Release Date(s)1959 (September 26, 2023)
Studio(s)Hollywood Pictures Corporation (Film Masters)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: B
- Overall Grade: B+
Monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s don’t get much more clichéd than The Giant Gila Monster, which is notorious for scenes of lengthy dialogue, unwarranted musical numbers, and miniatures featuring the titular oversized lizard knocking over small cars and trees without so much as a thump on the soundtrack. Obviously, it’s one of those so-called “so bad it’s good” films, but like the majority of these types of productions, there’s more to them than meets the eye. It’s by no means a great, unheralded classic, but it’s interesting and entertaining enough to warrant another look. Its companion, The Killer Shrews, is cut from the exact same cloth with poor dialogue and obvious dogs covered in carpet and masks to represent the impending monstrous scourge. Needless to say, neither film had managed to frighten anyone, but they were both successful financially upon their initial releases.
In The Giant Gila Monster, a down-on-his luck teenager, Chase (Don Sullivan), spends time with his friends obsessing over hot rods while working as a mechanic to support his widowed mother and crippled younger sister. His remote little town sees the emergence of a gargantuan and deadly reptile, which attacks those who get in its path or causes them to crash their vehicles. Though there are initially no witnesses outside of the town drunk (Shug Harris), Chase and the local sheriff (Fred Graham) discover the animal’s presence and must stop it before it kills again. In The Killer Shrews, Captain Thorne (James Best) sails to a remote island and delivers supplies to a private scientist, Dr. Marlowe (Barluch Lumet), but winds up marooned with the threat of an incoming hurricane. There he also meets the doctor’s daughter Ann (Ingrid Goude) and her drunken, controlling fiancé Jerry (Ken Curtis), who quarrel when Ann warms up to Thorne. Meanwhile, the doctor has been conducting growth experiments on shrews, some of which grow enormous and vicious, escaping the compound and feeding at night. A serious threat to them all, they must try and not just survive each other, but the clutches of these deadly creatures.
Both films were produced back to back on the same location in Dallas, Texas with mostly the same crew, including director Ray Kellogg, who was mostly known at that time as a visual effects artist. The films were released on a double bill in 1959, falling into the public domain soon thereafter and repeatedly airing on television for decades. The advent of home video saw any number of companies releasing the films over and over again on various formats. Each received further notoriety when they were riffed in season four of Mystery Science Theater 3000, where its likely that a majority of people saw each film for the first time. Their reputations as bad films stands firm today, with most audiences laughing at the unintentional hilarity found within. Monster movie fans of all ages are loyal, and both The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews continue on as beloved films, regardless of their quality.
The Giant Gila Monster makes its Blu-ray debut, while The Killer Shrews was released in Germany on Blu-ray in 2013. The two films were released by Diamond Entertainment on a double feature DVD in the late 90s, so it seems fitting that they’re together again in one package. Both were shot by director of photography Wilfred M. Cline on 35 mm black-and-white film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented theatrically in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The newly-formed Film Masters (featuring many of the same staff from The Film Detective) brings The Giant Gila Monster to Blu-ray with a presentation that’s, according to the front cover, a “newly restored 4K scan of 35 mm archive materials.” What’s more, two aspect ratio options are presented: the theatrically-accurate 1.85:1, and the way that most people have seen this film, in 1.33:1.
No matter which option you choose for The Giant Gila Monster, there’s a nice even sheen of grain and a healthy bitrate on display. Minor wobble is all that mars the picture as it’s otherwise clean. Contrast is surprisingly solid as well, with deep blacks and excellent grayscale. Whatever the elements were that this presentation was pulled from, it’s given the film new life as it looks stupendous. Also according to the cover, the presentation of The Killer Shrews is sourced from a “restored HD print,” also in differing aspect ratios. Like its predecessor, it also features a healthy level of grain and a high bitrate, but differs significantly in a couple of areas. Besides minor wobble, there are also occasional frame jumps and uses of alternate shots of lesser quality footage, perhaps due to a lack of salvageable elements. Contrast is decent, though it’s considerably flatter in places than its counterpart. Overall, it’s still a strong presentation, and certainly the best the film has looked on home video, maybe ever.
Audio for both films is provided in English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio and English 2.0 Mono Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles in English SDH. I’m not sure why there are two audio options as they both sound similar outside of the fact that one is lossless and one isn’t. In any case, the DTS-HD tracks are more than adequate with good support for dialogue and sound effects, as well as the score and occasional musical numbers. They’re also mostly clean with no major distortion issues or dropouts, though The Killer Shrews features some obvious crackle.
THE GIANT GILA MONSTER (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): D+/A-/B+
THE KILLER SHREWS (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): D/B-/B
The 2-Disc Special Edition of The Giant Gila Monster sits in a blue amaray case alongside the Blu-ray of The Killer Shrews. Also included is a 24-page insert booklet containing photos, posters, and the essays Pirate Radio, Presidential Assassinations, and Gila Monsters: All in a Life’s Work for Gordon McLendon by Don Stradley and The Unkillable Killer Shrews by Jason A. Ney. The following extras are included on each disc, all in HD:
DISC ONE: THE GIANT GILA MONSTER
- Audio Commentary with Larry Strothe, James Gonis, Shawn Sheridan, and Matt Weinhold
- Trailer (1:40)
- Audio Interview with Don Sullivan (92:53)
DISC TWO: THE KILLER SHREWS
- Audio Commentary with Jason A. Ney
- Ray Kellogg: An Unsung Master (16:12)
- Radio Spots (17 in all – 12:43)
The audio commentary for The Giant Gila Monster with Larry Strothe, James Gonis, Shawn Sheridan, and Matt Weinhold of the Monster Party Podcast is an upbeat but informative chat as the four contributors have a few laughs along the way, but take turns delving into the history of the production and the filmmakers involved. It’s certainly a notch above many other podcast-based commentaries. Next is the film’s trailer, presented in HD, and an audio interview with actor Don Sullivan, which was conducted by author Bryan Senn in 2003. The sound quality isn’t the best, but it’s an excellent hour and a half conversation between the two about Sullivan’s career.
The audio commentary for The Killer Shrews features author Jason A. Ney who talks about the film’s many pros and cons. He unfortunately goes quiet a few too many times, but provides interesting details about the production. Ray Kellogg: An Unsung Master is a featurette produced by Daniel Griffith’s Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. Narrated by Larry Blamire, a quick summary is given of the director’s career, as well as the productions of both films and the careers of those involved. Last is a set of 17 radio spots for both films, 8 for The Giant Gila Monster and 9 for The Killer Shrews.
Film Masters have begun their new label with an excellent release that finally sees these two films given their proper due in excellent quality with a nice set of extras to go with them. For genre fans and monster movie fans alike, this should be an essential purchase. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons