Wednesday, June 29, 2011

There is just no word that can describe...

Director: Gordon Douglas
Cast: James Whitmore, James Arness, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon

The definitive giant insect movie was the first and best, leading to several knock-offs and unofficial remakes in the form of Tarantula(1955), The Deadly Mantis(1957), The Black Scorpion(1957), Beginning of the End(1954), The Monster that challenged the world(1958), Monster From Green Hell(1955) and Earth Vs. The Spider(1957), to name a few. This one melded an intelligent script, excellent actors, top notch directing and production values to create one of the supreme monster movies of all time.

I first saw this film as a kid, renting it from my local mom and pop video store, because of the cool cover depicting ants marching down a road, destroying cars and people and thought it looked cool. My dad loved it and soon, so did I, imitating it with my friends and playing a version of the movie with my army men and toy bugs.

More than a mere nostalgic experience being jotted down for posterity, this film is a legitimate classic with first rate production and plenty of scares and a thought provoking script that has made many return to it again and again and for good reason.

Them begins like a mystery with a couple of state troopers encountering a little girl in the desert, all alone. They find a trailer near by, torn apart and destoyed, but no bodies. Later on, they discover a general store in much the same shape, as well as the owner who is broken apart, as is his rifle, which looks like a pretzel. One of the troopers stay behind and watch the place and he hears a strange alien noise and investigates. We hear gunfire and a scream and that noise again, as his cries disappear into the night.
Scientists are called into investigate, a father and daughter played by Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon. The FBI arrives in the form of James Arness and the remaining state trooper, James Whitmore, remains on the case. They soon discover the strange deaths and destruction to be the result of giant ants that were mutated by atomic testing and from there on in, it becomes a chase to stop the creatures from spreading and populating the world with their larvae.

Them! is a superby directed thriller with an emphasis on suspense and action. Gordon Douglas, who was an ace helmer largely of b-films and had worked with Hal Roach in the 1930s, making quite a few Our Gang shorts, creates a tense atmosphere throughout and shows a sure hand for action, particularly in the much-imitated finale where the military fight off the horde in the Los Angeles sewers. This scene has to be one of the most memorable moments in any monster movie ever made.

The sincerity and easy likability of the cast sets this one apart from quite a few later monster movies, as the characters are depicted as real people involved in an incredibly stressful situation, much like Howard Hawk's characters are in his films. There's no obtrusive romance, though Weldon and Arness do have a few light moments, it's nothing distracting. The slight feminist angle that is given Weldon's character is well written and not as heavy handed as later pictures would be. Her character is very beautiful, but neither a scream queen nor a bimbo. She is intelligent and assertive and while some may complain about her screaming and running at the sight of a giant ant, all I can say to that is, wouldn't you?

Whitmore is way cool as the cop, who is smart enough to toss his six gun and grab a Thompson when the giant ant appears and his unexpected tragedy at the film's climax is really something else. Arness handles his scenes just as effectively and it's clear why he became a star. Gwenn delivers the best dialouge of the film, whether it's comparing the giant ants to a biblical prophecy or adding a word of caution about further atomic testing, he is letter perfect. His speech at the end about the atomic bomb was very brave for 1954, such an anti-nuclear stance not prevalent among much of Hollywood's output of the time, another thing that has made this film age beautifully.

The effects are effective, the full scale mock-ups of the ants still creepy and weird and it's no surprise that they were nominated for an Oscar. Plus, seeing all that World War Two hardware on display from bazookas and flamethrowers to Tommy guns and M1 Garands makes this film alot of fun to watch.

Them! is also a very scary film because it chooses to handle it's subject with seriousness and realism, making for a more terrifying motion picture. The events that unfold really feel like what would actually happen if such a horrible thing took place. Moments like the death of the state trooper(one of the scariest scenes of any of the 50s monster flicks), the first appearance of the ant, the ants siege aboard a ship and that finale, are some of the most vivid of any film that I ever saw. That image of the ant dropping the ribcage from it's mandibles as it emerges from it's colony, always gives me the creeps, especially as you see it roll down to a pile of bones that includes the remains of that poor state trooper!

Often imitated and never duplicated, Them! stands as one of the giants(no pun intended) of the sci-fi/horror wave, ranking with juggernauts like The Thing(1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still(1951), War of the Worlds(1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon(1954) and The Incredible Shrinking Man(1957). The only appropiate word to describe this monstrous horde is great and that's exactly what Them is.

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