Friday, July 12, 2013

Movie Reviews: Them! (1954)


"When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, no one can predict." - Dr. Medford in Them!

Them! is an awesome movie and I loved every minute of it. I could end my review right there and then, but of course you deserve more. You may think that a horror movie about giant mutant ants is best viewed during Halloween season, but the summertime is perfect for watching this flick. After all, insect populations are at their highest right now and so is the temperature. So get the popcorn ready but don't bother with the bug spray--there isn't enough Raid in a store aisle that can kill off the creatures in Them! After viewing it for the first time, I can understand why the movie is considered a classic and a favorite among sci-fi/B horror movie fans. 

Them! was released in 1954--during the Cold War era--and was one of those horror movies that played upon the fears of what nuclear technology could do to planet earth and its species; most often, that animals and humans exposed to radiation could grow to unnatural sizes and in grotesque ways. It was the first of the "big bug" movies (titles that were released after the success of Them! include Tarantula, Earth vs. The Spider, Beginning of the End and many more) and is routinely considered one of the best of the genre. 

I'm always hesitant to give a boring scene-by-scene synopsis of movies in my reviews, but I think the first half hour of the film is worth describing. 



The movie opens with two police state troopers--Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake)--traveling through the New Mexico desert when they receive a call about a little girl wandering by herself nearby. When the officers pick her up, she's in a catatonic state, staring straight ahead and is unresponsive. They put her in their cruiser and continue on to investigate a trailer home--belonging to the girl's family--that has been ripped into. No money has been taken, and there's no sign of the other family members. A bag of sugar has been broken into. 

At first, the baffled policemen think this is the work of a "homicidal maniac." But then they visit the local general store which has been ripped apart in the same manner. The cash is still in the register, but a barrel of sugar has been ransacked. The policemen discover the store owner's body and his twisted rifle. Peterson walks out of the store to file a report, leaving Blackburn to guard the store. Blackburn hears a strange sound outside of the store, goes out to investigate, and is killed by one of the giant ants (which we don't actually see.)

A large, strange footprint is found in the sand and at this point authorities are called in to help with the case: FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) who is unable to identify the footprint, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn; you know him best as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street as well as many other roles) and Pat Medford (Joan Weldon), a father/daughter team of entomologists from the Department of Agriculture. 


Dr. Medford has a theory as to what is going on, but is hesitant to reveal it yet. Instead he performs an experiment with the little girl that was found and is recovering in a hospital. Since it was reported that the general store's owner's body was discovered to contain "enough formic acid to kill 20 men", he waves a bottle of formic acid under her nose. Suddenly, she awakens from her zombie-like state, is terrified, and starts screaming "Them! Them!"

It isn't long after this before Dr. Medford's theory and fears are confirmed: nuclear bomb testing done in the area in 1945 has caused house ants to grow to hundreds of times their size, with a taste for human flesh (as confirmed by one amusing scene where an ant drops a human ribcage from its mandibles.)



The crew locates the entrance to the ant nest and throws cyanide into it with the hopes of eradicating the colony. For me, this was the creepiest part of the movie--who the hell would go investigate a giant ant nest, even if they had to?  At this point, I will say no more for those who haven't seen the movie. 

One of the reasons Them! succeeds so well is the amount of suspense that is built up before the ants appear on screen, which isn't until a half hour into the film. If you watched the movie without seeing the poster or knowing anything about it first, it would definitely add to the mystery. We hear them a few times before we see them--and the high pitched, pulsating, echoing sounds they make are truly creepy. It's the perfect build up! 



By far I think the most impressive performance in this movie is by the little girl, Sandy Descher (although everyone is good and there's an amusing scene involving Dr. Medford trying to communicate via radio headphones.) A child actor who also appeared in The Last Time I Saw Paris and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Descher was 8 or 9 when Them! was filmed and her brief but pivotal role as a girl terrified out of her wits really adds to the suspense. 



Now, about those ants. I'm sure many CGI enthusiasts would scoff at the mechanical ants in this movie, but I can definitely appreciate the work that went into creating them and would imagine they looked menacing on the big screen at the time the film was released (and trust me, they do look cooler on film than the screenshots make them look.) Their construction and operation (they were really purplish-green in color, by the way) was overseen by a man named Ralph Ayers and helped earn the movie an Oscar nomination for its special effects. I think my only disappointment is that we don't get to see them "flying" as reported by several characters in the film.  



Many elements prevalent in Them! reminded me very much of the Alien franchise, particularly the second film, James Cameron's Aliens (1986.) The orphan girl wandering around in shock, the inhospitable, windy environment, creepy dark passageways and creatures that emit a deadly acid (not to mention egg laying queens) are found in both movies. The scene where the crew finds hatched eggs in one of the ant farm's chambers was straight out of the 1979 Alien for me. 

Plus, there's something about seeing a movie such as this one in black and white that really adds to the creep factor. The cinematography over the desert scenes is impressive. 

Another giant ant movie was released in 1977: Empire of the Ants starring Joan Collins. It was based on a short story by H.G. Wells and frankly, looks and sounds terrible. However, for a creepy and crawly good time, you can't beat Them! and those prophetic last words as spoken by Dr. Medford in the movie's final scene will haunt you long after the screen fades to black. 

Here's the official trailer to Them! and you can watch the entire movie for free, online here at Mevio

9 comments:

  1. Pam, you are spot on; this has always been and still is one of my favorites over the years. The haunting sounds of the ants, the smell of the formic acid, and going after them, scared my young self silly when I disobeyed and stayed up for the Late Show (I also became a fan of "Silent Running" that weekend). Another good Ant movie was called "Phase V", but admittedly not everyone's cup of tea. Also, back in the earliest historic game graphics history, the famous Cinemaware created a narrative game for the Amiga called "It Came From The Desert", that was a thinly veiled mashup of Them and other great period SciFi. Thanks for the great post - S-A-H-D

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  2. Hi, Pam!

    I was age 4 when my big brother took me to see Them! Even at that early age I was already a veteran of horror and sci-fi movies, having gotten my first taste of big screen thrills from the Vincent Price movie House of Wax the previous year. Other favorites to which I was exposed at an early age included the Karloff/Lugosi/Chaney Universal Pictures classics and early 50s releases such as The Thing from Another World with James Arness (1951), Peter Graves' Red Planet Mars (1952), the Gene Barry vehicle The War of the Worlds (1953) and Karl Malden's Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954). I agree that Them! was one of the best and most suspenseful sci-fi pictures of the period.

    You have a fantastic blog and I have decided to follow. My blog is a celebration of the best music and memories of my youth and I invite you to come over and take a look. I would be delighted to have you as a friend and follower. Thank you, Pam!

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  3. The old movies are always the best, they put the ones these days to shame. btw I'm back retro blogging Pam :-)

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  4. Never did see the movie but now I will based on your review. Go Pam Go!

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  5. I love you guys.

    Stay at Home Dad - I heard about that game...don't remember it in the 80s but goes to show you how much of an influence Them! would have.

    Shady - welcome to the blog and thank you so much!

    Amy - hooray! I will stop by and check out your site!

    42N - Hope you'll let me know what you think when you see it!

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  6. Pam, one of the reasons I love your blog is it tells me there are others out there like myself. My mother died when I was young and I was raised by a father who forgot that little girls don't like science fiction movies. We would sit every Saturday watching "creature feature" films together. "Them!" was one of my favorites as a child, and when I "grew up" (sort of) I appreciated why. This is a good movie with legitimate actors and serious direction. I never realized that as a child of course, I just remember watching it curled up in the arms of my father. But when I watch it now I see so much more than just giant ants. BTW, you are correct on Food of the Gods. Where "Them!" got it right, "Food" got is so wrong.

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  7. Sorry, meant "Empire of the Ants."
    Though Food is equally as bad.

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  8. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Disaster Movie Tuesday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

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  9. Them! is superb stuff partly because of the no-nonsense, almost Dragnet-like procedures the humans take to find and defeat the giant ants. We know that insects so large wouldn't be possible in Earth's gravity, but aside from that, the logical deductions Arness and the other characters make about the ants' nature are excellent science fiction.

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