“Here comes Gordy.”
In the 1950’s Gordon McLendon owned a series of radio stations throughout Texas along with a string of drive-in movie locations. Those drive-ins needed films to draw crowds, and Gordy wasn’t happy with the cost of some of the distribution deals that came to him. So he decided to team up with a couple of guys and try his hand at making his own movies. The first guy he teamed with would become well known to television audiences, but not for the movies he helped produce with Gordy. Ken Curtis would become the beloved Gunsmoke character Festus, a deputy who had more in common with Don Knotts than Marshal Dillon. He may not have been the sharpest point on a tin star, but America loved him. They might have thought twice if they knew about this partnership. The third leg of this tripod was Gordy’s father, B.R. McLendon. Together they would make Hollywood history, or is that Hollywood infamy? That’s for you to decide. They made three movies in total, but the first two are where that history was made.
The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews were pretty much made back to back, sharing director Ray Kellogg. They were made on a shoestring budget and intended to be a drive-in double feature. That was true of a lot of films made by indie studios and producers. Even the big guys made double features, particularly Hammer Films and American International. Most of those films still get a lot of love and respect today, but for Gila Monster and Killer Shrews, they have achieved something no other features can lay claim to. They have remained tied together and have been released on home video as a double bill for decades. This was pure schlock. Many of the actors were Gordy’s personal friends or family members. Gordy might have been somewhat of a business genius. He died in 1989 worth over $200 million. But there was a mistake in the copyright process that quickly put both films into the public domain. That’s why they’ve been released so often and in varying degrees of picture quality. It’s a fate George Romero knew so well, as it happened to his masterpiece The Night Of The Living Dead. Finally a studio decided to put some money into cleaning the films and releasing them in as high quality as could be had. Now Film Masters contributes to our 31 Nights Of Terror with a Blu-ray release of The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews.
The Giant Gila Monster
“In the enormity of the west, there are still vast and virtually unexplored regions! Bleak and desolate! Where no human ever goes! And no life is ever seen! It is as though the land had been pelted by God! It is in these lonely areas of the impenetrable forest and dark shadows that the Gila Monster still lives! How large the dreaded Gila Monster grows, no man can say.”
Don Sullivan plays Chase Winstead. He’s a local teen mechanic and hot-rodder. He’s got a pretty good relationship with Sheriff Jeff (Graham). Chase is the first place he turns when it appears that a teen couple has disappeared. The girl’s father is worried that the couple eloped, but Chase and the gang aren’t so sure. Things look bad when a car is discovered run off the road, but none of the passengers seem to be around. Chase is invited to give his take on the wreck and maybe “borrow” one of those headlights for his own hot rod. No one is particularly worried, and there’s more important work anyway. There’s the big dance coming, and Chase happens to have lucked into a local celebrity when local disc jockey phenom Horatio “Steamroller” Smith happens by the garage. Steamroller is played by one of Gordy’s real life big jocks, Ken Knox. The goal here has less to do with any monster and more to do with teen cars at the drive-ins. Don Sullivan was a little bit of a teen idol, and he ends up singing a couple of songs. It pads the running time and might get a few swoons out of your date at the drive-in. That’s what Gordy would have called a win-win.
When another car is found the same way, rumors start getting out about a giant lizard that might be stalking the area. Oh, and that second car? It sure has some nice tires, and it would be a shame for them to go to waste, so why not put them on Chase’s hot rod? This relationship is working out pretty well for the teen. Of course, when the monster finally shows up, it’s Chase that saves the day by letting his hot rod loaded with dynamite crash into the monster. All is forgiven.
The “monster” isn’t really a gila monster at all, but rather the more common beaded lizard. They’re close enough cousins that even this old reptile breeder is willing to cut them some slack. To save money, the creature is a live lizard shown roaming around with a miniature or two where needed. You never see it in scale with the cast, so it’s a pretty cheap monster that would have made Irwin Allen blush. Hey, we’ve got money to save here.
The Killer Shrews
“Those who hunt by night will tell you that the wildest and most vicious of all animals is the tiny shrew. The shrew feeds only by the dark of the moon. He *must* eat his own body weight every few hours – or starve. And the shrew devours *everything*: bones, flesh, marrow … everything. In March, first in Alaska, and then invading steadily southward, there were reports of a new species: the giant killer shrew.”
Thorne Sherman, played by James Best, is delivering supplies to a small island where scientists are doing animal research. When they arrive, they discover they might be stuck there for a time because of a hurricane coming through the area. Sherman meets Professor Craigis (Lumit). But he’s more interested in the professor’s helper and daughter, Ingrid. We find out that the professor is working on a way to beat overpopulation. He figures if he can get people to become smaller, they’ll take up less room and need less food and other resources. But it appears his experiment has backfired, and instead of shrinking people or anything else, it has made the island’s tiny shrews become the size of dogs. That’s a very fortunate size for the shrews to become, because they are played by dogs wrapped in shag carpet. These creatures are hands down the worst looking monsters in monster movie history.
The shrews kill quickly, and we get to see a few of the island’s people get eaten. Ken Curtis himself makes a cameo as Jerry, a runner-up for Festus. When the hurricane passes, they have to find a way to make it to the beach. They tie steel drums together and cut out a visor plate, and each drum gets someone underneath so that it acts as armor as they make their way through the killer shrews. I have to admit, that’s been a strong image for me. I first saw these films the way a lot of us did on Friday and Saturday night creature features, and for some reason the image of those folks under the barrels remained with me all of these years. I can’t explain it, but that’s why this little bad film has always had a special place in my heart. I looked for it for years when home video began, and so now I have these films on VHS, laserdisc, DVD, and now Blu-ray. Who would have thought? I think Gordy would have been proud.
The only real extra is a feature on director Ray Kellogg, and it’s about 15 minutes. It’s rather nice, because I must admit I knew very little about him, and now I know a little more. I know it’s easy to pass this release up. You’ve seen the titles a lot of times, and if you’ve read this far, you’ve likely owned a version or two. Here’s my argument for grabbing them again. These actually look really nice, and I don’t think there’s a copy of either film out there that looks this good. Toss the others and put this on your shelves in its place. “Of course, I always speak from the clinical point of view.”