Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. James Best has been in scores and scores of movies and TV shows, but most know him as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane in THE DUKES OF HAZZARD TV series. But in the horror genre, he’s best known as the lead shrew-kicker in the cult classic THE KILLER SHREWS. I’ve always been fascinated by this film, which actually costumed dogs to play the killer monsters running rampant on an uncharted island. Now, 50 years later, James is reprising his role as Thorne Sherman, one of the few survivors of the first film, returning to that shrew-ridden isle in RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS. I had a chance to catch up with Mr. Best about his long career, what’s it’s like to return to a role after 50 years, and of course dogs wearing shrew costumes!
AMBUSH BUG (BUG): Hi James, it’s an honor to speak with you today, sir!
JAMES BEST (JB): Good to talk with you, Mark!
BUG: I wanted to talk to you about both of the “Killer Shrews” films today, since you star in both of them. What was it like coming back after all of this time to make RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS?
JB: Well, it was funny, because I did the original THE KILLER SHREWS as a favor. I made a movie with Sammy Ford, who was friends with a special effects man, Ray Kellogg, who wanted to direct his own picture. And we looked at the original’s script, and he didn’t have hardly any money whatsoever, but I did him a favor by acting in it. Ken Curtis, of course, was producing it from the start. I like Ken, and he wanted me to do it, so I went down there to Texas where we shot this thing. I didn’t realize it was so cheap. I mean, it was really cheap. For me it was a blast, but it was so bad! I think it was voted the worst picture of the year at the time. And then it caught on as a drive-in cult film, and believe it or not, after so many years I noticed that it was playing all over the place. Somebody colorized it and THE KILLER SHREWS became a little cult film.
Steve Latshaw directed and produced a lot of little horror films that turned out to be very successful. And he said to me “why don’t we do a sequel to THE KILLER SHREWS!” and laughed. I said “Are you kidding? That was the worst movie that I’ve ever made!” And we kept talking about it through the years and, you know, 50 years later we decided that we were willing do it! So we got together and we wrote a script and I called John Schneider, who of course everybody knows John from the DUKES OF HAZZARD, where he played Bo Duke, and we got Bruce Davidson who starred in WILLARD, and also we got Rick Hurst who was in DUKES OF HAZZARD as Cletus, and so we had a fun cast.
So we decided to shoot our little movie in North Carolina, and we did, and we got a beautiful production out of it. We showed it several times in different drive-in movie places, and the public really liked it. Then we put it on the web at KillerShrewsMovie.com and we’ve had really good reactions to the picture, and so we’re very excited about it. RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS is a tiny sequel. I mean, we didn’t do a real slasher type of horror film. It was more of a “come and see it and we’ll scare you and make you laugh” kind of movie, and we’re so proud of it.
BUG: Yeah, I actually watched both last week, and it’s really interesting watching both of the films back to back like that. Both really do have a pretty tight continuity. It basically picks up right after you left off 50 years ago, and now you have this island that is overrun by these giant creatures. Did you approach this new film differently than the original?
JB: Well, you know, we did it strictly as a fun picture, you know, and of course the original ended up being a monstrous hit across the world first, and then we brought it back to release in the States. So a lot of those people grew up having seen the original, and we though it would be funny to put a lot of references to the original, along with some to the DUKES OF HAZZARD characters just for fun. We just had a ball doing it. We didn’t expect anybody to take it as a serious film or, you know, a real scary horror film. That was not out intent, but it was really fun to work with John and the whole cast. The script, you know, it wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was never intended to be.
BUG: Definitely. Well, going into the first one what was it like, once you saw these dogs with these shrew costumes on? What was your first reaction to that sight?
JB: I love dogs, but in the scene where they chase me up the hill, they couldn’t figure out how to get the dogs to chase me and go exactly where they wanted us to go. So I said “Well, get a raccoon and put him in a cage so we didn’t hurt the raccoon at all,” and I said “Just drag the cage up the way you want those dogs to go, because they are hunting hound dogs and they will follow that scent.” And that’s what we did. We rolled the cameras and I took off running, and those dogs were pretty close behind me, and I wasn’t too sure they were after the raccoon or if they wanted to snap my butt, you know?
BUG: And the shrews in RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS, that’s all CGI, so was it more difficult running from the dogs or from the CGI that wasn’t there? Which do you think is scarier?
JB: Well, the CGI is made in special effects, so I didn’t have much contact with them except that they had a wonderful puppet head of a shrew, and it was scary. I mean, they brought that thing on set and it looked like, it looked like a real monstrous shrew and it was mechanical and it took a few people to operate it. One time somebody hid it in the bushes, and you walk by that thing and they shot its head out, I guarantee you would take off fast!
BUG: Very cool. So what other films had you been involved in coming into THE KILLER SHREWS?
JB: Well actually, Mark, in my career I’ve done 87 feature pictures and I’ve done over 600 television shows. I worked with Jimmy Stewart. I worked with Henry Fonda. I worked, you know, Humphrey Bogart, you know? You name them I’ve worked with them. And it’s really marvelous to have done this during my span, and I haven’t finished! Lately, I‘ve made 4 or 5 movies with my daughter and her husband at Hallmark. My daughter writes the scripts, so she is a terrific producer-writer, and her husband is a very good director, so they keep this old man busy. We live in North Carolina now, and we are going to be performing in ON GOLDEN POND here in about 2—2 and a half weeks, and we’re very excited about that. It’s funny--my wife is playing my daughter!
BUG: That’s great! So you’re still doing a lot of the acting?
JB: I got a movie out now that I starred in with Kathryn Moore called THE SWEETER SIDE OF LIFE. It was a Hallmark film, and it did very well.
BUG: THE KILLER SHREWS was such a drive-in favorite, and now the drive-ins are all gone, but now we have video and we have pay per view and things like that, and that’s kind of replaced the drive-in. What’s that like, seeing the difference in the way film is being distributed back then compared to now?
JB: Well you know, I actually, I’m not too happy with what’s coming out in Hollywood, unfortunately. I think they are relying an awful lot on the mechanics of making movies rather than wonderful writing, wonderful scripts, and wonderful actors. Unfortunately, they are using a lot of what they call reality stars, and these are nice people, but they are taking advantage of the industry because they have never studied acting in their life. They do one movie, all the sudden they call themselves a megastar, and they can’t even spell it, you know? And that’s not very cool. All of us, we got a lot of training before we actually were successful in the business. But nowadays, you know, you can be anything, you know? You go to Hollywood and walk down the street and you run into anybody and you say what do you do? They say, “I’m an actor,” you now? So, it’s lost a lot of its flavor. So I wrote a book and talk a little about that called THAT’S SO HOLLYWOOD, which takes my whole career from the very beginning and it takes it all through my career working with Burt Reynolds, and on DUKES OF HAZZARD, and Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. All of the wonderful people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with.
BUG: Fantastic. Well, just wrapping things up, at the end of RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS, they hint there might be a third one in the works. Would you ever consider doing that?
JB: Listen, Mark, anything can happen. We don’t rule anything out, I guarantee you. The marvelous thing is there is no doubt that we couldn’t knock one out if there was really another need for one.
BUG: Sure. What else keeps you occupied these days?
JB: Well, I play, believe it or not, I’ll be 88 in July and I tell you, I love playing combat games on the internet.
BUG: So you play a lot of combat games?
JB: Yeah, I play them all. I will play different people across the country and I say “Thank you for letting this old man kick your butt!”and they say “How old?” and I say “88!” and they can’t believe it! And then I say, “You just got your butt beat by ROSCO P. COLTRANE!” and they laugh and say, “NO WAY!”
BUG: Hah! Nice.
JB: If you like the movie, they can go to KillerShrewsMovie.com and we sell the thing and I autograph all of them. Every last one. I don’t have one of those machines that stamps your name on it.
BUG: Well, that’s very cool. Do you go to conventions? Like the horror conventions or any of the other TV star conventions?
JB: You know, it wasn’t a horror convention, but it was a science fiction one. I did three TWILIGHT ZONE’s. They were not really what they call horror pictures, but I did one of them, I did I wake up in a coffin, you know? I also wrote a script one time called DEATH MASK, and Steve Latshaw directed it, and we produced it quite a few years back. It was a little horror picture about a man who burned the whole side of his face off, and he used a mask to put on his face, and the mask turned out to be evil. So every time anybody looked into the face of the mask, they would die a horrible death. So, that was a good little horror picture. I liked it, but my wife hated it. She said that’s not the type of movie she wanted to be associated with.
BUG: It sounds like you have quite an affinity for horror films. Is that the type of film you are attracted to?
JB: I love horror movies, you know. One of my all time favorites was HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. That scared the heck out of me when I was a kid, you know? I like ones where creepy things like the little men that walk around and you can’t see them along the floor or something, you know? You never know where they are at. They crawl out from under the chair or table or something and cut your hamstrings.
BUG: One last thing I just remembered I wanted to ask; whose idea was it to turn the buckets upside down and crawl their way away from the killer shrews in the first film?
JB: Oh I’d like to say I did, but I didn’t. That was an original idea off of the original script. I think it probably was Ken Curtis; it was sort of a stretch of the imagination. We slightly mention it in the newer version but, of course, we escape without having to crawl. Boy I tell you, we actually got under those darn things and tried to walk and they were heavy!
BUG: Yeah. It looked like it.
JB: Then we got to the beach, and we got to the point where we had to swim out to the boat, and boy it was cold. But I had a beautiful leading lady waiting for me as soon as we got on the boat, and I got to do a smooch with her, throw a blanket around us, and we drank a cup of Spanish rum. That was nice. It was a nice way for me to warm up.
BUG: Hah! Definitely. I mean, it seems like a goofy way to get away from those things, but it would be an effective one, and it’s kind of genius in a mad way. I had a lot of fun watching both the original and the sequel and I wish the best of luck to you. Thanks, James, for talking with me today.
JB: It was an honor, thank you so much.
BUG: You too can check out THE KILLER SHREWS and its sequel RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS on one DVD by heading over to its website here! Both films are a whole lot of goofy and insane fun to watch and I still can’t get enough of watching the dogs in shrew costumes. Those of you who like your horror light and fun will definitely want to check them out!
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 13 years & AICN HORROR for 4. Mark’s written THE TINGLERS & WITCHFINDER GENERAL, DEATHSPORT GAMES, NANNY & HANK (soon to be an Uptown 6 Films feature film), Zenescope’s GRIMM FAIRY TALES Vol.13, UNLEASHED: WEREWOLVES, and the critically acclaimed THE JUNGLE BOOK and its follow up THE JUNGLE BOOK: LAST OF THE SPECIES. FAMOUS MONSTERS’ LUNA: ORDER OF THE WEREWOLF (co-written with Martin Fisher) will be available soon in trade. Mark wrote/provided art for a chapter in Black Mask Studios’ OCCUPY COMICS. Follow Ambush Bug on the Twitters @Mark_L_Miller.
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