Them! (1954)

22 09 2009

THEM! (1954)

Them! poster

Them! poster

THEM! is a superior monster movie in that while it follows well-known themes and character types it never allows itself to be curtailed by them.

For example much of the story begins and follows like a police investigation. A missing girl is found wondering the desert, her family’s caravan torn apart. Evidence is collected by diligent police sergeant Peterson played by James Whitmore. When he and his partner find a local store similarly attacked with a bent up shotgun and an old man’s bloodied body in a cellar the FBI is called in. James Arness plays Agent Robert Graham with exactly the right mix of scepticism and professionalism to get to the bottom of the mystery. The partnership he forms with Peterson is a joy to watch especially as the threat becomes all too apparent. It’s up to Edward Gwenn and Joan Weldon to complete the cast, a British scientist with an American daughter, the Doctors Medford who both work for the Department of Agriculture as ant specialists. One wonders if Mother was an ant specialist too. Joan Weldon is especially superb, independent and professional and thankfully free of the naff dialogue given to Faith Domergue a year later in It Came From Beneath the Sea.

The first ant attack takes half an hour to arrive, but when it does it’s shocking not only in its appearance of the giant insects but rather the amount of gunfire that Peterson and Graham lay into them. “Aim for the antennae!” shouts Medford, predicting a method of destruction later used for Daleks. Given the use of stop-motion in many fifties monster movies what’s exciting about THEM! is that it shuns this form for close-up lifesize models that move more naturally, albeit by the looks of things on hospital trolleys. They thrash from side-to-side and scream. And the high-pitched tone they emit when approaching is frightening.

The movie gradually becomes more claustrophobic. It moves from the wide deserts of New Mexico to the smoke-filled briefing rooms of Washington and finally the sewers of Los Angeles. Not only did James Cameron pick up on the cavernous pyro-dread of bug-hunting in enclosed spaces with flamethrowers for Aliens, the LA sewer system that leads to the ant lair, was one of the barren non-locations that Cameron framed Terminator 2: Judgement Day with, alongside any-town suburbs and metal grey mental institutions.

That the film was originally meant to be 3D, but due to a Warner Brothers directive had to settle for two dimensions, also is a pleasant bonus. Flamethrowers spurt into the camera lens. In one surprisingly self-reflexive moment, a projector is directed straight at the audience while an audience watches the audience watching them. It’s enough to warrant a two paragraph celebration from Cahiers Du Cinema.

You can see the cgi remake of this looming over the horizon. Roland Emmerich leaning out of a jeep in front of a green screen telling Shia LeBeouf to dodge the ant that is scuttling after him down Main Street. THEM! is thankfully free of such moments, it understands its limitations and runs with them. An attack on a merchant ship by the ants is over in a matter of seconds. In the remake this scene would be part of four different instances of ant attack across the world, with the original film’s budget spent five times over in thirty seconds.

Cherish THEM!. It’s a monster movie made like a detective story and will still surprise you today.




One response

5 10 2009
An overview of Giant Monsters in Doctor Who – part one « GODZILLA EATS DISS!

[…] Be Left Alone / That They Do Not Understand. These have clear roots in 50s horror movies such as Them!, Tarantula and The Deadly Mantis. Dabbling with nuclear energy or genetics is the usual culprit, […]

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