Those who have been clamoring for a prequel to Ray Kellogg’s 50s trash ‘classic’ The Killer Shrews have had a long wait, but thankfully (?) the wait is now over, with Steve Latshaw’s Return of the Killer Shrews. These ferocious critters are back with only one thing on their minds: human flesh; and a TV crew has just turned up on their island to dish up their favorite main course.
Releasing this movie in 2012, 53 years after the original, has to represent the longest time between sequels in cinematic history. It really is a true sequel, following the events in 1959, going so far as to even resurrect the original lead, James Best, in his role of Thorne Sherman. Director Steve Latshaw (Jack-O, Vampire Trailer Park) had two choices when he made this: keep to the B-movie vibe of the original, make it as campy and trashy as possible, or try to make it a serious affair. Thankfully he went with the latter ramping up the tongue in cheek humor and outrageous concepts, to produce somewhat of a parody piece which celebrates everything cheesy about 50’s low-budget horror. It goes without saying this is not going to be for everyone. It is cheap, crude, and exceptionally abysmal in the FX department, but for those with an affection of the “when it’s so bad it’s good”, Return of the Killer Shrews has a lot to offer.
The film follows on from 1959 when Sherman (James Best) is asked to drop a reality TV crew off on the original shrew island; a place he has not stepped foot on in 54 years, after nearly becoming the main course for a bunch of bloodthirsty shrews. You have to wonder why he agrees to this, but he does, ending up trapped on the island waiting for the producer to cough up his cash, and — surprise, surprise — the shrews are still there. Of course, it is not long before they start chowing down on the cast and crew, with the producer insistent on carrying on because he feels the deaths are going to bring in ratings, remarking that they now have “the most valuable snuff film in the world”. Narcissistic reality TV star Johnny Reno (John Schneider) is happy to go along with the plan hoping it can boost his career, thinking he can save the day and have it captured for prosperity. There is just one problem with this plan as Sherman points out though “did he say save a dead man? How can you save a dead man?”.
In keeping with the original the sets are stripped down and basic, Latshaw outlining on the commentary they went for a ‘60s retro drive-in tiki feel’, with the remote island location complimenting this perfectly (the film was actually shot on a ranch but the makers have done a good job recreating the look of the original). Perhaps where they failed, however, is in the abysmal CGI rendering of ‘the shrews’, signifying the worst digital graphics I have ever seen on screen, and I defy anyone to come up with something that beats this. While the original opted for dogs in shrew costumes, and if you haven’t seen it, this did have some appeal in the entertainment department, the choice to have these critters etched on after the fact is perhaps the film’s biggest failure. Whether this was a deliberate attempt — who knows, but the effects really are awful, with said shrews not even having the capacity to bend their legs at the joints. Adding to this, there is some sort of perspective problem going on given they change proportion at different moments in the film. On the upside it does add to the novelty factor and gives the viewer a chance to revel in the ludicrous nature of it all (if you go in for that sort of thing).
As I have previously pointed out, Return of the Killer Shrews is played out solely for laughs. The humor is crude and often inappropriate, but then who would expect less? This is where Return of the Killer Shrews really shines, because some of the performances, especially that of James Best, far exceed the limitations of the rough-around-the-edges production values involved here. Best takes to his role with relish and nails it like the old pro he is, making it seem effortless; with his snappy one-liners being some of the most hilarious moments in the film. Best also co-wrote the film and you can tell he really is having a blast being part of it. John Schneider as Johnny Reno puts in a fantastic effort, one I really enjoyed, as the vain and self-absorbed TV star, channeling his inner Steve Irwin, while constantly looking for ways to expose his naked torso. It is also worth mentioning along with Rick Hurst who plays Thorne’s sidekick Harold Rook, this makes for three former cast members of 80’s TV show Dukes of Hazzard and there is a nice little scene between them which pays tribute to this. For the supporting cast again some solid performances which channel the spirit of 50’s B-movie camp, however the younger cast members do seem to some extent stand in the shadow of the more seasoned actors, but overall put in a decent effort for a film of this type. Bruce Davison, another acting veteran, gives an amusing rendition as Jerry Farrell, a character some may remember from the original (then played by Ken Curtis). Maniacal and somewhat mad he puts in a gloriously hammy performance.
The video has a strong slick digitized look, bright colors and a smooth finish. This does however, demonstrate the FX in all of its awful glory by comparison. Some of the darker scenes, including the intro are very dark and it is difficult to see the action, although given most of the film is set in daylight this does not become a major issue.
While there is some disparity between the volume levels of the music and dialogue in this release, the music and sound effects sometimes thundering over the top of the speaking levels, the sound is good quality. There have been some odd choices, in keeping with the feel of the rest of the piece, in shrew sound effects which come off as a high pitched donkey/cow amalgamation. One noteworthy point goes to the soundtrack with the addition of the jazzy bossanova based ‘Shrewd Awakening’ from The Bamboo Trading Company (ex Beach Boys members),in that the the light, airy tone, and corny lyrics capture the spirit of the film to great effect.
Return of the Killer Shrews, for a low-budget release, is surprisingly loaded up, including a fun commentary between director Steve Latshaw and master of sleazy Z grade horror, the direct to video king Fred Olen Ray. The two meander on about their love for the 1959 campy classic, filmmaking in general, and the tone is light-hearted and informative; with Latshaw providing plenty of onset anecdotes . There is also a copy of the 1959 original which is fairly good quality, albeit the print is a bit on the scratchy side, it serves its purpose and makes for a nice companion piece. Also included are no less than four making of featurettes, a Killer Shrews music video and the original trailer. As a package it does represent very good value for money, and also gives you the opportunity to watch the two features as a double bill.
One thing is for sure Return of the Killer Shrews will not appeal to everyone, and there are those who will be put off with the unsophisticated rendering of digital FX and the weird shrieking that omits from the shrews during the action. Putting this aside, for some reason it works on the level it was intended and for lovers of the cheesy, fun, and inappropriate. There is a lot of enjoyment to be had in watching this. Latshaw and his cast and crew manage to capture the energy of the original and one thing that can be said is this is a film made with a lot of affection, which is mirrored in the performances on show. A trashy distraction and definitely one for those who love their horror on the cheap and cheerful side.