Sunday, February 2, 2014

Them! (1954)

A series of mysterious events in New Mexico, including several deaths, is investigated by the local police and the FBI, eventually leading to the discovery of a nest of giant ants, mutated by atomic bomb tests.

I like the fact that this movie starts out as a mystery, even though the poster and trailer give everything away. It's still interesting from the beginning, although they drag it out too much once the requisite scientist is called in, who of course already knows what is behind everything but won't tell anyone until he is 'absolutely sure.'

At the beginning, we have a little girl who is found wandering in the desert in a state of mute shock (Aliens, anyone?). The investigating cops find a destroyed trailer home and a weird print in the sand nearby, then a wrecked store, its owner dead and later found to have "enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men".

The cops hear a weird sound--almost like a squeaky siren, with what sounds like bird sounds behind it--and the one left behind to guard the store is killed by something strong enough to take four bullets from his gun and still get away.

The FBI send in agent Robert Graham (James Arness, the title character in The Thing [1951]), and a cast of the print found by the cops attracts the attention of an entomologist (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter (Joan Weldon, who, in a pleasant surprise, is also a scientist, and not the typical woman-in-peril or love interest).

The scientist uses the smell of formic acid to bring the little girl out of her stupor, causing her to begin screaming "THEM! THEM!" over and over. (Inexplicably, they leave right after that instead of trying to get her to tell what she saw--maybe because they couldn't stand her screaming?)

"THEM!! THEM!!!!" "We heard you the first time, now SHUT UP!!!"

When the dead cop's former partner and Agent Graham accompany the scientists to the location of the print, they hear the weird sound again. This time, a giant ant pops up from over a ridge. The elder entomologist tells them to go for the annentae, which slows the ant down long enough for it to be pumped full of bullets from a machine gun.

Whatever happened to 'short, controlled bursts'?

From there, the team track down the nest and destroy it, but discover that a pair of newborn queens have escaped and must search out the new colonies before more queens are born.

The acting, above-average for this type of film, and foreboding atmosphere make what could be a boring start interesting. The visual of the strong winds blowing across the desert gives those scenes a uniquely eerie quality. Unfortunately, apart from a tiny scene with the second nest, which ends up being no more than a footnote, the film drags after the destruction of the first nest and doesn't really pick up again until the very end. It just takes too long to find the last nest.

The investigative techniques of the FBI agent in trying to find the new nest don't make a lot of sense either. He interrogates people who have been arrested/received speeding tickets recently with the hope that their actions may have been a result of seeing giant ants...yeah... I suppose it's true that he didn't have any leads to go on, but I would think physically going out and searching for them would be the best course of action, right? But hey, I'm not an FBI agent, so what do I know?

[Insert Wilhelm Scream here.]

At least the ants are cool, surprising for a giant bug movie of the time--or ever, really. It probably helped that this was actually the first movie about giant bugs, as well as one of the first movies to blame nuclear weapons for attacks by monsters (I believe the first was The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms from 1953).

The film was actually nominated for a Special Effects Oscar. The full size ant puppets are mostly effective, although they are a little stiff, and sometimes look like they have pupils for some reason. It's the way they are shot that really makes them work; you see just enough to know what is happening without the camera lingering on the ants long enough for you to pick out any bad movements or physical imperfections.

Burning the egg chamber. Aliens, anyone?

The scenes with flamethrowers being used against them are just plain awesome. I was not at all expecting that real flamethrowers would be employed, much less that they would actually burn the ant puppets.

Interestingly, the film was originally to be in color and 3-D, but problems with the 3-D cameras led to the producers abandoning the idea and trying to ape the success of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms by making everything (except the title card) black and white; it must have worked--Them! was supposedly Warner Bros.' highest grossing film that year.

Soldiers in a dark tunnel under attack by giant bugs that seem to appear out of nowhere--seriously, it's just like Aliens.

Despite losing some steam in the middle and having a pretty standard '50s monster story, the cool ant effects, realistic/serious tone, above average acting, and good direction/camerawork make this one of the best movies of its type.

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