DECATUR - In 1959, the world was first exposed to "The Killer Shrews." The "B movie" horror flick was released as half of a monster movie double feature, along with the equally inexpensive "Giant Gila Monster."
For Decatur native Steve Latshaw, born the same year, these films were the sort of drive-in movie fare easy to enjoy for their campy production values, nonexistent budgets and cheesy special effects. Never, though, did Latshaw imagine 52 years later he would be helming a sequel long in the making - "Return of the Killer Shrews."
"In the 1980s, a lot of us folks who were in the film industry bought a book called The Golden Turkey Awards," Latshaw explained. "It was a compendium of a lot of the cheesiest B movies out there. 'The Killer Shrews' was mentioned multiple times, so I made a note to see it."
Today, it's relatively easy to see the original "Killer Shrews," as the film has entered the public domain and is readily accessible on the Internet in its entirety. With this access, and appearances on satirical television programs such as "Mystery Science Theater 3000" in the 1990s, the film developed both an infamous reputation and a cult following. Aware of this, Latshaw braced himself for the worst - and was surprised.
"I expected to laugh at it for being truly awful, like you would at say, 'Plan 9 From Outer Space,' but I didn't," Latshaw said. "I remember thinking, 'This isn't nearly as bad as people say it is. There's a good movie in this story.' "
The filmmaker was at the time directing and writing similarly low-budgeted horror films such as "Dark Universe" and the pumpkin-headed slasher flick "Jack-O." In a coincidental meeting of minds, the thought of reviving the "Killer Shrews" legacy was first kindled in Latshaw's head by a member of the original film's cast, "Dukes of Hazzard" veteran James Best, a longtime collaborator.
For the next 20 years, the two joked about a "Killer Shrews" sequel, occasionally tinkering with scripts. Things finally turned serious last year, and filming on "Return of the Killer Shrews" is scheduled to begin in Los Angeles in the next few months, bringing the cycle full. James Best returns to reprise his character of Captain Thorne Sherman, drawn unwillingly back to an island crawling with oversized, venomous, deadly shrews.
"I think it should go without saying that the shrews will look a lot better in 2011 than they did in 1959," said Best, an actor remembered for his role as the bumbling sheriff, Roscoe P. Coltrane, in the original "Dukes of Hazzard" television series. "In the first film the shrews were just dogs with fur and prosthetic makeup attached to their faces. They had a budget of about 15 cents, I think."
Best certainly never expected a sequel to the film to get made - nor did he want one, going as far to say that he prayed after the production was over that he wouldn't be asked to return for another "Shrews" film. The production was a mess of confusion headed up by a first-time director, and Best vividly recalled certain scenes that inadvertently featured his real-life terror.
"There's a scene where the shrews are chasing me up a hill, and to get them to follow me the director dragged a caged raccoon behind the camera to rile up the dogs," said Best of the unorthodox strategy. "It worked too well. I was looking back, and it was getting very real, seeing those angry dogs charging up after me. I wasn't so sure they were after the raccoon."
Best changed his mind, however, after witnessing a cult audience for the film grow, an audience that clearly appreciated it in spite and because of its numerous flaws.
"I'm amazed how many hits you can get on Google by just typing in 'Killer Shrews,' " he said. "It's a production I'll always remember. I did 'Twilight Zone' and 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' episodes, but this was stranger than any of them."
Now 84 years old, Best will take a somewhat less active role in the sequel, acting as the sage, shrew-experienced leader. Rounding out the cast are two other former "Dukes of Hazzard" actors - John Schneider (Luke Duke) and Rick Hurst (Cletus Hogg), along with country singer Mel Tillis and Jennifer Lyons. For Latshaw, it's a long-awaited return to the director's chair after nearly 10 years of primarily screenwriting credits.
"Directing is definitely the most fun, no doubt about it," Latshaw said. "Writing is kind of like being a sculptor, except you're only making the blueprints and someone else has to do the creating. If a movie turns out well, all the credit goes to the filmmaker. But if it bombs, it's the fault of the weak script."
"Return of the Killer Shrews" already may sound like an entirely over-the-top home video or television release, but Latshaw has one final surprise up his sleeve to target a modern audience - a 3D theatrical release. Embracing the current three-dimensional film zeitgeist, the Lakeview High School graduate is going to do everything he can to have his film seen by audiences across the nation, and not just those already familiar with the series.
"We're using the same 3D film system as the upcoming 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movie," Latshaw said. "We want to get this in theaters, and 3D is the best chance. Our attitude at this point is to anticipate that possible opportunity."
To Latshaw, "Return of the Killer Shrews" represents the culmination of a 20-year relationship with Best and a personal goal of returning to film direction. Where he goes from here is up in the air, with the director considering different genres such as a Western picture or biopic. But it would seem Best has his own ideas.
"James is already talking about 'Killer Shrews 3,' " Latshaw said. "Presumably that would take less than 52 years to get off the ground."