In which we learn the praying mantis is the most deadly creature in the animal kingdom, shrews look remarkably like dogs and nuclear wheat should be kept away from grasshoppers.
The Killer Shrews (1959)
Country: USA | Runtime: 65mins | Director: Ray Kellogg
Starring: James Best, Ingrid Goude, Ken Curtis, Gordon McLendon, Baruch Lumet
Thorme Shurman (Best) and sidekick Rook (Judge Henry Dupree) are left stranded on a remote island after delivering supplies to the scientists ensconced there. Unfortunately for all concerned: big hungry shrews.
The Killer Shrews originally screened as a double feature alongside The Giant Gila Monster, one of the most infamous catastrophes of the 50s. The producer and financier of both, millionaire theatre owner (and desperate wannabe movie star) Gordon McLendon, actually appears in the movie, perhaps proving Marlene Dietrich was right when she said there was a huge difference between being rich and having lots of money. The most notable thing about this low budget crap is James Best's presence in the lead. Once you get over Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane as a heroic boat captain, the rest of the movie seems almost sensible.
"There's a whoooole lotta quiet out there, you can almost smell it."
Much of this thing takes place in one bland, undecorated room in which everyone bickers about their underdeveloped character motivations. When we occasionally cut away it's to the shrews, which are just dogs with a few clumps of matted fur tied to them. If chubby, short-legged canines had been used then the effect might have worked, but someone chose greyhounds and someone else signed off on the idea. Nobody cared. There’s no attempt to present The Killer Shrews as anything other than a unit of movie. The narrative is as predictable as they come: the lead scientist has an attractive daughter, so I guess she and Shurman will fall in love; sidekick Rook is black, so I guess he'll be the first to die; the junior scientist is a cowardly scumbag, so I guess he'll go in a particularly unpleasant way… Not a single original thought or clever idea features in the movie's slender 65 minute runtime. It's the definition of workman-like, a completely unimaginative and cynical exercise in exploitation – but that makes it sound far better than it actually is.
Beginning of the End (1957)
Country: USA | Runtime: 76mins | Director: Bert I. Gordon
Starring: Peter Graves, Peggie Castle, Morris Ankrum, Than Wyenn, Thomas Browne Henry
Journalist Audrey Aimes (Castle) and Dr Ed Wainwright (Graves), an entomologist growing giant nuclear tomatoes (no, I don’t know why that’s a job for an entomologist either), investigate the mysterious destruction of a small rural town. Could it have something to do with giant locusts?
For over 20 years writer/director/producer Bert I. Gordon was Hollywood’s king of giant animal movies. The Beginning of the End was his fourth feature as director, and relies on the same simple rear projection techniques employed on his debut – and that he never managed to master. From 1955’s King Dinosaur (in which a baffled iguana plays an alien Tyrannosaurus Rex) to 1977’s Empire of the Ants (in which an angry Joan Collins is hypnotised by bad compositing), each movie somehow features less convincing effects than the previous one. A reluctant diversion into the porn industry eventually saved mainstream audiences from further exposure to Gordon’s (largely self-created) photographic techniques.
"He’s deaf, working with radiation can be dangerous."
In The Beginning of the End, Gordon at least had the chance to work with a quality cast in the form of Peter Graves and Peggie Castle. Compared to the inadvertent comedy stylings of George Best in The Killer Shrews, both are superb. But that’s a relative judgement and neither can do much to elevate this nonsense above the level you might fear. As was the norm for such movies in the 50s, nuclear shenanigans are assumed to be the cause of, and solution to, the problems presented by the apocalyptic beasties. In fact it doesn't occur to anyone other than Wainwright that there may be a different explanation. But eventually he strikes on a fix for the problem; and it’s something to do with “frequencies”. It all comes too late for our eyes.
The Deadly Mantis (1957)
Country: USA | Runtime: 79mins | Director: Nathan Juren
Starring: Craig Stevens, William Hopper, Alix Talton, Donald Randolph, Pat Conway
A giant prehistoric mantis, frozen for millions of years in the icy wastelands of the Arctic, wakes up and goes on the rampage. Mankind defends itself with stock footage.
At last, a drive-in movie worthy of the era’s reputation for fun! For some time it’s not clear if The Deadly Mantis is going to develop into a real movie or remain a commercial for the USA’s radar defence system. The first ten minutes consist of nothing but dry exposition delivered via voiceover and accompanied by pictures of maps (interspersed with stock footage of radars, aeroplanes and people looking up). Eventually a movie happens, and it’s surprisingly amusing.
"In all the kingdom of the living, there is no more deadly or voracious creature than the preying mantis."
The action revolves around the improbably monikered palaeontologist Dr Nedrick Jackson (Hopper), and science journalist Marge Blaine (Talton). The two stride purposefully through a plot which borrows more than a little from Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World, and is full of absurd pseudo-science (Jackson explains how animals frozen in ice remain alive indefinitely as long as the freezing process occurred quickly) and over-acting (men on an arctic base are more affected by the arrival of a woman than of an insect the size of a large plane).
"It wasn’t a gale that wrecked this shack."
The creature itself is more convincing than most. The regular size mantis is so alien in appearance that I doubt many of us could spot any anatomical inaccuracies anyway, so the effects team couldn’t go far wrong. The spindly legs of the giant puppet are easy to manipulate via wires and booms, and the process photography that marries an enlarged mantis to background plates is no worse than you’d expect from a low budget 50s movie, and certainly better than what we got in Empire of the Ants twenty years later. The actors lack charisma but make up for it with enthusiasm, which makes them engaging enough. Combined with a fast pace and no-nonsense structure it all makes for a perfectly enjoyable, if generally unremarkable, bit of B-movie fun.