Monday, December 8, 2008

The Original Grindhouse/Drive In Double Bill: The Killer Shrews and the Giant Gila Monster

In 1959 in Texas, radio giant, Gordon McLendon, executive produced two low budget monster movies. They were produced by Ken Curtis, who later starred on the long running TV Show Gunsmoke, as Fetus. Director Ray Kellogg directed both pictures. Kellogg’s forte was special photographic effects and he is credited for close to 100 films for that. He also directed the John Wayne film, The Green Berets.

The two films packed the Drive Ins . They played the Drive In and Grindhouse circuit up until the late 60’s. Even though they were sold as a package to TV, they still showed up at the ‘Kiddee Matinees” in the early 70’s . I saw them at a matinee on my 15th birthday. Unfortunately they fell into the public domain in the early days of VHS. They were also listed as some of the worst films ever made, which I tend not to agree with.

Considering the budget restraints back then, I always found them to be entertaining. The ‘shrews” were dogs wearing fright masks and the gila monster were real lizards on miniature sets. Add casts of likeable characters to the mix, and they were pretty entertaining films.

Killer Shrews starred James Best ( Dukes of Hazzard), Ken Curtis, Ingrid Goude, and Baruch Lumet( director Sidney Lumet’s father). Captain Thorne( James Best) and his first mate, Ruk, a black dude, are delivering supplies to some scientists on an island. A storm is brewing , so he has to ride the storm out on the island. The main scientist ( Lumet), wants Thorne to take his daughter off the island. All get real nervous when they find out that Thorne won’t sail in the storm.

Thorne joins the group for dinner. Jerry ( Curtis) is a drunk and he cops an attitude toward Thorne. Thorne wants to leave , but the daughter holds a gun on him. He is told that it’s too dangerous to go out after dark. It seems that the group was experimenting with shrews. Jerry got drunk and left a cage open. Some of the experimental animals escaped and bred. A shrew must eat it’s own body weight every 8 hours or starve. Shrews usually weigh a couple of ounces, these puppies weigh 50 pounds or more.

One scientist explains that they put out poisoned meat for the beasts, but it had no effect on them. Now the creatures are eating up every living thing on the island. As darkness fall, Ruk is attacked and eaten. Thinking they are safe in the house, they plan to leave in the morning as the shrews are nocturnal. The shrews dig into the barn and eat all the live stock. One gets into the house as a falling tree rips open a shutter. Mario , the token Mexican, traps the shrew in the basement. He wakes Thorne up and they go to kill it. It bites Mario before it is riddled with bullets.

Mario dies from the bite. After an autopsy is preformed on the dead shrew, poison is found in it’s saliva. The strange parallel here is that a gila monster is one of the only lizards that has poison in it’s saliva. The shrews are now burrowing though the adobe walls to get to their victims. They decide to lash some metal drums together and use them as tanks to get to the beach, then the boat. Jerry refuses to go, stating that its suicide. Thorne and company make it to the beach. Jerry make a run for it and is killed. After they get to the boat the scientist tells them that in a few hours , the shrews will eat each other and the last one will die of starvation. ‘ a perfect example of over population” he says. Thorne makes a remark as he looks at Ingrid Goude, that “ he’ s not worried about over population right now” . wink, wink.

The Giant Gila Monster is another fun flick. Mysterious accidents are happening in a remote part of Texas. Could there be a huge, people eating lizard out in the wild area? Sure there is. Add some hot rod driving teens, a sympathetic sheriff, a lovable drunk, and a prick that wants everything his way, and you’ve got a cool movie.

Don Sullivan ( Monster of Piedras Blancas) is the older teen who keeps the others in his hot rod gang in check. The father of one of the missing teens has a king sized hard on for the kid and wants the Sheriff’s job. Mysterious wrecks keep turning up minus the people driving them. The culprit is a big lizard who attacks the cars and eats the occupants. The drunk ( Shug Fisher) see the beast derail a train. The sheriff thinks he is spinning a yarn and locks him up.

During a dance, the creature attacks. Crashing through the wall of the building. Don gets four quarts of nitro glycerin and drives his hot rod into the beast , killing it. A good film with a lot of quirky characters. A lot of McLendons were in it as Gordon McLendon was the executive producer.

I believe the company that released these was called McLendon Radio Pictures. Gordon McLendon is credited for creating the top 40 radio format and was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1994. Sadly , most of the people involved in these films are gone. Don Sullivan appeared at The Monster Bash last year in Pittsburg. Unfortunately his co star in Monster of Piedras Blancas, Jeanie Carmen, passed away of few weeks before the convention. She was also going to appear at that convention.

Though included in a lot of books as the worst films ever made, they are anything but. Sure , they are dated and you can poke fun at them. I laughed my ass off at the Mystery Science Theater 3000 versions of them. Bottom line is that they are good films and I’m glad I can say that I saw them on the big screen back in the day.
42nd Street Pete

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