For anyone who considers themselves “above” watching older movies for reasons I honestly can’t fathom, here’s a public service announcement aimed directly at you: get over yourself, you’re missing out on so many treasures you don’t even know. Not only is your inability to sit through movies with monochromatic cinematography, different acting styles and effects that do their best despite existing before CGI, display a lack of respect to cinema itself, but it’s a wonderful example of seeing how certain genres progressed over the years.
Take the genre of monster movies, typically a tongue-in-cheek genre no matter what decade it was made in, but, the best examples have a surprisingly modern sense of tension to them, with movies like The Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms containing moments that can proudly stand shoulder to scaley shoulder with such films as Alien and Jurassic Park if you’re willing to accept it.
Another flick that feels like a kickass dry run for numerous movies that followed in its scuttling wake is 1954’s Them!, a sci-fi thriller that was one of the first to aim atomic insects at a cowering mankind.
Local police find a little girl wandering through the desert of Alamogordo, New Mexico in a catatonic haze and after backtracking to where she must have walked from, find the trailer where her family was vacationing has been torn apart. An additional search uncovers that the local general store has undergone a similar attack with the owner in a state of extreme deadness and matters are made even more worrisome when one of officers left to secure the crime scene meets the same, nasty end at the claws of a mystery, monstrous assailant.
Pooling their various information, trooper Ben Peterson, FBI agent Robert Graham and myrmecologists Dr. Harold Medford and his scientist daughter Pat surmise the impossible – that these deaths are being caused by a frighteningly large breed of Camponotus vicious (aka. a giant-ass fucking ant), something that’s confirmed when an 8 foot long example of the species attacks the team while they’re out looking for proof.
Medford tosses out a theory that these ants have become GIants thanks to an unfortunate mutation caused by radiation from the first ever atomic bomb tests that occured in the area years before and everyone wisely bites as a mission is formed to storm the nest and deploy cyanide bombs to clear out this infestation fairly sharpish (makes more sense than making a giant magnifying glass I guess).
However, while the mission is successful and the ants are squished, Medford finds evidence that two, winged queens have hatched and literally flown the coop to build nests elsewhere and after following eye witness reports, find that there could be a nest located in the storm drains beneath Los Angeles. To paraphrase Sterling Archer: Do you want giant ants, because that’s how you get giant ants.
While the prospect of a 50’s movie concerning ants super-sized by atomic radiation, you’d expect a movie that has its mandible stuck deep into its cheek, but while Them! unavoidably uses that clipped, stilted acting style that was a standard at the time (not to mention a ton of scientific exposition to explain the the layman how ants work), it avoids a lot of the concepts cheesier aspects with some solid build up and some truly memorable scenes.
Leading with scenes of destruction and death to do its talking for it, director Gordon Douglas is smart enough to keep the ants off screen for a while, letting a sense of genuine dread carry the flick that gets an unforgettable kick when the catatonic child is revived with smelling salts only to start shrieking the movie’s title almost directly at the camera. However, much like Jaws over 20 years later, the filmmakers also realise that hiding your creatures is all very well and good, but when you finally get round to showing them, you’d better show them for all their worth. However, while 1950’s effects offen get a bad rap, Them!’s creatures managed to put the “ant” in antagonistic as the practical, full-sized ant puppets are shot and edited really well to work the way round the fact that their private mechanics mean they actually have the reaction speed of a 50-year old stoner with back problems.
However, while the ants themselves could be considered a little goofy to someone weaned on the digital outputs of today’s standards, the way the film utilizes them feels relentlessly up to date. Watch the scenes where soldiers creep through dark, imposing tunnels, hunting for their chittering foe only to go flamethrower-to-mandible when the shot goes down and tell me to my face it does feel like a prototype of similar scenes from James Cameron’s Aliens. Things feel even more visceral when you see these guys turn actual flamethrowers on to the actual full-sized ant puppets only for them to go up in immensely satisfying fashion as I guess they made these things as flammable as shit back in those days. It ranks right up there with the moment The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms takes out a lighthouse in silhouette or when The Creature From The Black Lagoon decides to go for that fateful swim with Julie Adams as indelible moments that still haven’t lost their power, even after all these years.
Actors in these sorts of films usually tend to act like their clothes have been starched a little too heavily, but Them! benefits from a great cast who seem a little more relaxed than your average cast of a monster movie. James Whitmore from The Shawshank Redemption (not to mention 90’s monster mash The Relic) plays one of the typically lantern-jawed heroes while The Thing From Another World alum James Arness plays the other, but its weirdly sweet that Dr. Medford is played by Miracle On 34th Street’s Kris Kringle himself, Edmund Gwenn.
News has recently broke that Them! is going to continue the in the tradition of the insect pronoun game with a modern take I’m genuinely surprised didn’t happen years ago, but if this new version is to hopefully follow The Thing, The Fly and The Blob into remake Valhalla, it’ll have a tough act to follow as the original has all the tension, drama and thrills to hold it’s own after seventy years.
Truly defi-ant. Completely resplend-ant. Utterly extravag-ant