B&W, 1959, 74 mins. 40 secs.
Directed by Ray Kellogg
Starring Don Sullivan, Lisa Simone, Fred Graham, Shug Fisher, Bob Thompson
Film Masters (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Image Entertainment (US R0 NTSC), Elite Entertainment (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

B&W, 1959, 68 mins. 43 secs.
Directed by Ray Kellogg
Starring James Best, Ingrid Goude, Ken Curtis, Gordon McLendon, Baruch Lumet
Film Masters (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Any fan of giant monster movies of the '50s The Giant Gila Monsterhas undoubtedly had multiple run-ins with two infamous films directed by Hollywood special The Giant Gila Monstereffects artist Ray Kellogg, both shot in Texas in just under three months near the end of the decade: The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews. Complete with limited sets and trick photography of real animals to create imposing threats from mother nature, the indie films willed into existence by radio innovator and savvy businessman Gordon McLendon were destined to become creature feature TV perennials and eventual home video PD fixtures -- all in truly miserable quality that made you squint to find much worth watching. In 2023, both films were given massive makovers by Film Masters (essentially carrying on the work of The Film Detective with some of the same personnel), presenting the best presentations of both films by a very, very, very long shot.

First up in The Giant Gila Monster, nice guy teen and auto shop worker Chase Winstead (Sullivan) is perturbed when two of his buddies are the latest victims in a string of baffling local car accidents. Also prone to musical interludes to entertain his widowed mom and polio-stricken little sister, Chase finds the local authorities and other adults less than capable in dealing with the menace that naturally turns out to be a mutated gila monster now grown to enormous size. Now the clock is running out as Chase and his friends must save the population, in particular the big teen sock hop in a barn, before the rampaging reptile decimates them all.

In the tradition of the original The Blob, this one distinguishes itself by being firmly on the side of its teen characters-- though its monster (played by a Mexican beaded lizard standing in for a gila monster) isn't quite as iconic. The shots of the beast tearing through a wall and attacking dance-happy teens are tremendous fun, and the dusty Texas atmosphere is weirdly effective at times. The usual '50s monster formula of having character yap on and on to fill up the running time is also in place here, with shots of the beast kept to a minimum for the first half to presumably work up patrons into a The Giant Gila Monsterfrenzy by the time it really goes on a rampage. Sullivan is actually fine as our young hero, though his musical interludes are peculiar with the film's biggest weird interlude coming with that strumming religious serenade for his family. It's no wonder The Giant Gila Monsterthis and its companion feature ended up being fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000, though they're both plenty entertaining on their own.

The Giant Gila Monster (which got remade in 2012 as Gila! by Jim Wynorski, no less) has been on home video in a variety of PD editions, with the best during the DVD era coming from Image Entertainment via Wade Williams. That transfer actually looked okay for the time, with extras including the original trailer and an Images Journal article about the film's connections to teen movies and real-life issues at the time including ties to sex and communism. Far worse was the film's presentation in the second of Elite Entertainment's Drive-In Discs series, paired up with The Wasp Woman and looking awful all the way through. The Film Masters release puts this film on its own disc offering both a 1.85:1 matted presentation (preserving the film's intended theatrical framing) and an open matte 1.33:1 option if want to recapture its TV appearance with acres of dead space at the top and bottom. Both look superb throughout with nice, natural film grian and deep blacks; audio options are DTS-HD MA 2.0 and Dolby Digital 2.0 English mono tracks with optional English SDH subtitiles. A new audio commentary by The Monster Party Podcast's Larry Strothe, James Gonis, Shawn Sheridan, and Matt Weinhold is great fun and very informative as they rattle through the stories of McLendon and Kellogg, the effects trickey here often mistaken for rear projection, the shooting locations, highlights from the press book, and lots more. A 2009 audio interview with Sullivan (92m53s) is a great addition here, The Killer Shrewswith Bryan Senn chatting with the actor and singer about his career, his role in the film, the use of songs (which The Killer Shrewshe essentially gave away for, uh, a song), and a few corrections about his biographic information. The trailer is also included in lustrous HD.

Then on disc two we get The Killer Shrews, again offered in matted 1.85:1 and open matte 1.33:1 options -- both infinitely better than the truly dire PD versions we've been stuck with for ages. Prepare to hear some reappraisals of this film, at least for the qualities of its lighting and photography, as it really looks and feels so much fun and energetic now that you can see what's going on. James Best, better known for his extensive TV credits including The Dukes of Hazzard and The Twilight Zone, stars as Captain Thorne Sherman who steers a ship of supplies to a research facility on an island. Upon arrival he's hurried to unload and leave due to an impending hurricane, but instead he ends up hunkering down with the inhabitants including Dr. Craigis (Lumet), his suspiciously Swedish daughter Ann (Goude), her hard-boozing beau Jerry (Curtis), and the quirky Dr. Baines (McLendon himself). As it turns out, the weather is the least of their problems thanks to the lab's test subjects, shews, whose genetic modifications have resulted in savage, flesh-shredding monsters that could kill them all by sunrise.

For decades, lovers of "bad" movies have chuckled at the shrews here which consist of a mixture of wild puppets and camouflaged canines scurrying after the cast. It's actually a fun approach though with some of the close-ups of the monsters tearing their way through The Killer Shrewswalls having a strange nightmarish quality sometimes noted as a precursor to Night of the Living Dead. As a monster siege movie it gets the job done, The Killer Shrewstoo, delivering a couple of surprisingly gory flourishes and a really daft final plan to get the survivors off the island. No matter how you feel about it, this is a film that, once seen, cannot be forgotten.

While Giant Gila at least had one passable edition on DVD, The Killer Shrews has been a victim of PD neglect for ages until now. The bump in audio and video quality here should make this a popular one with '50s creature feature fans, and it comes with a thorough, well-researched audio commentary by Jason A. Ney, whose excellent past track record continues here with plenty of content about Kellogg and McLendon, Lumet and his famous son Sidney, and endless amusement at the amount of alcohol consumed here (though it still can't best The Bad Seed). The Ballyhoo featurette "Ray Kellogg: An Unsung Master" (16m12s), narrated by Larry Blamire and written by C. Courtney Joyner, provides an illuminating look at the director's often overlooked work for major studios including his contributions to Tora! Tora! Tora!, Cleopatra, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Green Berets, as well as his work during and just after World War II. Also included is a 12m43s batch of highly dramatic radio spots for both features, and a hefty insert booklet features essays by Don Stradley ("Pirate Radio, Presidential Assassinations, and Gila Monsters: All in a Life's Work for Gordon McLendon," a wild piece connecting him to everything from Jack Ruby to his last movie, Victory), and Ney's "The Unkillable Killer Shrews," a study of the film's life after its release including its cult status, pop culture homages, and belated sequels and spoofs.

THE GIANT GILA MONSTER: Film Masters Blu-ray (1.85:1)

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THE GIANT GILA MONSTER: Film Masters Blu-ray (1.33:1)

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THE GIANT GILA MONSTER: Elite Entertainment (DVD)

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THE KILLER SHREWS: Film Masters Blu-ray (1.85:1)

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THE KILLER SHREWS: Film Masters Blu-ray (1.33:1)

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Reviewed on September 6, 2023