This small corner of the internet, born from a sudden urge to write more, has existed for about five months now. During that time I’ve discovered plenty of other movie-related blogs that I now enjoy dropping into as much as possible, which has been an excellent side benefit to writing and posting my own misguided ramblings online (all of which, I hasten to add, have been written under the influence of a Hunter S. Thompson-esque cocktail of mind-bending drugs).
Another benefit of dipping into this community and reading other people’s reviews is that I am occasionally reminded of films that I first watched in the dim and distant past, back when the mighty VHS video ruled the land and there were only 4 TV channels in the UK. While idly browsing one of said blogs a few weeks ago I came upon this harrowing news piece about sightings of giant atomic ants in the USA, and it instantly reminded me of the 1950s sci-fi / early horror classic Them! – a film I saw many, many years ago and remember enjoying. I thought it was due a re-watch.
The plot is fairly straightforward: in the 1950s, as a result of atomic bomb testing in New Mexico, ants have mutated due to radiation and have grown considerably into giant, vicious creatures that can easily kill any human they come across. Angered presumably by many years of having boiling water poured all over their colonies (or indeed cruel heat attacks from giant magnifying glass weaponry), the ants have gone on the attack, and a spate of disappearances alerts the authorities to the growing, at first unidentified, problem. While this may sound extremely familiar today, upon its release in 1954 Them! was one of the first films to explore an idea which has since become a sci-fi staple: that of oversized creatures terrorising humanity, making it a clear influence for decades to come on films like Alien, Jaws, Predator and Starship Troopers, not to mention a host of anaemic creature feature imitators and fun, knowing homages, such as Tremors and Eight Legged Freaks. The Alien trilogy, interestingly, expanded on the idea of humans entering the queen’s lair and even went as far as copying the flamethrowers. Perhaps the most direct influence, however, was on Ishirō Honda’s 1954 film Godzilla, the first time that particular monster appeared.
The film opens eerily, with a scene in which a young girl (Sandy Descher) wanders alone, dazed and in shock, across the desert. She is seemingly oblivious to everything around her, and is spotted by state troopers Ben Petersen (James Whitmore) and Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake). Though she is catatonic, she responds to a strange, piercing noise that is carried by the wind (a strange coda that plays throughout the film which was made from a recording of treefrogs). This riveting opening sets the tone for the rest of the film, which is often extremely unnerving. The tension builds slowly in the first act as the troopers investigate other disappearances, and they are eventually sent expert help in the shape of father and daughter government entomologists Harold and Pat Medford (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Welden). Descher’s character snaps out of her daze when smelling salts are held under her nose, and immediately starts screaming the word “THEM!” repeatedly at the top of her voice. It’s a harrowing scene, the genuinely jarring and unnerving high point of the film’s first act.
The ants march on to Los Angeles, presumably in a bid to first capture Hollywood and then the rest of the world, and it is revealed that man faces a new threat to the stability of human existence; the giant ants will establish superiority in a short space of time. Petersen – along with the FBI and various other government agents – gradually realises the scale of the threat and sets out to combat it, tracking the ants down to a storm drain.
Despite the dated look of the effects today (though groundbreaking in the 1950s), Them! has aged very well. Directed by Gordon Douglas, it has a relentless feel to it; the idea of giant ants wiping out humanity may well seem absurd, but the film is played so straight, and the concept driven home with such force from the first moment to the very last, that it’s easy to accept the idea and get lost in the plot. Allied to that are some decent performances (indeed even the minor cast members with speaking parts are convincing, including a young Leonard Nimoy who appears in one scene but was uncredited), creating a believable tale that ranks alongside The Day The Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing as one of the standout science fiction films of the 1950s.
It is an overtly anti-war and anti-nuclear film, sensationalising the possible effects of atomic testing and also using the ants as metaphors for the threat presented by the USSR to the USA. The Cold War escalated rapidly in the early 1950s, and Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes’ adaptation of an original story by George Worthing Yates played upon America’s fears that the next battle would be closer to home rather than fought on foreign soil. Interestingly, in an essay entitled Monsters, Spies and Subversives: The Film Industry Responds to the Cold War, Lawrence Murray suggests that the film is filled with propaganda for the state, arguing: ‘While the public might not perceive … the ants as metaphorical enemies akin to Russia, a common interpretation by film critics and historians, the viewer is clearly taught to be wary of inept scientists and to have faith in the FBI and the military. Further, the public is taught to fear atomic power not only because it can be translated into bombs but because it can affect nature in strange, threatening ways. In a nation already fearful of atomic holocaust, such an argument could only intensify anxieties while spreading fear and uncertainty.’
Rather than simply being a quaint curio for special effects fans, Them! is an excellent example of an early monster movie. It has defiantly stood the test of time, and with big budget creature features like Pacific Rim being regularly churned out its influence is still clearly resonating in 2013. Looking at the poster or DVD cover most people would be expecting to see a cheap, camp B-movie, but the production values, acting and script all blow that misguided perception away. The first half in particular, before the ants even show up, is a superb example of how to build tension, and also demonstrates how effective it can be when the creatures are withheld from the screen. Paul Verhoeven, Ridley Scott and even more recent directors like Gareth Edwards (Monsters) have followed the template successfully.
Directed by: Gordon Douglas
Written by: Ted Sherdeman, Russell Hughes, George Worthing Yates
Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness
Running Time: 94 Minutes