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April 18, 2004

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Remake The Killer Shrews Already!

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 it 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 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 something.)

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 of me.

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 view.

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 Killer 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?  And, 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 same concept.  (Well, except maybe the Tasmanian Devil.)  Where do you 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 now.  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, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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