Dumb monster movies tend to live or die by their zaniness; the best have maniacal villains and over-the-top deaths that stand out from the rest of the murderous horde, while the worst suffer the same fate as a throwaway character whose CGI blood splatters across the screen. Despite how these low-budget creature features look, it’s not easy to make a hit cult film; a certain boldness and optimism is required to create genuine cheese, the sort that contains genuine affection for the genre. Return of the Killer Shrews, a 53-years-later sequel to one particularly corny classic, does exhibit a little of that love. Unfortunately, it also deals in empty self-awareness, the unfunny mockery that schlock like Sharknado has made popular. The result is sometimes fun, sometimes fizzled, but always tame.
There’s even less of a story here than in 1959’s The Killer Shrews, but what’s written by the original’s lead actor, James Best, and director Steve Latshaw makes sure the actors don’t have to stretch much, with Captain Thorne Sherman returning to the island he barely escaped from decades earlier after agreeing to provide transportation for the bickering, vapid crew of a wilderness reality TV show, none of whom have any idea about the existence of the titular deadly beasts. Naturally, deaths occur (the first couple are genuinely a blast, with limbs amusingly ripped off), and eventually the survivors hole up in a familiar shack, in search of an escape. Little do they know, another returning character is pulling the savage strings…
That brief description probably reads more interesting than Return of the Killer Shrews actually portrays it story, but who watches these things for plot? The action starts off nice and sordid, with an opening that intersperses footage from the black-and-white original into a comedic preamble, then segues into a fabulously pulpy title sequence that suggests the film might choose to take its mystique as a cult favorite sincerely. Ah, would that were true.
For some reason, Return of the Killer Shrews decides to lampoon its own inspiration as if that hadn’t already been done on Mystery Science Theater 3000. There are too many in-jokes, some horrific shrew effects that look worse than a film made half-a-century ago, and a cast that might as well be nudging audiences in the ribs, winking to make sure they get the inside joke while they flirt, fight, parade, and bluster. An egomaniac director, an unappreciated writer, a vain TV star, a macho hunk, and the bumbling geezers all fight for laughs when they should be fighting giant shrews. In fact, the film wastes so much time with the ridiculous hijinks and one-liners of inane buffoons that the rest of the kills — one of the best reasons to watch movies like this — come off like afterthoughts.
A shallow wannabe actress and that obnoxious director are characters begging for especially cathartic and bloody death scenes, but instead there is no imagination put into these kills — just the same boring, recycled CGI munching viewers have already been treated to. That leaves the dialogue to supply the entertainment, and well, that’s not exactly where a monster movie wants to be. Lines like “Caves don’t have doors!” are followed with brilliant rejoinders like “This one does!” Toward the end, as Thorne is told to “go to hell” by his archenemy, he responds “I’m going north” as if it were some sort of climactic declaration that sums up the moment and their relationship. Maybe it read better in the script.
Still, while most of the actors are destined to be chewed up and spit out by more than just foul beasties, there are a few people that inject Return of the Killer Shrews with some life. Best resumes the role of Thorne with a charming goofiness that borders on senility; one minute he’s warning everyone about the grave danger in store , the next he’s a horndog coot who wants to party. He wrote some of this stuff, so it’s no wonder he’s one of the best at speaking it. The real winner in this movie, however, is Best’s old Dukes of Hazzard co-star. John Schneider brings such an A-game that he almost seems to be in different, better movie when his Steve Irwin-wannabe diva is on screen. His energy is infectious, and he somehow finds a playful note that seems to be eluding everyone else. That includes the normally solid Bruce Davison (what is he doing here?) in a thankless villain role that sees him mostly staring directly into the camera trying to look maniacal while blowing a recorder flute. Nevertheless, he does the best with what he’s given and thankfully plays it mostly straight.
Look, this isn’t the worst intentionally terrible film out there, but it still ranks low even on the SyFy rung. Liking an old funny-bad movie isn’t enough reason to make a bizarrely late sequel — there has to be some kind of passion for filmmaking on display, whether misdirected or otherwise. A little understanding of why B-movies are fun to watch might also supply some edge (hint: they take it seriously). Regardless, if you’re gnawing for a few cheap laughs — and some even cheaper deaths — then Return of the Killer Shrews digs up some tame B-movie fun.
*Return of the Killer Shrews has recently been released on VOD