Them! (1954)
By: Mr Intolerance on August 6, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Warner Brothers (Australia). Region 2, 4 & 5, PAL. 4:3. English DD 1.0, German DD 1.0, Spanish DD 1.0. English, French, Spanish, Finnish, German, Icelandic, Swedish, Czech, Greek, Polish, Turkish, Dutch, English (FHI), German (FHI) subtitles. 89 minutes
The Movie
Director: Gordon Douglas
Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness, Onslow Stevens, Sean McClory, Chris Drake
Screenplay: Ted Sherdeman
Country: USA
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Ahhh, the 1950s. A time in US horror when we'd by-passed the Gothic horrors of the Universals, because let's face facts, in the Atomic age, Dracula's fangs have lost something of their bite. Frankenstein? Meh. Mad scientists? Only if they're working with the new bogey-man, nuclear power. Given the radioactive Armageddon rained down upon Japan only 9 years previously, and the fact that the Cold War with the Eastern Bloc was grinding on interminably with a steady build up of two huge nuclear arsenals, it seems only right that if you were trying to market a fashionable paranoia, nuclear power and what it could do would be your bugbear of choice. Nobody knew a goddam thing about the effects of radiation (remember that footage of those old 1940s atom bomb tests?) – so who can say it wouldn't cause horrific genetic mutations? Giant monsters were the go, whether home-grown or alien – The Deadly Mantis, The Monster From Green Hell, Tarantula, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms – and from that same nuked island Japan, we had monsters like Godzilla, Gamera, Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah, Baragon, Anguirus and a whole host of others. All of them represented the fear of apocalypse, albeit done in different ways for a different audience with a different set of values and attitudes, given the context you're looking at.

Them was the first horror film I ever saw. 8 years old and just home from swimming lessons, I plonked myself down in front of the midday movie on Channel 10, and this was what I got. I was hooked for life. It's weird to think that watching a tale of giant ants was to get me ready (admittedly some many years later) for the ultra-violent excesses of the All Night Long series, but there you go…

The first reel plays out like a pretty standard mystery flick. A catatonic little girl is picked up by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere (a la Newt from Aliens), near White Sands, New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was detonated, and about three miles from an abandoned trailer by a couple of likeable coppers, Ben Petersen and his younger partner Ed. The trailer is all stove-in, like a giant used it for a football. It's a mess, and the police are understandably mystified – the only clues are a blood-soaked shirt, a fired revolver, some money that wasn't stolen, and some physical evidence including footprints the boys in blue can't even begin to identify. And sugar. Cubes of sugar, lots of them.

The boys send for the fellas from the lab, and in the investigating of the accident scene, they hear a strange sound they're going to learn to fear. The little girl comes to, but the guys don't notice. More fool them. When they head back to the general store, they find the same level of carnage having happened, with most of the store left like the Marie Celeste – meal being cooked, scenes of domestic normalcy abound. But also there's a great big fuck-off hole in the wall and something obviously very bad has happened. A .30-30 rifle is found, inexplicably broken, and the body of the shop owner, Gramps. And there's that sugar again, a barrel ripped open, and again the money not taken from the till. Oh, and there's that noise, as Ed is left by himself in the dark – he unloads his pistol into something off-screen, screams and then…

So, the coppers are baffled – time to bring in the egg-heads, in time-honoured 1950s fashion. First the FBI turn up in the shape of agent Robert Graham, then from the Department of Agriculture, Doctors Medford (plural intended). It turns out that Gramps could have died in one of many different ways, the last having being injected with 20 times the lethal amount of Formic acid – as one of the characters puts it – "one for Sherlock Holmes." The two Doctors Medford turn up, one who is the usual stereotype of the doddering eccentric old scientist (more than vaguely Yoda-like), the other, his daughter Pat is a saucy minx indeed. They proceed to get the little girl talking via a whiff of Formic acid – she keeps screaming "Them! Them!" in a terrified manner – and it looks like we're in the right ballpark. Something is indeed amiss.

And so it's back out to the desert to the place where the original trailer was found, winds a-howling and sand a-blowing. And this is where our first big scare appears, in the form of a giant ant. Now you young folk might scoff with your CG, but this was truly frightening at a young age, and the image of Officer Petersen taking this thing out in the only way possible – with a nickel-plated Tommy-Gun to the antennae – this kind of has resonance with a Romero-savvy crowd trying to take out the zombies with a shot to the head. I have never forgotten this scene – I want it played at my funeral.

Anyhoo, the brave gang of giant ant hunters, having found the nest, blast it back to the Stone Age with phosphorous charges fired from bazookas and then bung a whole bunch of cyanide gas down it to kill all of our Formicidae friends. Problem solved – well, you'd like to think so, but it would appear that someone has underestimated our six legged noses-on-knees pals. They've buggered off to the Big Smoke (remember: some ants – like the Queens – have wings…), where the pickings will be a bit more fulsome, and where hopefully the natives aren't armed with flame-throwers. Now who's underestimating who?

One Queen has landed on a naval vessel, the SS Viking, and spawned a nest. The boat has been sunk, but we soon get a picture of a giant ant diaspora – they could be anywhere, and sightings start cropping up on a national level. Tension rises, off-set with brief scenes of expository egg-head dialogue to fill in the blanks, and keep the story simmering, rather than have it explode into cheap histrionic melodrama, like so many bad horror films before and since.

Petersen and Graham go on the hunt in Los Angeles, and thanks to the ramblings of a drunk, find a more than likely locale for the bad-tempered militaristic insects to start their evil-empire building again – a sewer outlet near the river bed, with its own ready-made tunnels for the hungry critters to make into a nest. Time for the good-guys to make a stand!

The Marines are called in, and the press (representing the general public?) get very nervous – what the hell's going on, they ask. And well they might. A press conference is called, and the public are informed of the potentially disastrous situation. Martial law is declared in Los Angeles – and it's kind of weird just how acquiescent the people are about it, not to mention the fact that they buy the story entirely, and without question. That's just the context, I guess – remember the national hysteria that erupted after Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast? Back in the day you believed what you saw or heard without questioning.

Petersen, Graham and the troops prepare to move in to face off against the marauding interlopers, and we hit the final act. Isn't it annoying when reviewers refuse to hint at the ending? All I'm telling you is that it will indeed have you at the edge of your seat, and it's pretty damn good stuff. There's a reason I keep going back to this movie – and one why you should do the same.

The performances are credible – you gets what you pays for, really. It's a fifties horror flick; the characters are more types than individuals. – the eccentric scientist, the hot girl who is more than just eye-candy (but can still summon up a real scream when she has to), the square-jawed heroes; you know the drill. It summons up the feel of the era that created it with the paranoid response to an external threat, the idea of an impending unstoppable apocalypse, the at times noir-esque dialogue, the scenes of expository dialogue that you'd never get today, the moral certainties delivered to us in (no pun intended) black and white, and the somewhat high-handed moralising about what science may have done with the advent of the atomic age and the whole, "what have we done to Nature" routine is meant sincerely. You couldn't make this film now in the same way, although The Host certainly tried to admirably, and at which the god-awful Cloverfield dismally failed. You young players might find the whole thing a bit risible given the rather primitive special effects – but to an aging movie fan, that adds to the charm, and makes you work at the willing suspension of disbelief, which, if you can achieve it, makes it all the more rewarding. The fact that the whole thing is played totally straight adds to the pull of the story, and draws you right in – there's no post-modern distancing or tongue-in-cheek humour – this one goes for the scares.

This is a classic of the genre, and probably the very best of the giant monster movie cycle in the States. Go check it out, if you haven't already, and if you have, you know you want to watch it again.
Presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio, Them looks about as good as it's going to until it gets Blu-Ray-ed, I suppose. It's a pristine, crystal clear print almost good enough to make you weep. That said, there are just a couple of the action scenes towards the end of the film where the image softens, but they are in the minority, if unfortunately in some of the more climactic scenes. This does not detract from your enjoyment of the film, however.
I can't say that a mono track really cuts it in this day and age, but I don't really think Warner were thinking about spending the necessary cash for a full re-vamp. A shame. Still, it still sounds a lot better than the old VHS I used to rent once a month as a horror-hungry teen.
Extra Features
Not a particularly great package, it must be said. There is some brief behind-the-scenes archival footage, a photo gallery and the original trailer, which is one of those grand old "See! Hear! Watch!" kind of trailers that only the 50s could give us. I guess I would have liked something a little more special, but oh well… The menu is done in a sensationalist newspaper style which is kind of a nice touch.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
As the first horror film I ever saw, I guess I look at Them with some pretty rose-tinted nostalgia-fied glasses. Nevertheless, I'm a pretty exacting kind of a fella when it comes to watching films, especially horror films, and I still found it highly entertaining, if maybe a little hokey at times. A throwback to a more innocent time for horror films when you didn't have to spit on every taboo to give your audience some shocks, Them still delivers for me – let's hear it for the giant ants!

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