The following is my contribution to Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear's Monster Movie Mania Blogathon.
The police find a little girl, just 5 or 6 years old, wandering through the New Mexico desert near White Sands Proving Ground (the testing area for the first nuclear bombs, a piece of historical fact that ends up being the narrative crux of the story). She is in shock, unable to speak or even react to the officer's pleas. Later on, this same girl, still in the same state, is visited at the hospital by one of the aforementioned police officers, an FBI agent and a pair of father/daughter scientists. When she is given a sort of smelling salts by the elder scientist, her eyes open wide and with a look of disturbing horror twisting across her once eerily serene face, she screams "Them! Them! Them!" and runs for the corner of the room. Until this moment, about twenty minutes in, we are given a feeling of piling dread, after this we are in full-on panic mode. Who or what are Them!, and why is this little girl so scared of Them!?
Yes, of course we all know just what Them! are - even 1954 moviegoers would have known going in since those gigantic radiated mutant ants are front and center on the poster - but still, knowing or not, the fear in this little girl's face is palpable enough to get even the most jaded of modern hearts a-flutterin'. The real thrill of watching Them! is as basic as basic primal urges can be - we want to see giant mutant ants eating people. Seriously though, director Gordon Douglas (he would go on to direct the best of the Rat Pack films, Robin and the 7 Hoods and then direct Sinatra in one of his best films, Detective) takes the idea of nuclear testing (a popular topic at the height of the Cold War) and creates one of the best damn monster movies ever made.
The first in a series of "big bug" films (as paranoia swept across the nation, everyone was afraid of nuclear attack at this point in history and this fear was exploited by those in Hollywood) and certainly the best, Them! tells the story of a small New Mexico community that is besieged by an unknown killer or killers - the high pitched screams and screeches (the film showcases one of the earliest uses of the patented Wilhelm Scream) echo through the desert like mysterious impending doom - and the state trooper, FBI agent, requisite old professor and even more requisite hot professor's daughter who must find and destroy this mysterious assailant(s). Of course these assailants are giant freakin' ants, cursed mandibles snatching their prey at will, and James Arness (the aforementioned fed) and his gang must stop these creatures before they devour the world.
With surprisingly realistic (and Oscar nominated) special effects for the time period (watch a contemporaneous film like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman in comparison) Them! is more than just a fun romp and fodder for the MST3K crowd - it is a giddily disturbing look at the paranoia rampant during this era and the dangers of nuclear warfare on nature (Douglas' film predates the first Godzilla by nearly five months). Originally meant to cash in on the 3D boom, the film would eventually play as just 2D (some shots, including the titles remain 3D-ready) and be made in black and white (titles are done in colour as was also the original intent of the entire film) and would become a moderate hit at the box office. Its reputation now is as one of the best of the 1950's sci-fi films (the best in the high point of the genre) and that is a well-deserved reputation indeed.
Another bit of interest can be found at Anomalous Material. My weekly feature this week is "10 Best 1950's Sci-Fi Films".