Dir. Gordon Douglas
Written by George Worthing Yates (story) Ted Sherdeman and Russel Hughes (screenplay)
Starring James Whitmore, James Arness, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon
Today when we think of the “atomic monster” craze which briefly took control of Hollywood (and, especially, Japan) in the mid-50s and early 60s, we’re more likely to think of Mystery Science Theater 3000 than we are Academy Awards, but here in 1954, the world was not yet tainted by such prejudice. THEM!, something of the quintessential 50’s monster-movie and to some degree the progenitor of the whole genre (only THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS preceded it), is a rather classier affair than you probably imagine, stylishly assembled and generally avoiding sinking into B-movie camp, while never shirking its responsibility to show you giant monsters menacing the army. I mean, I guess it is a little intrinsically campy whenever giant, slow-moving ant puppet heads and stereotypical 1950’s square cops become embroiled in conflict, but look! That’s Academy-Award Winning beloved International treasure Edmund Gwenn (MIRACLE ON 34th ST, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY) standing nearby looking concerned! If that’s not a mark of taking this shit seriously, I don’t know what is.
Like virtually every one of these movies, we begin in a rural small town in the American Southwest, where mysterious events are occurring. THEM! distinguishes itself from the dozens if not hundreds of identical movies which followed it almost immediately, however, by giving this standard establishing framework a little more oomph. Local cops Ben Peterson (James Whitmore, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, TORA TORA TORA*, and already an Oscar nominee for BATTLEGROUND) and Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake, helicopter pilot in the second half of a two-part Lassie episode in 1969) discover a little girl wandering in shock alone in the New Mexican desert. She’s too traumatized to speak, but starts to panic when she hears a strange, disconcerting high-pitched sound. In short order, they find the trailer owned by her parents, now violently ripped apart (the trailer, not the parents -- this is 1954 after all). It’s fairly standard stuff, but there’s an austere bleakness to the way journeyman director Gordon Douglas and cinematographer Sidney Hickox shoot the black-and-white desert, and the young girl’s portrayal of a shell-shocked kid who just witnessed something unimaginably horrifying is quite visceral and affecting. Douglas was already an old hand at filmmaking already by this time, ultimately racking up more than 100 movies between 1935 and 1977, mostly disposable b-movies but with a few memorable ones like the DIE HARD prequel THE DETECTIVE with Frank Sinatra and the sequel to the seminal 1967 Sidney Poitier crime drama IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. Hickox, too, was a prolific cinematographer who’d been shooting multiple films every year since 1916, including THE BIG SLEEP and WHITE HEAT (this would be his penultimate film). The guys were not auteurs, exactly, but they knew their craft well by this point, and it shows.
That craft pays off in a surprisingly effective monster movie. The giant (spoiler) ants are a bit silly looking, which was perhaps inevitable given the kitschy premise, but they’re used pretty effectively. The first time we see them is a real ‘oh-shit’ moment; our heroes know that whatever killed these people so violently is out there, and they’re looking around the desert. It’s a dead silent scene, shot in the spartan black-and-white, windswept wasteland of the endless Southwestern desert. And suddenly, impossibly, on top of a small cliff behind them, there appears this enormous alien head, all compound eyes, lanky hair, jagged mandibles. You know what it is, of course --you know what this movie’s about-- but even so you’re not quite prepared for something so surreal. Our protagonists don’t see it, they’re looking in the wrong direction, and the soundtrack remains absolutely silent, refusing to hold your hand as your brain struggles futilely to make sense of what you’re seeing. Finally, one of our heroes slowly turns around, realizes what’s happening, and screams. It’s a legitimately scary scene. So are the sequences in the cramped, claustrophobic tunnels our heroes have to invade to finish off the insectoid menace with flamethrowers. There’s probably a germ on an idea which would grow into ALIENS in here; these guys are well-armed macho government types --not your usual horror protagonists-- but they’re leaving the world where they’re firmly in control and going into the lair of the beast. The giant ants, even as slow-moving puppets, have a sense of real visceral danger to them, and when these men are thrown into their turf, it’s a genuinely scary prospect.
“Scary” is not a word I would have guessed I’d associate with this movie. These “atomic monster” movies tend to be casually filed under the horror label, but as much as I love them, I think it’s pretty evident their goals are usually different from the traditional notion of what “horror” means as a genre. There’s not much psychological or disconcerting about them, and they eschew most standard horror conventions about moody atmosphere and gothic menace. Sure, they posit a monstrous danger to man, and in that sense they’re the same as a WOLF MAN or something, but in every other respect --from the genre's characteristic government protagonists to the typical sunny Southwestern milieu -- they seem more closely related to a style of film which wasn’t even really on the horizon yet, the effects-driven spectacle movies which wouldn’t come into their own until the end of the 70’s. This 50’s monster movie cycle was vastly cheaper, of course, and they were considered kiddie b-movie matinees rather than the big-ticket blockbuster tentpoles of today, but their intent was clearly the same: deliver colorful, flashy special effects to titillate and amuse. To thrill, certainly, but not to disturb and unsettle the way the monsters of the past generation had. Hence, it’s kind of surprising to see that here at the genesis of the subgenre, Director Douglas and story writer George Worthing Yates (EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS, ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE) obviously really do mean this to be an unnerving experience, and even more of a surprise that they generally achieve that goal.
It’s customary when discussing the atomic monster movies to prattle on about them in the context of American fear of the nuclear era, and its potential for global destruction. Honestly, I never paid a lot of heed to those sorts of analysis. While the majority of these movies use nuclear mutation as a handy plot device, and sometimes even pay lip service to nuclear disaster in their dialogue, they tend to be so corny and eager to please that it seems a little generous to ascribe to them a lot of thematic intent. Obviously the original GODZILLA does have a genuine --and rather chilling-- horror at the idea of the nuclear age, but its Japanese perspective makes a huge difference. The Japanese experienced and lived with the horror of the atomic bomb, while the Americans saw its use as crucial in a tactical and moral victory. American fear of the nuclear age was always much more ambivalent, even in liberal Hollywood; they feared communist nukes, but saw our own stock as a source of security. If it created monsters, well, at least we had a battle-ready military strong enough to fight them off, which is really what most of these movies seem to emphasize.
Besides, why not just admit it -- we made these movies because kids like to see giant monsters. There’s no shame in that. Hell, even in Japan the love of giant monsters quickly overcame any pretense to a metaphor about the horrors of the nuclear age; by 1962’s GODZILLA VS KING KONG, Godzilla was already more national hero than radioactive nightmare. A subtext of dire anxiety over the potential for the destruction of life on Earth simply doesn’t really fit with the cheerful, gee-wiz tone of the majority of this sort of film (and I’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds of them.) But strangely, THEM! is not really like that; from the opening sequence with the traumatized girl, to the strangely tragic sequence later on of a mother who has just lost her family to the ants, THEM! takes a surprising interest in the lingering personal horrors of this nuclear disaster. It may be one of the only movies of its ilk to genuinely take this premise as an extension of a real-life horror; even its very last line is a dark prophecy about what this terrible power may bring in the future. It’s not above crafting an exciting monster attack sequence, but its bleakness and sense of panic set it apart from most of the movies which would follow it, and, to a large degree, would ape its structure and its moral in the most general sense, but without the same seriousness about it.
Still, the monsters are obviously the star here, as befits any horror movie worth its salt, even one warning of a dire future nuclear holocaust. And as often happens when stars get too big and too demanding of the spotlight, a few things tend to get neglected a bit. THEM! has some surprisingly effective sequences, but it does stumble a little in terms of narrative structure. It has a taut, successful escalation leading to an obvious climax, where our heroes kill the fuck out of the ant colony with a big military chemical warfare hardware show (!) and then go on foot into the belly of the beast to finish the fuckers off with fire. Awesome, that wraps everything up pretty nicely. But then, almost an hour in, the movie starts over again -- it seems that the Ant Queen has escaped, and is flying to parts unknown to start over. Our boys have to find her before she gets established, so it’s a race across the country to try and locate the new hive before the situation gets too far out of hand.
This obviously changes the momentum of the movie somewhat, and it essentially just repeats the events of the first half of the movie but on a larger scale. It’s almost like the movie comes to its logical conclusion, and then has a whole sequel stuck on to the end. We’re even introduced to a host of new main characters, leaving our original characters without a lot to do except improbably show up for the finale. This is interesting and well-made in its way, but there’s no denying it, ant attacks get pretty infrequent in this period. I’m not going to say this second part is boring, because it’s not exactly, but it does devote a lot of attention to the process of interviewing witnesses (including a brief scene with future DAVY CROCKETT star Fess Parker, apparently in the performance which won him that role!), collecting data, trying to figure out when and where the ants will make their move. It’s kind of an atomic monster mystery procedural! It doesn’t quite work, I think, because the specifics of where the bugs are hiding isn’t that interesting a prize… a murder mystery is a better format for a procedural because there are so many dramatic elements to it --suspicion, motive, justice-- here, we’re just interested in where the bugs end up spatially. Since this isn’t a real thing at all and there’s not a lot of human drama at stake, it’s maybe a tad less compelling.
Still, it makes up for it with the finale, which takes place (spoiler, I guess, if you were super into the mystery of where the bugs ended up) in the underground L.A. waterways, where the ants and the soldiers have an elaborate and exciting final showdown. There’s a sense of real danger here, and although the movie is little concerned with interpersonal drama, the cast is strong enough to sell it handily. Of course, you gotta especially appreciate Gwenn in here; only two roles away from the end of his career and 6 years from his death, he still imbues his exposition-heavy entomologist character with an eccentric spark which animates every scene he’s in. But everyone does fine; despite the movie’s characteristic 1950’s right-stuff squareness, it’s peppered with fine character actors and odd little moments which help anchor it to something at least a little more human than the giant ants. And hey, Leonard Nimoy is an unspeaking extra in one of the military bases! Giant ants, well-crafted suspense scenes, Santa Claus, Spock, and flamethrowers? The history of giant monster movies may not be rife with opportunities for critical admiration, but I’d say that THEM! has more than enough riches to boast about.
*frankly that one has so many people I’m just going to start including it for every actor without even checking. If you were an actor in 1970, the odds are that you were in TORA, TORA, TORA.