Them! (1954)
Them! (1954)

Genre: Sci-Fi Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 34 min.

Release Date: June 19th, 1954 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Gordon Douglas Actors: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness, Onslow Stevens, Sean McClory, Fess Parker

 


 

T

he New Mexico State Police scour the desert landscape, following up on a report. What they find is a young girl (Sandy Descher), wandering alone in a dazed fashion, in some sort of shock. She’s unable to acknowledge the officers or respond to their questions, though they assume she hasn’t been out in the sun for very long. When they proceed to investigate an abandoned trailer a few miles down the road on the way to White Butte, they find bloody clothing and plenty of wreckage, as if the vehicle was in a major traffic accident. And a scattering of sugar cubes proves particularly odd.

Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) heads up the investigation, calling in a forensic team and a doctor. With partner Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake), he takes a trip to Gramps Johnson’s general store to see if they can locate a witness or any additional information. Instead, they discover another scene of destruction: the building has been torn apart, the owner is dead and mangled and bloodied in the back room, and more sugar is strewn across the floor. And an eerie screeching sound emerges from the inky blackness of the night.

Brilliantly, only the aftermath is initially shown, creating a striking sense of unease. Were it not for the advertising materials, all of this could be the setup for a gruesome serial killer. Yet even knowing that the culprit is an oversized monstrosity, the foreshadowing is quite amusing. Realizing that less is more – or that limited resources must be worked around – “Them!” refrains from showing any bits of the chomping killers until nearly 30 minutes in.

Meanwhile, as authority figures muse over details from the crime scene and the disappearance of several people, joined by FBI Agent Robert Graham (James Arness), scientists Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Dr. Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon, introduced from the legs on up) hypothesize about the possibility that mutant wildlife could be responsible. After all, this is yet another in a long line of atomic bomb consequence films, chronicling in an overblown manner how humankind’s nuclear meddling (and the radiation poisoning side effect) can destroy the world. “We may be witnesses to a biblical prophecy come true.”

“Absolute secrecy is imperative.” The first time an enormous, hairy-headed ant rears its wobbly antennae and mandibles and floppy legs is one of the greatest scenes of any horror film. Shot from a low angle with an unaware Patricia picking at a footprint as the monster hovers over her, perched on an embankment, the sequence is simply unforgettable – even though its scariness has obviously waned compared to the subsequent years of increasing technology and grislier gore effects. Yet every moment with the gargantuan puppets is riveting – even when they’re immobile or in the background. The queen’s chamber – full of translucent eggs – is similarly exceptional (concepts re-used to a grander, gooier degree in “Aliens”).

“Are you telling us there’ll be other nests?” Fascinatingly, Harold explains that ants are the only other creature on earth, apart from humans, that can wage war. And so the U.S. military is needed to combat the potentially apocalyptic invasion (chiefly represented by Brigadier General Robert O’Brien [Onslow Stevens]). Of course, the government works evilly to monitor communications with key phrases (such as “flying saucers” and “kidnappings”) and to cover up conspiratorial sightings – keeping one man (Fess Parker) locked up in a loony bin just to suppress public panic. Clearly, the government makes for an easy villain, responsible even for sci-fi repercussions of nuclear testing.

Unfortunately, like with many of these ’50s monster-based B-movies, moments of drama and research in between creature attacks (the real highlights of the show) tend to slow down the momentum – though they do generate greater anticipation for the next monumental onslaught. The climax here brings things back up to speed, with jeeps combing a labyrinth of drainage tunnels and spillways to seek out a second nest, maintaining a fast pace and sharp execution. “Them!” was one of the first of the giant insect movies, spawning plenty of copycats – and it’s easily one of the best.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10