12/15/06

407 The Killer Shrews

(1959, Horror-Giant Critter, b&w), with:

Junior Rodeo Daredevils
(1949, Western-Children, b&w)

Autopilot can’t play Dixieland jazz.

Rating: **

In a nutshell:

Short: Little kids perform brutally dangerous rodeo stunts.
Film: Multicultural alcoholics try to escape from an island infested by mutant shrews.

Short Summary:

Billy Jr. walks off his crushed pelvis.In Junior Rodeo Daredevils, a pair of rancher kids tries to tie a can to a horse’s tail, hoping that “Old Timer Billy Slater” won’t notice, even though he’s only sitting a few feet away. The good natured old timer catches them and threatens them with hanging, but soon changes his mind and punishes them with a Junior Rodeo instead. They deluge the town with crayon posters, and everyone shows up to see their tender young children get thrown and trampled by bad-tempered livestock.

Film Summary:

In The Killer Shrews, a sinister voiceover narrates a stormy night sky, attempting to convince us that “any hunter” would tell you that shrews are the most vicious of all predators, because they eat “only by the light of the moon.” Eerie credits roll over eerie music, while what I believe are supposed to be shrews shriek eerily in the background.

A supply boat captain exchanges racial epithets with his African-American pilot, who apparently can play Dixieland jazz better than the autopilot. A hurricane threatens, so they tie up in a cove next to a nearly deserted island, inhabited only by an unintelligible professor, his daughter Ann, a Mexican servant, and a pair of goofy laboratory assistants. Ann invites Captain Thorne to dinner over the objections of Jerry, a goofy lab assistant and her former fiancé. They all stand around and drink for a long, long time, while the professor explains how his shrew experiments will help avoid the inevitable overpopulation problems of the world. Meanwhile, the pilot comes out after dark to tie the boat up more securely. He gets eaten by giant, man-eating shrews.

When Thorne tries to go back to his boat, Ann pulls a gun on him and makes him stay. She explains about the man-eating shrews and, inexplicably, he believes her. The house’s occupants drink the night away while toothy shrew hand puppets slowly chew through the walls of the adobe compound. One of them kills the Mexican servant with a venomous bite, prompting another alcoholic binge. Somehow Jerry’s the only one who actually gets drunk, and he’s fine again in another scene or two.

Morning finally comes, but the nocturnal shrews don’t slink away as the professor promised. (There’s a half-hearted attempt to blame this on the hurricane, but there’s not really any good reason for it.) Thorne and Jerry venture out and find the pilot’s remains, and realize they’ll all have to swim to the boat. Jerry tries to kill Thorne twice out of jealousy, so Thorne beats him up and almost throws him to the shrews. Trapped in the professor’s compound again, they do the only thing they can think of—stand around and drink. The shrews break in again, this time killing the spectacled goofy lab assistant, who types out every last symptom of the poisonous shrew’s venom while he slowly dies.

With the bar demolished, the survivors retreat to the porch and build a makeshift tank out of old oil drums. Jerry refuses to come and climbs up to the roof, so Thorne, the professor, and Ann get under the drums and crabwalk slowly down to the beach while suspiciously canine shrews jump all over the top of their drums. Jerry tries to catch up with them, but gets eaten. The last three survivors reach the water and swim out to the boat. The professor delivers a heavy-handed but thankfully brief moral, declaring that the shrews have proven his point about overpopulation. Thorne takes a break from making out with Ann to declare that he’s not really worried about overpopulation right now.

Introduction:

Typing of the damned.Joel got presents for the ‘Bots. Gypsy gets a Little Mermaid play set. Tom gets a neat toy racecar that he can sit in and drive around the satellite. Crow accepts his J.C. Penney slacks with palpable disappointment.

Host Segment One:

The Mads have invented a device that will “cleave this puny planet in two.” They recite a litany of humiliations that they’ve suffered at the hands of their more attractive peers, but can’t think of an answer to Joel’s question, “What do you get out of it?” Joel has invented a line of dolls called Jim Henson’s Edgar Winter Babies, which are ugly and pale. The confused Mads call off their plan to destroy the earth.

Host Segment Two:

Inspired by the down-home charm of Old Timer Billy Slater, Joel does a Will Rogers impersonation with Tom as a cactus and Crow as a longhorn bull in J.C. Penney slacks. Joel babbles vaguely political nonsense, which eventually devolves into complete nonsense like, “kind of reminds me of Aunt Martha’s mustache.” He lassoes Crow.

Host Segment Three:

Tom and Crow have invented The Killer Shrews: The Board Game. The game pieces are all glued down, so they can never move away from the bar.

Host Segment Four:

Tom and Crow have invented a drink called “The Killer Shrew.” There’s a long list of ingredients, but if you take all the candy in the house and dump it into the blender with all the soda in the house, you should come up with more or less the same thing. Joel tries it and passes out. Down in Deep 13, TV’s Frank tries it and capers madly around the room on an obnoxious sugar high.

Host Segment Five:

Tom, Crow, and Gypsy dress in carpet remnants and make shrew noises. As the spectacled goofy lab assistant, Joel gets a poisonous shrew bite and slowly dies while reading several letters. Down in Deep 13, TV’s Frank drank way too much Killer Shrew. Dr. Forrester gives him an Ipecac.

Stinger:

The characters stand around, state the obvious, and drink.

Thoughts:

A screen capture that accurately encapsulates ninety percent of the film.All I can say about the short is…wow. You can tell these kids aren’t pratfalling by the way they limp, but you can also tell they’re not amateurs by the way they ride. Judging by this short and by Aquatic Wizards, it’s a wonder any children survived the fifties at all.

So, using shrews, the professor will make humans smaller and longer-lived, and thus prevent overpopulation. First, if you make people longer lived (and how does being smaller accomplish that, by the way?) won’t people start stacking up at the elderly end of the age spectrum and thus contribute to overpopulation instead of preventing it? Second, how do you make the leap from shrews to humans? Did someone discover that shrews are the missing link in the human evolutionary chain while my back was turned? Thirdly… Nevermind. Poking holes in cinematic science is too easy, even for non-scientists like myself. It’s just not fun anymore. Excuse me while I go over here and sulk.

Okay, I’m back from sulking. So, are shrews really considered the most dangerous of all predators? If that’s the case, I think I’ll make a film called The Barbarous Butterflies, or perhaps The Murderous Mice. Everyone knows that aphids are the most relentless of killers. That’s because they feed only by the light of the sun—though I guess they could feed by the light of a nice U/V lamp, or even in the dark if they felt like it. The brilliant scientist studying them could save the world by assuming the reins of world government and using various military resources to create a giant robotic ladybug… I think I need to go lie down again.

The host segments are fun. The Will Rogers segment provided me with much merriment, and the Killer Shrews board game was very appropriate to the film. Several of the elements (e.g. the slacks and the Killer Shrew drink) show up in multiple sketches. Just listening to the drink-mixing sketch made me ill, while the opening segment dragged up memories of childhood Christmases where ambiguous packages turned out to be clothes instead of toys. I remember one year where a particularly heavy and promising box turned out to be a case of motor oil, which I guess I really needed but I think I’ve wandered off the subject again…

The quips fly well during the short, with Tom referring to the can on the horse’s tail as the “Gom Jabbar” and Crow ascribing the comment, “Git the shotgun, that’ll learn ‘em,” to Old Timer Billy Slater when he discovers the youngster’s attempted equine mischief. During the actual rodeo, Joel says, “And the crowd goes wild,” every time they show an audience reaction shot. The movie is, of course, slow, so the comments slow down a little as well. For the short period of time that the pilot stumbles around the shore, Joel and the ‘Bots comment on how he can play Dixieland Jazz so much better than any of the objects he uses. When Thorne wanders the hall looking for encroaching shrews to an overbearing soundtrack, Joel says, “Who’s trilling out here?” The short’s funny and the host segments are good, but the movie’s slightly painful to watch. As a whole the episode’s worth a viewing or two.