HCF REWIND NO. 195: THEM [US 1954]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 94 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
New Mexico State Police troopers Ben Peterson and Ed Blackburn discover a little girl in shock, wandering the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. They retrace her steps to a mobile home where the side of the trailer was ripped open from the outside, the rest of the family is missing and no money was taken. A single unknown animal track seems to be the only clue. Then a strange, pulsating high pitched noise echoes out of the desert on the wind. The little girl briefly awakens in fear when she hears a strange, high pitched sound. A general store owner is then found dead with “enough formic acid in his body to kill 20 men.” A cast of a footprint is sent to the FBI but they cannot identify it. They send agent Robert Graham and a father/daughter team of scientists to investigate….
The 50’s is still regarded by some as the Golden Age of screen science fiction. If you were a cinemagoer you would have been barely able to move for alien visitors and oversized beasties. It was The Beast From 20 000 Fathoms which gave birth to an unendingly supply of huge creatures, usually revived by atomic tests to terrify humanity, and this was followed by Them!, which was the first film to actually depict ‘real’ animals [The Beast was, of course, a ficticious dinosaur]. Its success meant that the Tarantula, The Black Scorpion, The Killer Shrews, The Giant Gila Monster and many others would soon follow The big ants of Them! on to the screen. Them! is generally regarded as the best of this films. It takes its premise seriously and mostly avoids silliness and camp as well as many of the flaws that tend to plague films like this such as bad acting and dialogue, while the special effects may not hold up too well these days but are still far superior to, for instance, those in Tarantula where a magnified spider is dangled on the ground and its legs barely touch the floor! The film tends to surprise people who think they’re in for a laugh riot, though there is humour in the movie too. I personally could have done with a bit more giant ant footage in it, though I’m possibly just saying that because I love my monsters!
Them! was originally conceived to be in 3D and colour, a relatively high budget outing for Warner Bros., but after a few colour tests were shot of the large-scale ant models, the 3-D camera rig malfunctioned, it was decided that the budget would be cut, and the production became black and white and 2D. A few shots planned in 3D were actually filmed, such as flame throwers shooting straight into the camera, because they didn’t have time to re-do all the camera set-ups. The opening titles remain in colour too, a vivid red and blue against a black and white background to give the opening of the film a dramatic punch, though this didn’t remain in all prints. The first half of the film was shot largely in the Mojave Desert in extremely temperatures which peaked at 110°F and some of the cast wore wool clothing. Edmund Gwenn had advanced arthritis and was constantly aided by an off-screen valet, while James Whitmore felt overshadowed by the far taller James Arness so he not only wore “lifts” in his shoes but often employed bits of “business” [hand gestures and motions] during scenes in which he appeared to draw more attention to his character when not speaking. A short segment which was in all initial release prints was excised from the film in 1955 and has not been restored. This was because of a lawsuit from a real-life scientist whose name was used for a fictional explanation of atomic energy effects on ants. Them! was a huge hit and started a craze for giant insects and arachnids.
Now quite often the major problem to many viewers today of films like this is the monsters, though most of these 50’s creatures still look more convincing than the awful CGI you get in Syfy and Asylum productions, which in some ways are the spiritual successors of those old movies except they don’t make it to cinemas anymore. There’s no doubt that, after such a meticulous build-up, the first sight of one of the giant ant is disappointing, but it was state of the art at the time, and the huge models, which were operated by unseen technicians, are still interesting to watch and certainly move far more convincingly than many that followed [though the fashion became to just magnify actual creatures because it was cheaper than building all those big models]. It’s also good how they don’t really do anything ants don’t do: they’re just far bigger than the norm. The TV print I used to have of this film on video had a brief shot of one ant revealing its mechanical interior; this technical glitch has been obscured in the DVD releases, a perfect example of how tinkering with a film can be a good thing if it’s correcting an obvious mistake. Their sinister bleeping sound, which was actually the sound of tree-frogs, helps immensely. If you listen out you can hear the famous Wilhelm Scream sound effect [created in 1951’s Distant Drums for a man being attacked by a crocodile, it was used in every Star Wars film and many others] not one but three times.
Them! is basically a film of two halves, the first, and to my mind superior, half set mostly in the desert where the constant sound of a sandstorm creates a great creepy mood. The atmosphere is really strong as our protagonists set about investigating some deaths, disappearances, and other strange occurrences, most notably a young girl made mute by some horrible occasion. The early sight of the girl wondering the desert clutching her doll is haunting and her scene soon after where she is shocked into revival, runs into a corner and screams out “THEM THEM! THEM!” is actually rather chilling, in a film which doesn’t soft-peddle the horror, with one ant carrying a human rib-cage and people killed whom you just don’t expect. It also, I believe, strongly influenced Aliens [amongst many others], not just with two aspects already mentioned but many others, like a great deal of flame-throwing of eggs [though I’m surprised Them! hasn’t had a proper remake to be honest]. The second half of the film relocates to Los Angeles and gets a bit bogged down in a lengthy documentary about ants and people being interviewed about what we already know, though some of these scenes are funny, like a drunk who wants to join the army so he can be: “in charge of the booze”. The film loses its initially headlong pace and begins to drag, while adversely some scenes like an ant attack on a ship seem rushed, though the climactic action is worth the wait. Them! tries to avoid going for easy thrills and handles its story in an almost documentary manner, which perhaps makes the result more praise-worthy than fun, but there are lots of things to enjoy nonetheless in a film where the monsters don’t take up much of the running time.
For a start, the performances are all strong, though unsurprisingly stolen by Gwenn who brings a lightness to his typical professor role. His best moment is in a helicopter where he shows the silliness of having to constantly say “over” into a headset. The entrance of the main female character Dr. Pat Medford, is amusing, her skirt being caught as she descends from the steps of a plane to leering looks from the men, whom she soon puts in their place. Unusually there’s no romance afterwards, just people getting together to do a job. The dialogue by Ted Sherdeman and Russell S. Hughes is often strong, amusing in that great old-style hardboiled manner:
“Look…held together with saliva”.
“Spit’s all that’s holding me together right now”.
The emphasis on real locations really gives the events a certain verisimilitude and they are backed up by a superb score by Bronislau Kaper which is underrated as it’s one of the finest of its kind, sinister and jagged, ignoring long melodies in favour of a more modernistic, almost atonal, approach.
Despite the immense efforts to prevent this, there are still some daft things in this film which anyone with a small knowledge of certain things would notice. Foot prints are found in the sand despite there just having been a huge sandstorm. Somebody films a soldier firing a bazooka and is standing right behind him even though the back blast would have damaged the camera and killed the operator. Oxygen masks appear to be enough protection against a huge amount of cyanide. All this is probably just nitpicking though, because Them!, while in my view not holding up quite as well as its reputation, is still a minor classic and a fine example of how to do this kind of thing without taking the piss or just making it silly. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s too easy, isn’t it?