The Killer Shrews is a black and white, cheap, creature feature from 1959. Hand puppets were used for the close-ups of the shrews, while costumed hounds were used for the wider shots. These costumes were ill-fitting, and they did not resemble the faces of the hand puppets very well. This goofiness coupled with shallow characters (save for Captain Thorne) and ham-fisted dialogue delivered in an over the top fashion, all combine to make it one of most fun unintentional comedies of that era. A sequel, Return Of The Killer Shrews, following Captain Thorne (played by original actor James Best) and his continuing battles of the crazed animals, saw the light of day in 2012. That marks one of the most prolonged periods of time between the original film and a sequel!
Now comes a loose remake, Attack Of The Killer Shrews. This new low budget, comedic affair jettisons the characters of the original, but largely keeps the framework of the plot in place-
Charles Perry (Jonathan Rogers) is celebrating the first printing of his book about the preeminent scholars throughout history. His agent Wayne (Baird Hageman) and Wayne’s wife, Cassandra (Cheryl Szymczak) are in attendance, and before things get going, the trio is awaiting the arrival of film star Fiona Rae (Elizabeth Houlihan). Her car is broken down on the side of the road, so a friendly sheriff, Blake (Bill Kennedy), offers her a ride. As soon as Fiona is inside and safe, Blake heads back out on patrol.
But, just as he attempts to leave, a gravely wounded Dr. Murdock (Mick O’Keefe) runs in screaming about killer shrews. In his research to cure rabies, the doctor created the ravenous beasts. Now, the dinner party must escape not only the house but the town in one piece. Luckily, for them, the military comes to save the day, but the shrews prove too fast and deadly for them as well. What is the real motivation behind Dr. Murdock’s work? Will Blake and Fiona act upon their mutual attraction before time runs out? Is Charles’s book that bad?
“…the dinner party must escape not only the house but the town in one piece…”
The opening title sequence is stop-motion animated and is freaking amazing! Energetic and amusing, with plenty of horror nods to The Evil Dead, Dracula, and several other horror classics, it sets the bar quite high for Attack Of The Killer Shrews. The proceeding introduction by Troma founder and all around swell guy Lloyd Kaufman is also clever and starts the movie off on the right foot.
The first twenty minutes follow up on this promise perfectly. The introduction to the archetype each character will be following is hilarious. Charles is super rich and unable to recognize that just because he has read a lot of books doesn’t qualify him as an author. The ongoing joke about the awfulness of his book is great.
Fiona’s fame precedes her, and everyone she encounters has a favorite moment from one of her cheap monster movies. The descriptions of those scenes are comedic gold. Sheriff Blake continually discussing his deputy, Dewey, as “also his cousin”every time the character is mentioned might sound like it would be grating, but it never does.
Sadly, the movie is unable to sustain itself for the entire 85-minute runtime. Many ongoing gags are never funny or become tiresome. The biggest irritation is that every time “killer shrews” is said, the character will break the fourth wall, directly look at the camera, and over-enunciate it dramatically. The first few times it works, but given the prevalence of the murderous mole-like mammals, this often breaks the momentum in service of repeating a joke.
“…opening title sequence is stop-motion animated and is freaking amazing!”
Depending on the scene the shrews can be a person in a suit, a dog wearing half a costume, a stuffed version mounted on wheels, or a puppet. None of them look alike, which is a great joke at the expense of the original. But therein lies the rub. Most of these sight gags involving the shrews only work if the viewer is familiar with the ridiculous original cheese-fest. Given that excluding this, a general idea of the 1950s b-movie formula is all that is required, it is a shame that the filmmakers put so much effort into something that might hold viewers at bay.
The other issue stems from confusion over the time period. In his introduction, Kaufman cites explicitly the year 1959, as he “…was just getting out of prison”. Parts of the movie, such as the dialogue’s lack of any modern slang and the costumes all give credence that this movie is meant to take place in 1959, the year the original was released. But then there are the obviously modern cars and houses, which could be overlooked as either a lack in resources or a joke about low budget filmmakers attempting a period piece if it weren’t for a few later scenes. After the main characters escape the professor’s house and get into town, a barbershop is one of the locales. Fiona goes there to use the phone, as the one in the restaurant is in use. For reasons beyond me, the phones are cordless. If there is a punchline to that, I can’t find it. Add in some odd use of profanity, at times where it somewhat stuns the viewer to confusion more than anything else, and the sense of time and place is bewildering.
Attack Of The Killer Shrews boasts energetic directing, a lively cast, and a few choices jokes about 1950s b-movies. But the biggest obstacle in its way is Return Of The Killer Shrews. Both set out to do similar things within the franchise’s constraints, by playing up the camp nature and utilizing purposely bad effects. But Return is more consistently funny, with a firmer grasp on its own internal logic. Attack works intermittently, but it never justifies its own existence. It never feels like a whole movie unto itself, functioning solely as a companion piece to The Killer Shrews. It’s harmless, occasionally funny, but mostly annoying.
Attack Of The Killer Shrews (2016) Written and directed by Ken Cosentino. Starring Bill Kennedy, Elizabeth Houlihan, Jonathan Rogers, Baird Hageman, Mick O’Keefe, Cheryl Szymczak.