Genetically-modified rodents run amuck again when James Best – and a few of his DUKES OF HAZZARD buddies – battle THE RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS!, on DVD from Retromedia.
Boat captain Thorne Sherman (James Best, SHOCK CORRIDOR) – with first mate Rooke (Rick Hurst, THE UNHOLY ROLLERS) – reluctantly returns to the island off the coast of Texas where he did battle with THE KILLER SHREWS back in 1959 where Advent Wild Wear is shooting a reality TV show. Producer Wally (Patrick Moran, BIOHAZARD: THE ALIEN FORCE) has arrived with the money and centerfold Christine (Holly Weber, THE DEVIL'S TOMB) to shoot the "sizzle reel". While star starring Johnny Reno (John Schneider, TV's SMALLVILLE) – advised by his agent Stella (Maggie Wagner, WORKING GIRL), cue Brando scream – mugs for the camera with Crocodile Hunter and John Wayne impressions, a love triangle smolders between production manager Sam (Jason Shane Scott, SHRIEKER), camerawoman Mickey (Jennifer Lyons, DEVIL'S PREY), and bimbo hairdresser/aspiring actress Julie (Jeneta St. Clair, PARADOX ALICE). Thorne is reluctant to stay on the island, but he wants to get paid. Little do they all realize that someone (Bruce Davison, WILLARD) is lurking in the hills and commanding an army of giant killer shrews that must eat their own body weight daily or die. When production assistants start disappearing, opportunistic director Willard (Christopher Goodman, ALICE AND MARTIN) and long-suffering writer Lenora (Katherine Randolph, RITES OF SPRING) hit upon the idea to turn the search for the missing crew members into a rescue mission lead (on camera) by Johnny. They fail to heed the Thorne's warnings until they actually see the killer shrews eviscerate one of their own; and even then, it's a golden opportunity for a reality snuff show.
An entertaining enough sequel/homage to the original – the delights of which hardly require the MST3K treatment to appreciate – THE RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS features a cast who are all obviously better than the material – even the newcomers – but still game. The shrews themselves are rendered in close-up with some perma-snarl models while they are seen in long shot and carry out much of their mayhem via CGI. The CGI versions are reasonably good in the technical sense for a low budget film and quite amusing in design, but the attacks are of the digital blood splash variety with only a few lost limbs here and there (this isn't so bad in the case of the earlier, more likable victims but the attacks on some of the more odious characters really required some practical effects for their fates to satisfy. The film utilizes black and white clips from the original film to illustrate Thorne's explanations and recollections, which is particularly valuable in making sense of the motivation of one character for those who haven't seen the original (although the actor now playing him is about twenty years too young and would have been a teenager back in 1959). The recreation of the fate of Thorne's first mate, on the other hand, is less successfully integrated. Latshaw's direction is generally good apart from the in-jokes to the actors' past roles like Davison reprising his WILLARD act ("Tear him up!") or the particularly painful DUKES OF HAZZARD reunion of Best, Hurst, and Schneider. The cast also features Sean Flynn (HATFIELDS AND MCCOYS: BAD BLOOD) – grandson of Errol – as one of the less fortunate reality show performers (leading to the crack "Who do you think you are, Errol Flynn?" when the actor haphazardly swings a sword around the besieged cabin. Some of the comic mugging for the camera during the lunch break scene also seems like Latshaw gave the actors too much leeway in improvisation. Best is not the only schlock monster movie actor to return for a recent homage, as Don Sullivan (TEENAGE ZOMBIES) also popped up in Jim Wynorski's quasi-remake of THE GIANT GILA MONSTER titled GILA!
Director Latshaw provides an audio commentary moderated by Retromedia's Fred Olen Ray in which they discuss the origins of the project, as well as the history of the original film and how such films were usually relegated to the B-status of a double feature. Executive producer Gordon McClendon decided to make his own double bill so his productions would be both the A-feature and B-feature, the latter being THE GIANT GILA MONSTER (they mention the remake and director Wynorski in the context of suggesting that the film's director character is based on him). They mention that the aforementioned DUKES OF HAZZARD reunion scene was whittled down from roughly fifteen minutes of ad-libbing (Davison's WILLARD references were the actor's idea), as well as pointing out each of the original songs for the soundtrack. On a technical note, they discuss the latitude that HD video and color grading in post offers low budget filmmaking over shooting on film (dispiriting but sensible for films like this). Ray has worked with so many buxom gals that he has to be reminded by Latshaw that Lyons had previously worked for him on DINOSAUR ISLAND. The two have been working together since the nineties so there is mention of their past collaborations along with more than we need to know about their snacking preferences.
The making-of featurette is divided into four parts. "The Cast" (11:12) starts with Best describing how he, Latshaw, and Patrick Moran got together to script the sequel. The other actors talk about their characters, giving a bit more backstory than necessary for their characters. It also includes Schneider, Best, and Hurst reminiscing on set about their DUKES OF HAZZARD days while Davison compares the film to his experiences shooting WILLARD. "The Producers" (2:49) introduces us to Best's wife Dorothy who describes the original film as a skeleton in the closet of her husband's career until Latshaw told them about the film's cult classic reputation. Co-writer/producer Moran recalls that the story for the film started out as a joke between Best and Latshaw, but the idea of making it into a film became more tempting. In "The Effects" (5:23), Best introduces us to effects creature Jeffrey S. Farley (WITCHOUSE) and his team as they are working on the shrew puppet molds, as well as David Estes who designed the CGI shrews. "The Music" (4:53) provides the context of Jan & Dean's Dean Torrence's involvement in the film's soundtrack, including the trivia that Bruce Davison played the performer in a TV movie about the duo and the auto accident Jan Berry suffered that set them back while he slowly recovered. The disc also includes a cheesy "Shrewd Attitude" Music Video (4:40) – performed by Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean with backup by the film's cast – as well as a trailer (1:18) for the film. The major extra, however, is the original THE KILLER SHREWS (68:54) in a passable anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer (I'm guessing from 16mm based on the blooming of the whites). I have no idea how it compares to the Legend Films double feature with THE GIANT GILA MONSTER which featured both black and white and colorized versions, but it's likely better than the many PD DVD editions. (Eric Cotenas)
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