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Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Retro Review: Them! (1954)
It was supposed to be made in full color and 3-D--two of the very popular "gimmicks" used at the time with a lot of sci-fi and horror films. However, when the studio chickened out and cut the budget, it wound up in black and white and good ol' 2-D. You can still tell with many of the shots that the 3-D influence is there, and the title card of the movie is actually in color. But despite the short-sightedness of Warner's, who apparently didn't want to take a chance on a giant bug picture, Them! turned out to be just about as good as this subgenre got in the United States.
Warner's stalwart Gordon Douglas--a proficient thriller/western director who had cut his teeth with Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy at the Hal Roach Studio--here helms what may very well be his finest film. Genre favorite James Arness--a.k.a. the original Thing from another world--stars as government agent Robert Graham, on hand to investigate the strange goings on in the desert of New Mexico. But the most sympathetic performance of all comes from James Whitmore, a fine actor who made his one big mark on genre filmdom as doomed police sergeant Ben Peterson. And of course, we have Edmund Gwenn, best known as Kris Kringle in the original Miracle n 34th Street, as ant expert Dr. Harold Medford, the proverbial old scientist with the hot daughter, here played by Joan Weldon.
But let's be honest here--the real stars of Them! are the giant ants themselves. Long before the age of CGI, these massive monsters were created the old fashioned way, and the result is some of the finest creature work you're likely to see in this era. In fact, they might be the single most impressive mechanical monsters seen in American cinema prior to the rise of Stan Winston. And who could forget that unmistakable sound made by the giant ants as they approach--purportedly made using
recordings of tree frogs? The ants in Them! are not only among the most impressive, but also the most downright frightening creations of the giant monster era of horror.
And that's certainly one of this movie's strong suits to be sure. Them! achieves what many 1950s creature features attempted to, but didn't always succeed at: it's actually very frightening. Perhaps this owes to the unique screenplay, which kicks off as a traditional police procedural whodunit and then verges off the road into the realm of horror. It doesn't fit the usual template, and although there's a fair share of light comedy and goofiness to be sure, it is also dead serious when it needs to be.
The world was preoccupied with the dangers of nuclear technology during this era, and it's no surprise that this film was released in America at the exact moment that Gojira was released in Japan. For whatever reason, someone got it into their heads that radiation would make things grow very large, and so we wound up with a rash of these giant-monster-on-the-loose epics. Think of it as Mother Nature getting her revenge against the arrogant human race for defiling her. It's a reckoning being visited on us by a natural order gone horribly awry. And what better emissaries for the natural world to send our way than cold, calculating, murderous, remorseless insects?
The fact that ants were chosen as the monsters in question certainly went a long way to making this a unique film of its kind--after all, this was at a time when the concept of giant radioactive creatures was still relatively new. The idea was originally brought to Warner Bros. in the form of a treatment by George Worthing Yates, who obviously had a great head for the genre, given that he had done the same for Sinbad the Sailor in 1947, and would later contribute stories and/or screenplays for the likes of It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, The Amazing Colossal Man, Earth vs. The Spider and King Kong vs. Godzilla. After being filtered through TV writers Russell Hughes and Ted Sherdeman, Yates concept was polished into a jewel.
Although later very often imitated, Them! was one of the seminal entries in its subgenre, and set a standard that many later films would try to emulate, with various degrees of success. It had the perfect balance of special effects spectacle and grim terror, telling a social parable while also not being too heavy or morose. After all, this was still 1950s America, lest we forget.
Warners may have been doubtful of the success of Them!, but there can be no question that in the end, that doubt was unfounded. The horror movie genre was sort of on the ropes coming out of World War II, but this film is one of several, including the likes of Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and House of Wax, that helped put it back on the map and create another memorable era for fans of cinematic terrors.
If you're a fan of Them!, or better yet, if you've never seen it before, I invite you to come down to The Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport, Connecticut this Thursday night, September 27, when I'll be hosting a screening of the film, alongside its Japanese counterpart Gojira, in a little teamup I'm calling "Nuclear Nightmares". It's all part of Bedlam at the Bijou, a three-month-long series celebrating the fifth anniversary of The Vault of Horror. Join me, won't you?