The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews have settled into a prominent place in the cult film landscape, thanks in part to their public domain status which has made them staples for TV broadcasting, MST3K-style riffing, and of course endless grey-market releases on DVD and VHS. If you collect genre movies, chances are these films have found their way in your collection – maybe many times over.
Unfortunately public domain status can also have an adverse impact on a film’s commercial viability – restoring a film is an expensive and difficult process, and kind of a risky move in the face all those cheap knockoff DVDs. But in recent years, several titles like Night of the Living Dead, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, and Dementia 13 have finally received gorgeous new editions.
New label Film Masters has only showed their hand on a few releases so far, so it remains to be seen what will be the full scope of their outlook and output, but from the handful of announced titles so far, it looks like they’re taking on the challenge of breathing new life into public domain titles.
Their first release takes on Ray Kellogg’s The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews – even fans of the films may not know that these films originated as a double feature, so their pairing is a particularly appropriate one.
In short, this is the definitive release of these movies for the foreseeable future. Both films are restored in HD, and offered in 1.85 widescreen versions in addition to their traditional 1.33 aspect ratio. They look better than ever, and the discs include some neat extras, most notably a documentary on Ray Kellogg.
Many of the screen captures in this review offer both the 1.33 and 1.85 versions for comparison.
The Giant Gila Monster
Don Sullivan stars – and sings! – in this creature feature that appeals to a drive-in crowd with lots of teenagers, hot rods, and rockabilly. A handful of mysterious disappearances draw the attention of a rural town and their harried sheriff (Fred Graham). Sullivan plays the lead role of Chase Winstead, a kindhearted grease monkey and aspiring singer who ekes out a living fixing cars and also serves as the informal leader of the local pack of hot-rodding kids. Chase and the sheriff work together to investigate the unusual activities, eventually discovering they’re the work of a (say it with me) giant gila monster – captured in live action by filming a real one, sometimes against miniature backdrops and never in the same shot as the cast.
Despite the monster movie setup, the film is quite wholesome and gentle, and even yielded “The Mushroom Song” (aka “Laugh, Children, Laugh”), which has found some life outside of the movie, sung by Chase to encourage his disabled sister as she struggles with her leg braces.
Sullivan’s charisma in the role somewhat offsets the film’s inherent silliness, and helps makes this an enjoyably watchable flick.
The Killer Shrews
On making a delivery to a remote island, boat captain Thorne Sherman (James Best) becomes embroiled in the plight of the geneticists working there, who have accidentally created a pack of voracious oversized shrews that are now roaming the island.
Having ravaged all the ecosystem’s natural prey, the dog-sized (and very clearly dog-portrayed) rodents are now hungry for humans.
It’s the lesser film in the pairing, but also the meaner, with some action and peril – including both human and animal threats – that feel a little more present and threatening than a languid gila monster lumbering off-camera.
The film has a multi-racial cast but the non-white characters are in stereotypically subservient roles. Sherman employs a black shipmate, to whom he speaks disparagingly (though a more generous reading might argue that they enjoy a friendly banter). The scientists similarly employ a Mexican character as a caretaker – no points for guessing which two characters to get picked off early.
Note, this restoration appears to be cobbled from a few (I can identify at least three) different sources. Most of it is high quality restoration obviously sourced from clean 35mm, comparable to The Giant Gila Monster. The film’s last 10 minutes – presumably where an archival reel is lost or unusable – dips into a slightly lesser quality which is virtually unnoticeable (still in a good resolution but lossy). I didn’t notice the change myself while watching, but picked up on it while capturing screenshots with more scrutiny. I did notice one brief scene where the restoration drops into a third, much lower VHS-like source for about 16 seconds. This is shown below.
Acknowledging the dated and kitschy nature of these low budget cult movies, the idea of a restoration may raise the question: Does looking better actually make these movies better? And the answer is Yes, absolutely. I’ve seen both movies before on TV or home video, in an enjoyable but dismissive sort of way. I definitely enjoyed this Blu-ray a lot more – the boost in clarity obviously makes things easier on the eyes, but seeing these films in good quality also gives them more earnest appeal in terms of their craft, low budget though it may be. Don Sullivan in particular is an easy performance to get behind in The Giant Gila Monster, and The Killer Shrews manages to evoke an eerie and slightly surreal vibe, despite its dogs-in-costume antagonists – its plot of squabbling characters trapped in a house under attack notably predates a similar setup perfected by George Romero almost a decade later in Night of the Living Dead.
It’s easy to dismiss a movie as trash when it looks like trash – in pristine quality they do have more to offer.
On that note, here are some additional shots of both films – in many of them I’ve included both the 1.33 and 1.85 versions of the same frames (or close to it as I could manage) for comparison. Since I’ve seen both films before, I opted to watch the 1:85s this round. It’s not how they were designed to be watched, but works well – and they are arguably more immersively this way.
The Giant Gila Monster
The Killer Shrews
Film Masters has released The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews as a Blu-ray double feature. Each movie gets its own disc and comes with extras. The package includes a notably beefy 24-page booklet with essays by Don Stradley and Jason Ney discussing the context and history surrounding the films, including some focus on producer Gordon McLendon.
The Giant Gila Monster is described as having a “newly restored 4K scan from 35mm archival materials”, while The Killer Shrews is noted only as “a restored HD print” (which makes sense given the multiple sources I identified). Both films are offered in 1:85:1 (widescreen/cropped) and 1:33 (original) formats
Special Features and Extras – Disc 1 (The Giant Gila Monster)
- Original restored 35mm Trailer (1:40)
- Feature commentary from the Monster Party Podcast by Larry Strothe, James Gonis, Shawn Sheridan, and Matt Weinhold
- Archival interview (1:32:53) with actor Don Sullivan by author Bryan Senn (audio with background animation)
Special Features and Extras – Disc 2 (The Killer Shrews)
- “Ray Kellogg: An Unsung Master” (16:12) documentary by C. Courtney Joyner and narrated by Larry Blamire (Ballyhoo Motion Pictures) – analyzing the career of director Ray Kellogg, who is a more successful filmmaker than these two films on their own might suggest.
- Commentary by author James A. Ney, who also contributed to the booklet.
- Radio Spots (12:43) – 8 spots for Gila Monster, 9 for Killer Shrews