Q&A: Director of 'Return of the Killer Shrews'
We recently chatted with Steve Latshaw regarding his sequel to the cult classic The Killer Shrews. He described viewers that enjoyed films like Tucker and Dale versus Evil, Slither and What We Do in Shadow as the intended audience for the film, which comes out on VOD in October.
“Plus those Dukes of Hazzard fans out there who are legion,” he said, adding “make sure you have plenty of Shrews this Halloween!”
Q: Why a sequel to The Killer Shrews? What in your estimation is the appeal of the original movie?
A: James Best was the reason for Return of the Killer Shrews. I loved the movie. And I wanted to do a sequel. With him. The original got a lot of attention in the 80s and 90s as a "bad" film, particularly from the Medved Brothers and MST3K. But in reality, KILLER SHREWS is a tense, gritty, tightly-paced horror film, with excellent performances from James Best and Ken Curtis. I believe it's the first modern horror film featuring a group of people trapped in an isolated house or compound, with raging monsters outside. The atmosphere is stark, dreary and moody; it has some of the same tone as NIGHT OF THE
LIVING DEAD. I am certain that George Romero saw this film and was influenced by it. By 1968, Shrews had been playing for years on TV. I once met George Romero in Florida, at a Filmmaker cocktail
party we'd both been invited to. I wish I'd asked him about it. I can't tell you how many times I've watched KILLER SHREWS. It's 69 minutes that never lets up. It never disappoints.
Q: Can you tell us about the production history? When was this proposed?
A: I proposed it to James Best the day I met him, in 1989. I was working as an entertainment reporter for WESH-TV in Orlando, Florida, and was doing a news story on his acting school. In his outer office he had framed lobby cards from his films. There were a couple from Killer Shrews. I asked him if he'd ever thought of doing a sequel. He laughed. He thought I was nuts. He said, "That's a film I did for six days in Texas, as a favor for Sammy Fuller. That was a cheap one; the sets were still wet with paint so we couldn't touch them." To him, it was just another six day picture that played drive-ins. Flash forward five years; Jimmie and I are now close friends and he sends me some sample script pages and says we ought to do it. We spent the next 15 years sending ideas back and forth. Finally, in 2010, we decided to really do it. Jimmie and I hooked up with Pat Moran, a gifted writer who'd been my producing partner on a string of successful horror films in Florida. I was working in LA by this time, so the three of us wrote via long distance, dividing up scenes, then polishing each other's pages. At one point, toward the end of the writing process, I flew out to North Carolina and worked with Jimmie and Pat to finish. Once we completed the script, John Schneider and Rick Hurst, Jimmie's co-stars from the Dukes of Hazzard, were on board. Dan Golden signed on as Line Producer and the financing came together fairly quickly, through Effects expert and producer Sean Hart. Practical Effects veteran Jeff Farley signed on just so he could make a real shrew creature. A lot of really talented people really wanted to see this happen.
Q: In your words, What is the basic story and how does it relate to the original?
A: The story is similar to the first. We wanted to keep it simple. Fifty years after the first film, Thorne Sherman (James Best), still a charter boat Captain, has agreed - against his better judgement – to bring a load of supplies to the cast and crew of a reality show shooting on Shrew Island. He needs the money - and wants to offload and be done with it. Of course, like the first one, that just doesn't happen. A storm is brewing... and some crew members start dropping like flies... attacked by strange creatures. The difference, this time, is that Jimmie wanted to make the film primarily a comedy. While it has plenty of blood and mayhem, we all wanted to have fun with the whole thing. We wanted it to work as a gentle homage to 50s and 60s drive-in movies...and an-out-and-out spoof of the current brand of low budget creature features like the SHARKNADO franchise. This has its roots in the first KILLER
SHREWS. While that film is relentlessly brooding and tense, it does have some tongue-in-cheek comedy. Check out the scene in the original where a very nervous and angry Thorne Sherman (James Best) and an equally nervous Jerry (Ken Curtis) are both drinking whiskey, stealing each other’s glasses and slamming it down as they talk.
We also have some emotional flashbacks to the first film, in particular, a monologue where Jimmie tells the story of the death of his first mate from the original film. This sort of tone-blending happened in the very funny, very scary, and sometimes very emotional SHAUN OF
THE DEAD, which I'm a big fan of.
Bruce Davison also gleefully joined in the fun. He loved the script. He told me "everybody does my joke set-ups - and I get to come in and deliver the punch lines.' The first day on the set he asked me if he could drop in WILLARD references, like the line "Tear him up!" He had a blast and made it fun for all of us.
Our producing and writing partner Pat Moran said it best. It's a comedy where people get eaten.
Q: Best is reunited with Dukes of Hazzard co-star John Schneider. How did that work out in terms of chemistry?
A: Ha. I suggested it back in 1989. But when we actually began in earnest, it was his idea. When he realized the original was such a cult hit - and saw what they did with it on MST3K, he said "we have to do this!" We knew John Schneider would provide tremendous name value to the film. John agreed to do it immediately... his attitude was "anything for Jimmie." And once he was on board, financing came together very quickly. The chemistry between Jimmie, John and Rick Hurst was magical. In a party sequence, the three of them expanded on a brief scene I'd written that alluded to all of them having known each other back in Georgia 30 years ago. They began riffing on the scene, throwing in little character bits and lines from The Dukes of Hazzard... John even imitating Jimmie's
Sheriff Roscoe laugh. He also imitates Burt Reynolds laugh in the scene... and a portion of all this remains in the film.
Q: Has there been a discussion regarding whether to turn the Killer Shrews into an ongoing series?
A: I can honestly say that directing RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS was the most fun I've ever had on a set. And I think the cast and crew would agree, there wasn't a dry eye on location the day we wrapped. At the time we all wanted to do a sequel – and with the same cast and crew. We teased REVENGE OF THE KILLER SHREWS at the end of the film. But when Jimmie passed away, the idea sort of lost steam. I would never say never, but only of there was a way to make Jimmie part of it. I know there's some unused footage of him from the film. If there was a way to make it work, and make it right. Who knows?
Q: Do you have plans to expand on other older cult films? The Flesh Eaters comes to mind, for one.
A: I think we all have ideas like that. I like the idea of sequels better than remakes. Remakes seem pointless to me. But a sequel? Sure. Pat Moran and I have written a sequel to the 1926 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA that we're really fond of. The trick is to find something that appeals to a broad audience. Only a small percentage of your audience today is going to have any idea what THE FLESH EATERS was/is. Our main thrust right now is a sequel/reboot of our own film JACK-O that we're writing. The original was a big home video hit in the 90s and has garnered a cult following all these years later. It's been issued on DVD four times now. And the nostalgia factor for 80s and 90s horror is now very high. Our sequel takes place 25 years later with some of the same characters from the original.