budget of, say, 100 million. Using today's special effects?
make no mistake, I'm not just saying this because it had three
interesting ideas. What it had was a central concept, a core idea which points
the way to any number of interesting and scary scenes. In modern
film parlance, it was "high concept" -- that concept being that the
Killer Shrews CAN GNAW THROUGH JUST ABOUT ANYTHING. As obvious as
it might seem, I can't think of another movie monster that used the
concept. (Well, except maybe the Tasmanian Devil.) Where do
hide from such a monster? The tagline could read: No place is safe -- for
long. (Or, as my co-editor suggested: picture an Ed
Sullivan impersonator saying, "And now for a really big shrew..."
Okay, maybe not.)
It could be done. We have the technology. I can see it
Ben Affleck stars in
Steven Spielberg's The Killer Shrews.
Screenplay by Michael Crichton. Animatronic and CGI effects by
Industrial Light and Magic. Music by Danny Elfman. With a
possible cameo appearance by
Rosco P. Coltrane.
Yeah, you're probably right. We'd better not push our luck.
Jeffrey Blair Latta,
and Supreme Plasmate
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