Them! (1954)

“Here’s one for Sherlock Holmes: there was enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men.”

Synopsis:
A policeman (James Whitmore), an FBI agent (James Arness), and a father-daughter scientist team (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon) investigate the sudden appearance of atomically super-sized ants in the New Mexico desert.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this classic mutant monster B-flick “ranks with The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as the best of the countless fifties science fiction films”. Tautly directed by Gordon Douglas (Peary calls it the “best” of his “many films”), the “intelligent, entertaining script” by Ted Sherdeman never drags. The narrative neatly shifts from mystery mode in its truly eerie opening sequence (of “a little girl in shock, wandering through the New Mexico desert”), to tense police procedural a la “the classic fifties TV” show “Dragnet” (as a series of “oddball witnesses” are questioned), to full-on war against the ants and then a “thrilling finale” in which “Whitmore and Arness search the sewer system for the ants and attempt to rescue two boys who are trapped inside”.

While fans of ’50s “creature feature” films are a ready-made audience for movies like this, all-purpose film fanatics will likely find much here to enjoy as well. As Peary notes, Them! (great title) possesses “believable characters and a particularly fine performance by Whitmore”, who struggles throughout the film with guilt from “allowing” his partner to be killed in one of the opening sequences. The special effects are noticeably impressive, with the mutant ants — “products of nuclear bomb-testing” who “are ravaging the area” and may bring about the end of mankind on Earth if they’re not stopped in time — coming across as menacing rather than corny. However, if you’re in the mood for laughs, there’s plenty of campy and/or corny dialogue to enjoy — though it’s just as easy to watch and listen with a straight face.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The incredibly disturbing opening sequence
  • Creepy special effects
  • Fine performances throughout

Must See?
Yes, as a classic sci-fi thriller.

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One Response to “Them! (1954)”

  1. A must – for its place in cinema history and as classic, still effective sci-fi.

    A popular tv staple when I was a kid, ‘Them!’ was one you just didn’t want to miss whenever it was shown. Of course, it was always a challenge for filmmakers of the time to come up with believable creatures of horror. For impact, the way to go was to suggest more than you showed. That was a particular challenge for ‘Them!’ because it was necessary to actually show giant ants on the rampage. And, yes, today they look slightly silly. Still, the screenplay uses actual attacks sparingly and director Douglas manages to work around most of the problems of working with less-than-believable monsters.

    The game-changing stroke of brilliance here is that *sound*! ~still a chilling warning of attack.

    Personally, I don’t find anything all that corny or campy in the dialogue, though I can see how some of it could be taken that way. For a film of its type, I think the screenplay works well. The cast (with a terrific Whitmore at the helm), fittingly, plays it all extremely and convincingly straight. (There is none of the sub-par acting one often finds in old sci-fi flicks.)

    The opening scene, involving the catatonic child, is indeed one of the film’s most memorable sequences. (Not only did it seem to have an influence on David Lynch’s first episode of ‘Twin Peaks’ – the teenage girl walking in a daze on a railroad track – but it is also one of many scenes/aspects which can be directly linked to James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’.)

    I find the film’s last lines (by Gwenn) very unsettling: “When man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.”

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