Five Reasons To See “Them!”

them!poster
YouTube

I don’t know about anyone else, but 1950s sci-fi and horror have really grown on me lately, especially sci-fi, and 1954’s Them! is pretty infamous. It feels quick, it’s just creepy enough, and it’s fun.

For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, it’s simply this: Giant ants are attacking mankind, and it’s all the fault of nuclear testing. There’s a lot of screaming. The ants screech like bird-voiced treefrogs (among other animal sounds) when they’re about to attack. And there are authentic World War Two flame throwers wielded by authentic World War Two vets.

georgeworthingyates
George Worthing Yates. (Mubi)

Originally slated to be shot in 3D and color, Them! was written by prolific sci-fi writer George Worthing Yates, or at least that’s what he became after Them!, seeing as it was his first sci-fi film. According to TCM, Yates was inspired by an anecdote about giant ants nesting in a New York subway, as well as the fact that ants are known to wage war.

The film ended up being in black and white because the camera the filmmakers planned on using went kaput, and the cost would have been prohibitive anyway. As it is, the film’s subtlety is part of what makes it effective; all it takes is a suggestion of mandible movement to set characters to freaking out.

Why is this Atomic Age gem worth taking in? Or taking in again, as the case may be? Well…

The ants, of course.

them1
bogleech.com

OK, so they might look a little cheesy nowadays, but they’re also pretty impressive. I kept thinking as I watched these creatures how far animatronics and stop-motion had come since 1933’s King Kong, which was also impressive in its day, but that ape didn’t move as fluidly as these ants.

Creating the menace took a lot of doing and a lot of hands. A mixture between oversized ant puppets and enlarged footage of real ants was used for the movie, and the former apparently required twenty men to operate.

It all definitely worked; one of the reviews from that time said that the kids in the screening had a ball squealing whenever the ants came up. One can only imagine what the movie would have been like in 3D and color.

1950s stuff.

them6
TCM

I love the look of the film–obviously it’s all midcentury modern, so everything is atomic. There are guys in radiation suits with Roentgen counters. And of course there’s the 1950s fashion, which means, among other things, we get to see Joan Weldon try and fail to run from the monsters in a pencil skirt.

The history.

them5
Cryptomundo

It’s been said that this film is one of the first times Hollywood acknowledged the potentially dire consequences of nuclear warfare, but I partly disagree. There were definitely those (Arch Oboler, for one) who publically showed apprehension to the new normal within days and weeks of the first atomic bombs being dropped. On the other hand, radio tended to be a little quicker on the uptake when it came to adapting shows and producing relevant content.

I think when it came to movies, though, Hollywood had to walk a fine line, because immediately following the war people wanted to forget and move on. There was a lot to process. Maybe by 1954 people were willing to let their imaginations picture the worst, or at least the wild and crazy.

The great cast.

Them4
Retrozap

Joan Weldon. James Arness. James Whitmore. They’re all here and they’re all fantastic in their roles. And there’s a microscopic cameo by a young Leonard Nimoy as an Army sergeant. He was twenty-three at the time.

I think the highlight for me was Edmund Gwenn as Dr. Harold Medford. He’s like the grand statesman of the movie, but he’s also the older guy who has to be reminded to say, “Over” when talking on an airplane radio. Most of the film’s subtle humor comes from him, and it’s a good thing, because it keeps the story from dragging itself down too much.

Fess Parker.

them2
YouTube

He’s got a tiny part here as Alan Crotty, the classic Guy Who Gets Committed Because People Don’t Believe Him, and he’s charmingly earnest. The role was great for Parker’s career as well: Rumor has it Walt Disney cast Parker as Davy Crockett based on his participation in this movie.


Them! did very well at the time of its release, grossing around two million dollars, despite not appearing special from a titular standpoint. Apparently it was trendy in the early fifties to give one-word titles, but as the Washington, D.C. paper, the Evening Star put it, “Them! is the one most likely to be the least forgettable.”

So yeah, this is Them! It’s a classic. I’m kinda glad they decided against color and 3D, because it would have dated pretty quickly. As is, the film is a classy and iconic blast from the 1950s. Anyone who sees it may never look at ants the same way again.

And yeah, this post is a wee bit skimpy on details, but I’m really committed to being as spoiler-free as possible here. It’s all good. 😉

Another post is coming on Tuesday. Thanks for reading, all, and enjoy your weekend…


Them! is available to own on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.

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9 thoughts on “Five Reasons To See “Them!”

  1. I am an absolute fan of 50’s sci-fi/horror, cheese, and giant monsters. And yet I haven’t managed to see Them! yet. I’ve been looking for it for a while but its not readily available on DVD in Canada and likewise does not appear on any of my streaming services. So, for now, I’ll have to live vicariously through you. Fun review, Rebecca!

    Like

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