Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Them! Them!! Them!!! or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Giant Mutant Killer Ants

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".

22 comments:

Michaël Parent said...

Excellent review! It raises the bar for my upcoming contribution of Bride of the Monster coming on August 1st!

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx. It is one of my favourite of the genre.

Nathanael Hood said...

I had no idea that "big bug" was considered to BE a genre!

You learn something new everyday...

Congratulations on being the first participant to post their entry for Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear's 50's Monster Mash blogathon!

It is a GREAT start to what promises to be an amazing blogathon!

Thanks again for participating, my friend! As expected, you have proven to be a ferocious blogger!

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx Nate.

The only reason I put it up early was due to heading off to holiday thursday morning and not being sure if wifi would be easily accessed where I am staying.

Writing about Them! was a treat for sure since it is one of my favourite of that "Big Bug" genre.

Cliff Aliperti said...

Great piece to open things up!

I love Edmund Gwenn in Them! He's practically godlike.

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx.

In an interview, Spielberg said he was thrilled when he first saw Them! because, thanks to Edmund Gwenn, it was like watching Santa Claus take down the giant ants.

BrittReid said...

"I had no idea that "big bug" was considered to BE a genre!"

Actually, more s sub-genre (and it includes arachnids like spiders and scorpions.)
There are a number from the 1950s onward including Beginning of the End (locusts), Tarantula, Empire of the Ants, and even Mothra (including various sequels and guest appearances)

The sub-category does NOT include films with insectoid ALIENS like Starship Troopers, Five Million Years to Earth or First Men in the Moon.
Only Earth-based creatures need apply! ;-)

Yvette said...

The best of the Big Bug features, for sure. (I, too, didn't know there was such a genre and then I thought - why not?) I love this film. It has one of my all time favorite openings. The little girl is remarkable. Thanks for a terrific over-view.

Kevin Deany said...

One of my all-time favorite movies, bar none, and not just of 1950s science fiction movies. The sound effects of the ants are eerie as all get out and I can remember hearing them in another giant monster movie but I can't remember which one. Perhaps "The Black Scorpion"?

Michaël Parent said...

Interesting! Although I'm not such a fan of bugs or arachnids so I prefer to read your reviews than actually see the giant insects on my TV screen...

Caftan Woman said...

The movie and your post are both winners.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

In the "big bug" movie sweepstakes, Them! is the clear winner...I don't even mind that the special effects aren't as convincing as they should be.

It succeeds mainly because of its performances--Arness, Whitmore, Gwenn (who practically runs off with the film) and of course, the souse in the drunk tank: "Make me a sergeant and charge the booze!" Great post, Kev.

RVChris said...

Great review!

I've been meaning to see this movie for awhile but haven't gotten around to it yet. I've heard that James Cameron's Aliens bears some strong similarities to Them which peaks my curiosity even more. I know he loves his 50s/60s sci-fi so I'm sure the influences are intentional.

KC said...

I've seen this movie within the past year, but I couldn't remember anything you wrote about it. All I could remember was the weird sound the big ants made. Maybe I need to watch it again. I mean that opening scene sounds chilling. Your description really got to me; I think because seeing children vulnerable always disturbs me.

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx everyone for your accolades. Them! Is surely one my faves of this genre. The sounds are truly haunting.

As for that souse in the drunk tank, that was Fess Parker who owes his career to James Arness. The producers of a new show called Davy Crockett saw this movie to see if they wanted to cast Arness asCrockett but after seeung Parker as the drunk they cast him instead.

Thanx again. I'm on holiday now but will check out all the other blogathon pieces upon my return.

Rich said...

I've always liked this movie too, and I think the little girl is a big reason why. I tend to remember her more than the bugs themselves.

Wednesday's Child said...

Great post. I wonder if we will ever see new entries in the big bug genre.

Rachel said...

Excellent description of the opening scenes. Now that's the way to begin a movie.

"...like watching Santa Claus take down the giant ants."

Why Santa Claus has never gotten his own action movie series is a question best left to future generations.

Barry P. said...

Great review of a classic giant bug flick! It reminded me that I need to dust off my copy of "Them!" and watch it again.

I wasn't aware that this was originally intended to be shown in 3D until the 3D fad died out. Hmmmm... Funny how these things go in waves.

Grand Old Movies said...

This really is the best, most intelligent of the Big Bug films of the 50s. My own favorite actor in this film is James Whitmore as the heroic cop, who sacrifices his life to save 2 boys. And for once, the atomic-radiation explanation sounds plausible as a reason for the horrors. Thanks for your terrific, insightful post.

DorianTB said...

Kevyn, your THEM! blog post is superb, studded with fun facts about the filming and the paranoid climate of the era that spawned this classic thriller! It's one of our family's favorites. But, begging your pardon, may I respectfully point out a couple of things?

1.) Olin Howland was the drunk who sang out "Make me a sergeant, charge the booze." Fess Parker (in his pre-DANIEL BOONE days) played Alan Crotty, the pilot who knows too much and gets kept under wraps in the hospital for his trouble.

2.) The "smelling salts" that were waved under the nose of the little Ellinson girl (Sandy Descher) was in fact the formic acid secreted by the ants. The poor kid recognized the scent, and that's when she started screaming. (As a mom, that scene always tears my heart apart.)

But putting my pesky nit-picking aside, I very much enjoyed your THEM! review, Kevyn!

Kevyn Knox said...

Yes you are right, I was backwards with the Fess Parker part. He was still chosen to play Davy Crockett because of this small part. I had him in the drunk tank instead of the mental hospital.