Hi folks, and welcome to the second contribution to our little horror/sci-fi retro-fest. Please remember that these films are all crucial landmarks within their respective genres, either helping to reinforce an established formula to be followed even decades later or, indeed, creating an entirely new strand of cinematic fantasy that courageously breaks into challenging and unique new territory. High marks, as I've stated before, are practically obligatory for these golden era gems, not just because I love them but because of the respect they deserve for their nostalgic worth and continued influence today. And this time we have a real fan favourite - it's 1954's Them! Yep, the one about the giant ants.
“Gramps got off four shots with his .30/.30 before the killer did this to his gun!”
Them! (the exclamation mark is compulsory) is one of the best creature features of the fifties, and certainly its big-bug bonanza tops the likes of even today's super-sized skin-crawlers, such as Starship Troopers, Eight-Legged Freaks and even Del Toro's atmospheric Mimic. With those pesky atomic tests wreaking ecological havoc in the deserts of New Mexico, one species, in particular, seems to have benefited from the radiation spill-out, creating steroid-packed ants the size of speedboats. With their war-like nature and aggressive colony-building this creepy-crawling phenomena could spark the end of civilisation as we know it! And, this time around, (unlike in The Thing From Another World) the scientists and the military are in full agreement that the threat must be completely annihilated.
“Must have been the wind ... gets pretty freakish in these parts.”
Gordon Douglas's movie has a strict three-act structure - the opening segment, with its succession of strange deaths and the discovery of the huge ants in their nest, the middle act that chronicles the nationwide hunt for the escaped queens, and then the gripping final battle down in the storm-drains beneath Los Angeles. To put it more succinctly, mystery, police procedural and then outright, ball-busting, bug-bashing horror. The opening, however, ranks as one of the greatest scene-setters ever. The finding of a little girl wandering lost and alone in the desert, clutching a broken doll, her face a picture of numb horror, her eyes glazed with ultra-convincing fear. Immediately, we are hooked. The two State Policemen - Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and wooden-as-hell trooper Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) later find the wrecked camper that belonged to the child's family, one wall ripped open (“This wasn't caved-in, it was caved-out.”) The girl is wonderful, her stunned silence painful to witness as it clenches your heart. This fantastically evocative scene is filmed in bright, broad-daylight within a vast, rolling desert as far removed from a haunted house or a spooky swamp as you could get, yet the isolation and the howling winds hit home with a nerve-jangling frisson. The whole what-the-hell-happened-here sense of unease and apprehension remains un-dulled no matter how many times you see the film. And then, of course, we get that eerie “stridulation” of the ants themselves, unseen, but their ominous chittering carried on the wind. Just look at the faces of Ben and the medic as they hear it - a terrific combination of wonder and doom - and then that of the little girl as she sits up behind them, for an instant dropped back into the nightmare she has witnessed, before falling tragically once more into a fear-induced catatonia. I don't think that there was a scene more powerful than this during the entire decade in which the film came out.
“And here's one for Sherlock Holmes ... there was enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men.”
Amazingly enough, the movie comes close to equalling this great opener with the very next scene, as the cops arrive at Gramps Johnson's store. It's night-time now and the wind has picked up. Similar devastation to that of the wrecked camper and a swinging light bulb raise the hairs on the neck, and the alarming discovery of a battered body makes Ed's decision to stay there alone and wait for the back-up team one of those all-time-great Don't-Do-It! moments. Seriously, if this had been Star Trek, poor Ed would have worn the red jersey, for all his young buck heroism. When that mysterious chittering noise strikes up again and Ed, pistol drawn, turns out the lights and goes outside to investigate, Them! has already successfully ticked off its horror quotient ... and we're only fifteen minutes in!
“Something amazing has happened in this desert.”
The scientists (“Doctors Medford - two of them.”) duly arrive and the movie dives into a somewhat clichéd section that sees undoubted expert in his field, Dr. Medford Snr (Edmund Gwenn), revealed to be a bumbling buffoon when it comes to everyday things, such as speaking on a radio and the correct use of goggles in a sandstorm. Even his doctor-daughter, Patricia (Joan Wheldon), seems, at first glance, just to be there as the studio-pleasing love interest for rugged FBI man, Robert Graham (The Thing, himself, giant James Arness). But the gathering of the evidence and the title-christening moment when the scientists use a whiff of formic acid to rouse the little girl from her terrified stupor and she screams out her fear of “Them!” sees that there is plenty of interesting developments, and a nice undercurrent of time running out that keeps an ever-mounting edge on proceedings. The discovery of the nest hits the same high level of tension and excitement that introduced the film. Check out the rib-cage clutched in an ant's mandibles and the ghastly sight of the bone-yard of their victims for some nice bass-chord thumpings in Bronislau Kaper's apocalyptic score. The tense descent into a gassed-out nest proves that Patricia Medford is not just there for glamour value, with her own valour acutely evidenced even from behind a gas mask. It's a great set, too, full of carcasses and eggs and floor-hugging gas, neatly recalled in movies such as Alien and Aliens (which, of course, paid even more homage to Them! with the character of Newt, as well) and the horrific realisation that a couple of queens have already flown away to start new colonies lifts the narrative from the deserts of New Mexico to a countrywide, and potentially global, setting.
“It's getting late, Doctor.”
“Later than you think.”
As comical as Gwenn's old scientist may be he still manages to get across the portentous, doom-laden message of what's at stake if these escapees aren't swiftly found and destroyed. But this middle act still suffers from overstated lectures on the nature of the threat, and is only saved by the ambitious script seeing a top secret task force set up to chronicle and assess all weird sightings and phenomena - from ant-shaped flying saucers to sugar-theft on a grand scale. And we do get one terrific sequence when a ship at sea makes a distress call stating that it is overrun with giant ants. Who'd have thought of that? The sheer brilliance of this is further illuminated by Douglas showing it, too - actually putting us on board the doomed vessel as all hell breaks loose. This widening-up of the story's scale works tremendously. Many films of the era settle for the one location - the dusty hamlet on the eve of its centenary, an insular small-town population facing some awesome evil from beyond, but Them! has the courage of its convictions. Let's face it, if giant ants did suddenly appear, the entire world would be at threat. The only thing that niggles here slightly is that Whitmore's do-or-die State Policeman is along for the entire ride, hobnobbing with the top brass from Washington and the bigwigs from the world of academia even when events have reached national emergency status. But then, his sticking around not only acts as our focus for a family of characters we have come to love, but to serve as a reminder to post-war America that the everyday, working-stiff can still play his part and make a difference to the Big Picture. Whitmore is also a dead ringer for my father-in-law, which notches up my affection for him tenfold. Seeing him piling his middle-age spread behind his cop's belt only enforces the doppelganger effect. Oh, and on the same topic, have a chuckle at James Arness squeezing into his G.I. fatigues - look at that helmet perched upon his huge head!
“Get the antennae! Get the antennae! Get the other antenna! Get the other antenna!”
If the investigative procedural of the middle act slows things down a bit - save for some cool interrogations of wily old drunks and a Texan flyboy - the film finds its fear-fuelled feet with its gloriously exciting and show stopping denouement. Essentially, and justifiably, Them! is fondly remembered for its incredible storm-drain finale - recalled in many other movies, from Larry Cohen's original It's Alive to the guilty-pleasure of Z-grade fodder C.H.U.D. - because, quite simply, it a bravura exercise in set-piece tension-mounting, including not one, but two awesome climaxes in as many minutes. The mystery, and horrific family tragedy, that leads to the army arriving en masse and beginning their breathlessly exciting exploration of the tunnels beneath L.A. is a clever example of mother nature (however mutated she my be) exploiting an unwitting Humankind - the ants inhabiting a man-made nest of vast enough proportions even for Them - seven-hundred miles, no less. The desperate race to rescue the two boys trapped in there is still a thoroughly gripping sequence. This element, coupled with the little-girl-lost opening, ensures that Them! is a difficult film for kids and parents alike. I should know! You may not see the Mums and Dads and, indeed, Gramps getting chomped, but you've still got to explain (tactfully, of course) what has happened to them. What makes this climactic rescue work so well is the look of absolute terror on one of the boys' faces (the other one is annoyingly blasé about the whole thing - so don't look at him!) and Whitmore's adrenaline-rush desperation to get them away from the rampaging ants is a giddy mix of all-out action and heroic last stand. His wooden buddy, Ed, would've been proud. And the film doesn't stop there, offering up yet one more pulse-pounding life-or-death struggle in the very next moment, with a similar violent stand-off between a Tommy-gun-toting Arness and another horror-horde of antennae-twitching soldier ants. Penny for penny, the last nine minutes of Them! delivers more excitement and tension than a dozen or so modern blockbusters.
“We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true ...”
It is quite refreshing to discover that the film doesn't serve as a warning against the advent of new sciences - nuclear and atomic radiation and so forth - it just utilises the notion as a springboard to create giant monster ants ... and there's nothing wrong with that. In line with that theory, Dr. Medford's closing coda doesn't carry the weight of, say, Scotty's “Watch the skies” warning from The Thing From Another World, it simply serves to open the door to new possibilities and, thus, the floodgates for a multitude of moviedom's monstrous mutations to come.
The performances are impressive, the score might not be that memorable but it supplies more than enough stingers and the script may be workmanlike - in keeping with the semi-documentary tone of the film, the lines aren't that pithy, clever or quotable - but Them! succeeds primarily in atmosphere. Be it the terrifying desolation of the desert, or the claustrophobia of the tunnel system, the film achieves that rare, but vital, thing in genre movies - it puts you right in the heart of the environment. This is aided immeasurably with cinematography by Sid Hickox that is often innovative - the fantastic tracking shot that takes in the circling plane above, before pulling in and down to parallel the wandering little girl, or the sweeping, eerie probing of Gramps' half-demolished store. And the narrative still packs a punch with its driving sense of urgency. The end of the world is a stock-in-trade component of such movies, but here it is felt more keenly with the approach to realism that Gordon Douglas strives for.
“You mean there's more of these things out there?”
And what of the stars of the show, the ants themselves? Well, let me state, here and now, that the ants are cool. As huge, nightmarish incarnations of the real things, they are more than adequate, quivering antennae, wobbly heads, and all. It's only when they move that their failings are really revealed, and that's purely because real ants scurry fast and these beasts lumber about on rods and pulleys. Douglas realises this and wisely keeps them obscured for the most part. A distance shot of a scout advancing upon a stricken Pat Medford does look good, though, and the sight of them smashing through obstructions is still quite breath-snatching. Their attacks are surprisingly brutal too, with those wicked mandibles clutching and crushing their victims. The guy behind the ant creations is apparently Dick Smith. I wonder if this is the same makeup maestro who later worked on The Exorcist, The Hunger (with Carl Fullerton) and The Sentinel?
Wonderful film, folks. No pretension, no allegory - just ghoulish, monster-sized fun.