31 Screams in October, Vol. 2, #31: Them! (1954)

Posted: October 31, 2015 in Movie Review
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Them! (1954)

Director: Gordon Douglas

Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness

I love it whenever the older movies can surprise and shock the hell out of me. When I had first heard of “Them!” several years ago, I remember regarding it with interest, but the stigma of the 1950’s monster genre led me to believe it would just be another thinly-plotted sci-fi flick with fake-looking creature effects. In actuality, that rule only applies to 1950’s giant creature features made AFTER “Them!” One of the very first movies centered around a monster created as the result of nuclear testing, and THE first giant bug movie, “Them!” is as influential as it is scary.

Out in the desert of New Mexico, state trooper Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and his partner discover a young girl of no older than six years wandering by herself, having suffered some sort of shock. Her steps are retraced to a mobile home owned by an FBI agent (the girl’s father), which has been torn open from the outside, sugar cubes scattered all over the floor. The family is missing but, while their home has been trashed, it hasn’t been robbed. The only clue is an animal print of unknown origin, as well as a strange noise that sounds akin to a car that is badly in need of a tune-up. The girl sits up, her face filled with fear. She knows what that sound is. The next stop in the investigation is a general store, whose owner is found dead. His store is left in shambles, similar to what the mobile home looked like, with several containers of sugar opened and strewn across the floor. Once again, the officers hear that high-pitched noise. Ben leaves to see about the girl, while his partner sticks around just long enough to be attacked and killed (off-screen).

FBI Agent Robert Graham (James Arness) arrives in town, along with Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Pat (Joan Weldon). The father/daughter pair are both myrmecologists (i.e. scientists who specialize in ants), and they have a theory that, if proven true, could spell trouble for humanity. First, Dr. Medford uses a small glass of formic acid as a smell test, to see if the girl will react to it. She does, shouting “Them!” over and over in terror. Before revealing his theory, Dr. Medford requests to see the site where the mobile home was destroyed. It is there that Pat sees a giant-sized ant! The police shoot the gi-ant’s antennae first (on instruction from Dr. Medford), and then riddle the oversized insect’s body with bullets until it is dead. Dr. Medford then reveals his theory: He believes that the gi-ants are the byproduct of nuclear testing in the area.

Together, the team locates and destroys a gi-ant colony, only to discover the horror that two queen ants have hatched and escaped to establish colonies elsewhere. Racing to contain the problem and to try not to send the public into a mass panic, they follow several leads, including one which locates one of the queens on board a freighter. That queen and any potential offspring are eliminated by the intentional sinking of the boat. The second queen’s new home inside of a system of storm drains is determined when it is found to correspond to the last known location of a father and his two sons. The father’s body is found, but the two boys can be heard, still alive inside the storm drains. Ben goes in to help, killing a few gi-ants with a flamethrower, and manages to rescue both boys before another gi-ant sneaks from behind and kills him. As Ben dies, Agent Graham arrives with the cavalry, and they destroy the queen and her nest. It is unknown whether or not all of the gi-ants have been found and destroyed, nor whether the Atomic Age will bring forth other similar threats in the future.

Implausible as it sounds for nuclear radiation to cause abnormal growth in insects, the final cautionary words prove that “Them!” has a powerful message to get across, and one that is just as relevant to the current generation as it was for people seeing it back in the early 1950’s. I can’t imagine how scary this must have been for audiences back then. What I can imagine is how much more recent, popular monster movies owe this one. The scene where Pat first sees that gi-ant reminds me of the scene where Chief Brody first sees the shark in “Jaws”. You’re gonna need a bigger can of bug spray! Also, watching our heroes make their way through the first ant colony and then destroying everything with flamethrowers looks like something right out of “Alien” or “Aliens.” The gi-ants themselves look amazing, and I’m glad that we are held off from seeing them until we’re a third of the way through. Like with “Jaws,” the idea of the monster makes the build-up that much more exciting. “Them!” is a first-rate sci-fi/horror film, one that should not be ignored just because of its age or lack of color photography.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Excellent review! I’m so proud that you discovered this film and that you have highlighted all the ways in which it influenced future Sci-Fi and monster films to follow. It is a little gem.

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