I had intended to review this film a while ago, notably when I did a series of monster movie reviews that included stuff such as The Giant Claw, The Giant Behemoth, and The Crater Lake Monster, but, through circumstances beyond my control, I had to wait until now to do so (it's probably for the better since this movie is far too good to be lumped in with those). In any case, this is one of the many monster flicks that I first learned of through Fantastic Dinosaurs of the Movies. It still perplexes me as to why the trailers for movies like this, Tarantula, and Earth vs. The Spider were featured in a compilation with that title. I understand the presence of the aforementioned Giant Behemoth and Crater Lake Monster, as well as flicks like Gorgo, Reptilicus, and several of the Godzilla movies, but movies about giant insects and arachnids? Doesn't quite add up does it? They tried to pass these monsters off as "semi-dinosaurs" but even as a kid, I didn't buy that. Anyway, like a good 90% of the films whose trailers were shown in that compilation, I was determined to see Them! at some point. In fact, having read a Crestwood House book on the 1957 flick The Deadly Mantis (which, oddly enough, was not featured in said compilation), and because the trailer never specified what the monsters were, or at least, I didn't hear it if they did, I thought that maybe this movie was related to that one. Obviously, mantises and ants are two very different types of insects but, that was the way my confused, young mind worked. I'm not quite sure when I first saw Them! I'm pretty sure that it may have been one Saturday morning when I was eleven or twelve years old, on a channel such as TCM or AMC. I remember that day very well because my cousin was coming over to spend the night with me and, while I was eager to go with my dad to pick him up, I wanted to finish the film because I was enthralled with it. I think what happened was my dad went to get my cousin while I stayed home and watched it, with my cousin coming in right in the middle of the climax in the sewer system beneath Los Angeles. While my cousin wasn't a fan of old 50's monster flicks like I was (although we both shared a love for Godzilla), even he had to admit that what little of the movie he saw was quite good. I saw Them! on TV a few more times after that, most notably on AMC while we were on vacation in Florida one summer, but it wasn't until 2002 when I was fourteen that I finally purchased the movie on VHS, which I had been wanting to do with every monster movie I saw or heard of (still do, in a way).
Upon purchasing it on VHS, re-watching it, and ultimately reading up on it, as I often do with every movie that I see because of my curiosity, it didn't take long for me to learn that Them! stood out amongst all of the other giant monster movies of that time because of how critically lauded it was. Typically, those types films aren't well regarded amongst mainstream film critics who aren't hardcore fans of the genre and, honestly, I can understand why. While most of them are entertaining for how cheesy and ridiculous they are, especially stuff like The Giant Claw and The Beginning of the End, they can hardly be called good movies and, therefore, won't appeal to critics who are looking for genuinely well made and technically competent pieces of cinema. Them!, however, is the exception to the rule. Thanks to a combination of talented filmmakers and actors and a well-written, sophisticated script that takes things seriously, what could have been just another ridiculous monster flick came out as an extremely well-done, suspenseful, and at times, downright creepy, sci-fi thriller. Granted, a reason for why this film could be considered superior to its peers is simply because, save for the previous year's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the explosion of giant monster movies hadn't happened yet and, therefore, the cheap way to do it hadn't come about. It doesn't matter, though, because Them! is such a great flick that, even if it had been released during the height of the 50's monster movie craze, it's unlikely that it would have been lost in the crowd. It's a film that truly deserves its reputation as a classic in my opinion and hopefully in this review, I will get across why I feel that way.
One day in the deserts of New Mexico, police officers Ben Peterson and Ed Blackburn follow a report of a young girl wandering around the desert by herself and while the lead at first seems fruitless, they soon come across her. When they pick her up, they discover that the little girl is in shock and unable to talk or respond to any stimuli. Following another report of an abandoned car and trailer nearby, the officers investigate to discover that, not only is the little girl from there but that the trailer has been torn apart, with the sides having been pulled out instead of pushed in. The only clues are a strange animal track found at the scene and the fact that the only thing taken was some sugar. A strange, whistling sound is also heard traveling across the desert by the crime scene investigators but it's dismissed as having simply been the wind. Later on, Peterson and Blackburn visit a store owned by an old man nicknamed "Gramps" in order to see if he knows anything, only for them to discover that the store has been destroyed in the same way, that sugar was taken from there as well, and that Gramps has been killed, with the barrel of his Winchester rifle bent in half. Peterson leaves to report the vandalism and to check on the little girl while Blackburn stays behind to guard the store until the CSI men arrive. It's not too long until he hears the same strange sound that was heard before and, when he goes out to investigate, fires several shots before the source of the noise attacks. With the mysterious deaths and destruction of property, the strange clues, and the discovery that the car and trailer belonged to an FBI agent, Peterson's superiors send word to FBI Headquarters, who send down agent Robert Graham to help with the investigation. After a plaster cast of the mysterious print found near the trailer is sent to the Department of Agriculture in Washington, two scientists, Dr. Harold Medford and his daughter Pat, arrive to investigate as well. Although they seem to know the answer to what's going on, they refuse to tell Peterson and Graham until they are absolutely sure... which doesn't take long since, while investigating the site where the car and trailer were, they come face to face with the culprit: an enormous, irradiated ant created from the atomic tests conducted in the same area in 1945, one of a gigantic colony living out in the desert. Although, with the help of the Air Force, they are able to locate and destroy the nest, they discover that two new queen ants managed to hatch out and escape the nest before its destruction and are now going to establish new colonies elsewhere. Now, it's a race against time to find and destroy these new colonies before they can produce more queen ants, which will lead to a chain reaction ending in the extinction of the human race and the emergence of the giant ants as the planet's new dominant species.
Them! was directed by Gordon Douglas, a veteran director who started out as a bit-part actor when he was in his teens, notably working for Hal Roach Studios and appearing in three Our Gang shorts, a series that he would eventually become a director for. By the mid-1930's, Douglas had switched over to working as an assistant director, an occupation he filled on the Laurel and Hardy film Babes in Toyland and on several Our Gang shorts before he became the series' senior director for the next two years and filmed the incarnations of the gang that most are familiar with. When Hal Roach sold the Our Gang series to MGM in 1938, Douglas temporarily followed the series and directed two shorts there before deciding that working for such a large studio wasn't for him and then returned to Hal Roach Studios, where he directed a couple of more films with Laurel and Hardy (one of which only featured Hardy, though), a film that starred former Our Gang cast member Johnny Downs, and even a Nazi satire! When Roach turned his studio over to the army in order to produce training films for the troops (which was also going on at Disney at the time), Douglas moved on to RKO, where he directed entries in several of that studio's more popular series, including Dick Tracy, and then moved to Warner Bros. in 1950, where he would direct Them! as well as other notable films such as Charge at Feather River (a 3-D western), Sincerely Yours with Liberace, and three westerns starring Clint Walker. Throughout the 50's and 60's, Douglas directed a number of films for other studios and worked with a diverse group of people that included Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Sidney Poitier, and Elvis Presley. His final film before his retirement from filmmaking was the 1977 Evel Knievel "bio-pic" (I put in quotation marks because I've heard it was actually quite exaggerated), Viva Knievel! Douglas died from cancer in 1993 at the age of 85. I've always found it a little disappointing that he didn't ever direct another science fiction or monster movie because, judging from Them!, he seems to have had quite a knack for it and knew how to create suspense as well as handle special effects.
One thing that makes Them! feel like a cut above the rest of its kin is the cast. While there are certainly recognizable genre faces to be found amongst the players, the four leads aren't made up of actors whom you typically associate with science fiction monster movies. You don't have the likes of Richard Carlson, John Agar, Richard Denning, or any of the other actors who often popped up in these types of pictures, which I think helps. For one, you know what to expect when you see any of those actors in these films and, for another, the presence of atypical players for this type of film, moreover those who look like regular people instead of really good-looking movie stars, helps ground it in a bit of reality. You can believe James Whitmore as a police officer, you can believe James Arness as a hard-working FBI agent, and you can certainly buy Edmund Gwenn as a knowledgeable scientist. Now, that's not to say that Whitmore and Arness are very deep in their respective roles of Sergeant Ben Peterson and agent Robert Graham but, nevertheless, they're very strong, likable actors whom you want to see succeed against the incredible menace they've found themselves battling. They're both dependable and honest, doing whatever they can in order to help the military track down and destroy the giant ants while, at the same time, keeping it a secret in order to avoid a nationwide panic. They're both sympathetic towards other people's plights, like how Peterson handles the little girl with the utmost care and with how delicately Graham talks to Mrs. Lodge, the woman who's lost her husband to the giant ants, to try to find out where her missing sons might be. They both have a sense of humor to them, such as when Graham says that he thinks he has a fever upon seeing Pat for the first time and when Peterson says that the reason an FBI agent is introduced in an apparent sugar theft is because, "He's got a sweet-tooth." And finally, they're not afraid to go in and face the danger themselves, with how they both bomb the first nest in New Mexico with cyanide gas, coming face to face with one of the ants while doing so, and battling the ants when another nest is discovered in the sewer system beneath Los Angeles. In fact, Peterson, while rescuing the two Lodge kids from the nest, is grabbed by one of the ants with its mandibles and is so badly injured from the attack that he ultimately dies. That's another thing I like about this film: it doesn't follow the usual formula of all the leads making it out alive. If this were any other monster movie of the times, Peterson would have survived and destroyed all of the ants along with everyone else but this one decided to take a chance and kill one of the leads (in this case, kill the actor who's billed in the credits as the star), a move that had to have been very ballsy at the time.
The best character in the film by far is the elderly and somewhat crotchety but brilliant Dr. Harold Medford, wonderfully played by Edmund Gwenn. He's the actor whom I feel lends Them! the most importance and gravitas due to his enormous stature, having won an Oscar for Miracle on 34th Street seven years earlier and worked with Alfred Hitchcock many times. He's just awesome as Medford. He functions as both a source of information and comic relief. It's obvious that he's very intelligent and knows his field of myrmecology very well, to the point where, even though he does find them fascinating and incredible, he instantly recognizes the huge threat that the giant ants pose and, rather than wanting to keep them alive and study them (which is in stark contrast to some scientists in these movies, particularly the character of Dr. Carrington in The Thing from Another World), makes it known to the military and American government that these monsters must be destroyed before it's too late. He's also wise enough to initially keep his theory from Peterson and Graham, despite their annoyance, and, when he begins working with higher authorities, stresses to them that the giant ants' existence must be kept hidden from the public in order to prevent the hysteria it would cause. The advantage of hiring an actor like Gwenn is that he's able to speak scientific jargon and not only make it sound like he knows what he's talking about but also make it sound real and truthful, that this isn't the same type of gobbly-goop that typically comes out of the mouths of scientists in these movies (although, to be fair, the stuff that he says is well-written and doesn't sound like overcomplicated technobabble in the slightest). And nobody can deliver lines of grave warning like Gwenn could. Just watch the end of the scene where they first see the ants and the end of the movie, where he gives a warning of what might come about from the other nuclear tests that have been conducted since 1945. But, as I said, Medford isn't without his funny moments. When he first meets Peterson and Graham and the former rather loudly asks him if he's Dr. Medford, to which he says, "Hmm? Yes, yes, yes, yes, no need to shout," and, when they arrive at the site of the car and trailer during a sandstorm, Medford has to be told by Peterson that it would be easier to see if he wore his goggles. The funniest moment, though, comes when they're searching for the ants' nest and Medford gets irritated with the proper procedure of talking to people over a headset, saying that it's ridiculous and that these rules aren't going to do any good. Peterson says, "Over and out," for him and Medford says, "Oh, now you're happy," before blowing his lips in disgust. How could you not love Medford after that? He's both brilliant and funny at the same times, even if the latter is unintentional on his part. That's what makes him easily one of the best scientist characters in any of the 50's monster flicks.
Another one of the key players who goes against what's normally to be expected of her in a film like this is Joan Weldon as Dr. Pat Medford, the daughter/assistant of the elderly Medford. While she's not the first female scientist to appear in a 50's science fiction film and she certainly wasn't the last either, she stands out from the crowd in that she's just as intelligent as her already brilliant father and, like Edmund Gwenn, comes across knowing what she's talking about instead of just saying a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to look smart. She gives the officials involved with the case a lot of useful information, such as telling them how one of the missing queen ants could have gotten aboard a ship, and later established a nest there, without being seen and what their methods are for finding the other ants. Moreover, Pat is not a screaming damsel in distress. The only time in the film when she needs to be rescued is when they first discover the giant ants, with the scout ant that they come across chasing after her. That's when she does the typical action of screaming, running, and falling, although fortunately, she gets right back up and gets away from the ant instead of just standing there and waiting for it to kill her. However, after that small scene, she never again needs to be saved; in fact, when Peterson and Graham prepare to investigate the New Mexico nest after having killed the colony with cyanide, she very forcefully insists that she go along, telling them that someone with scientific knowledge has to go and that her father is in no condition to do so. When Graham tries to get her to tell them what he and Peterson will have to look for, she says that there's no time for her to give him a quick course in insect biology and, "So, let's stop all the talking and get on with it." She also gets sort of short-tempered with the two of them when she tells them to use their flamethrowers to burn everything they've found in the queen's chamber and they hesitate, prompting her to very loudly order them to destroy everything again. Tough broad. She has an interesting relationship with her father in that she's his assistant and he often refers to her as, "Doctor," in a very formal, business-like sense. While there is affection between the two of them and she respects her father's knowledge, she does admit in one scene that she feels he shouldn't be involved with this due to his age but, since he's a scientist, this is not something he'll pass up. And finally, another thing I like about Pat is that she doesn't become the love interest for either one of the lead men, as is usual in these movies. You expect for her and Graham to get together since he's the more good-looking of the two and because there are some small moments between the two of them early on, not to mention how both Graham and Peterson are instantly attracted to her, but it never goes that way and proceeds with them simply being partners in their mission to find and destroy the giant ants, with the feeling that they'll more than likely go their separate ways at the end when the ants have all been dealt with. As you can tell, I really like Pat because she's not the typical type of female lead in these types of movies, which is something I get a little tired of, despite how much I really enjoy this subgenre.
The supporting characters of Them! are made up of an interesting batch of actors, some of which aren't recognizable to either casual fans or fans of the genre and some of which actually are, be they already established or before they became well-known. If you're a fan of Universal horror films, you should recognize Onslow Stevens, who played Dr. Edelman in House of Dracula, as Brig. Gen. Robert O'Brien of the Air Force, who is ordered to assist Dr. Medford and the others in locating and destroying the giant ants (actually, it took me a few watches to recognize Stevens since he looks and sounds quite different in this film, which perplexed me because you can clearly see his name in the opening credits, but, if you look at him closely, you will recognize him). He doesn't have much to do other than give Medford his cooperation and give orders to his men throughout the film, while at some points questioning the sometimes eccentric scientist's methods, but it's still nice to see him and plus, he gives a very well done and genuinely urgent-sounding warning to the people of Los Angeles when it's discovered that one of the missing queens has established a colony beneath the city. Sean McClory, who plays Maj. Kibbee, doesn't do or say much and simply does what's ordered of him, although he does comment on Medford's less than calm demeanor when the latter gets irritated at the rules of communicating over official airwaves at one point, which is memorable. There's also not much to say about Chris Drake as Ed Blackburn, Peterson's partner at the beginning of the film, since he dies so, but it's obvious that he and Peterson were pretty close given how torn up Peterson is over Blackburn's disappearance and possible death. And finally, while he's only in a couple of scenes, Don Shelton does make something of an impression as Fred Edwards, Peterson and Blackburn's captain. He comes across as very strong and forceful with how determined he is to cover every square inch of the desert in order to find who killed Blackburn, Gramps Johnson, and the others but also sympathetic, telling Peterson to stop blaming himself for what happened to Blackburn and suggests to him that he get some sleep before he wears himself out, especially since a possible major break in the case might pop up soon.
One character who is quite memorable despite her barely saying anything during the first third of the film where she's present is the little girl (Sandy Descher) who Peterson and Blackburn find wandering around the desert. This child looks as if she's gone through complete hell with how she's just wandering around the hot, brutal desert in complete shock, oblivious to everything around her and when you later see the horrific condition of the trailer that she was camping at along with the rest of her family, you can imagine the horror she went through when the giant ants attacked. Peterson finds a piece of her doll and a bit of her clothing inside of a small compartment, indicating that she hid there during the attack and that she probably heard or even saw the ants kill her parents and her sibling. Despite her catatonic state, one sound she does recognize is the eerie whistling noise that the ants make when they're communicating with each other and, unseen by Peterson and the medic who placed her in the back of the ambulance, she sits up in absolute terror upon hearing it and goes back into shock once the noise subsides. Dr. Medford brings her back into consciousness with the smell of formic acid but, given how she screams in terror upon recognizing the smell as that of the ants, it probably would have been better if she had remained in shock because now she remembers what happened, including the horrific fact that her family was killed. Very good, sympathetic performance from this little child actor. Another person whose life is shattered by the ants is Mrs. Lodge (Mary Ann Hokanson), whose husband was killed by the ants and whose two young sons disappeared and were later found trapped in the nest beneath Los Angeles. She's absolutely heartbreaking in the scene where Graham is talking to her in order to get an idea of where her husband might have taken their boys that morning when they were attacked. For one, she's not sure where her husband took the kids since they go different places every week and, for another, her trying to remember the places where Mr. Lodge did take them, which was so he could spend some time with them when he wasn't working, brings back memories of how happy they were, which makes her even more grief-stricken. It's a very sad scene and I like the tenderness that James Arness gets across here as he tries to get some information from Mrs. Lodge in a very delicate manner. Later on, Mrs. Lodge shows up at the site where the military is preparing to move in to find the nest so she can be there whenever news about her sons comes up. She agonizingly waits for any news, with her hopes perking up when Peterson reports hearing something in one of the tunnels, and happily cries when she hears that her boys have been found alive. At least she had something of a happy ending, unlike that poor little girl.
Fess Parker, who would later go on to be Davey Crockett on television (Walt Disney actually saw him in this movie and decided to cast him), has an early role here as Alan Crotty, a Texas pilot who's been put in a psychiatric hospital after he claims that he was forced to make an emergency landing after nearly colliding with "flying saucers" that he says were shaped like ants. Even though Parker only has one scene here, he's memorable due to his accent and the way he describes how everybody he tells his story to is incredulous about it, saying, "I get laughed at or clucked over or clucked over or laughed at," as well as how he himself describes the encounter he had with the ants, saying that it, "Like to scared out of my pants!" before apologizing to Pat for that remark. Speaking of which, he later asks Graham and the others if they could help him get out of the hospital because they wouldn't even give him a rope to hold his pants up with, which I always smirk at. Another actor whose performance is memorable despite his being in only one scene is Olin Howlin, who classic sci-fi fans will know as the old man who became the Blob's first victim in that film, as Jensen, an alcoholic whom Graham, Peterson, and Maj. Kibbee visit at the alcoholic ward in a hospital in the hopes that he may know something that will give them a clue as to where the ants are. Turns out they were lucky to talk to him because Jensen's been seeing the ants in a nearby man-made river and they later find out that they've made their nest in the storm drains and sewer systems beneath the city, but that's not what makes him memorable; what is, though, is how randomly he talks, how he bounces from one subject to another, a clear indication of how he's almost constantly plastered, and especially when he tells Maj. Kibbee that he'll join the army if they make him a sergeant in charge of the booze. After making that offer, he pulls the cover over his head and bounces up and down underneath it while singing, "Make me a sergeant in charge of the booze! Make me a sergeant in charge of the booze!" In fact, his scene ends with him going back to that and doing the same thing, now singing, "Make me a sergeant! Gimme the booze!" Fortunately, they've learned all that they needed to know from Jensen and are able to then leave, not that matters to Jensen since he keeps singing to the point where the patient in the bed next to him says, "Please! My nerves!" And finally, for you Star Trek fans, Leonard Nimoy has a brief appearance as a soldier who picks up the teletype message that tells of Crotty's story and he then comments that the biggest stories are told by Texans. You don't get a close look at his face and he's very young to boot but, if you pay attention, you will recognize him (I had to look very closely in order to realize it was him).
One of the most interesting and well-done aspects of Them! is that, like The Fly several years later, it starts out as an intriguing mystery and gradually becomes a science fiction film. It's a shame that most people who know of the film are privy to the fact that it's about giant ants because the mysterious aspects of the first third work most effectively when you don't know what's going on. Ben Peterson and Ed Blackburn find that little girl wandering around the desert in shock, they investigate the wreckage of the car and trailer where she was vacationing with her family, they discover that the sides of the trailer were pulled out rather than pushed in, no money was taken, just some sugar, there's a bloody handkerchief on the floor, indicating that something hideously violent happened, Peterson finds a pistol on the floor as well, suggesting that someone made a failed attempt at defending themselves, and the only real clue is an odd print that they find nearby. Really, really good stuff and it only gets better when the CSI guys come in and they're just as baffled about what happened as Peterson and Blackburn. I can't stress enough how well done the moment when we hear the ants' eerie communication noise for the first time as it echoes across the desert and, unbeknownst to Peterson and the medic, the little girl briefly comes out of her catatonic state upon hearing the sound and has a look of sheer fear on her face, while they look across the desert landscape, wondering what in God's name that sound is. Those shots of the landscape as we hear the sound are very eerie and help to drive home the idea that something very, very strange is going on. Another great scene is when Peterson and Blackburn find Gramps Johnson's store completely destroyed and in the same state as the car and trailer: the walls have been pulled out, the attackers were more interested in sugar rather than money, Gramps, as we later find out, managed to get off several shots with his rifle before the barrel was bent in half, the set up table and still-playing radio suggest that whatever happened occurred very suddenly (similar to the scattered dishes back at the trailer), and so on. Unlike the family at the trailer, however, Peterson and Blackburn finds Gramps' body lying in the cellar and we later find out that, in addition to a series of fatal injuries inflicted upon him, his body was filled with enough formic acid to kill 20 people. The look of the shattered store, with its overhead lights swaying back and forth, constantly casting shadows here and there, and the eerie sound of the howling wind outside add to what is already an effectively unsettling scene. And, of course, the scene ends with Blackburn staying behind to guard the store until CSI guys arrive, only for him to be killed off-screen by the yet to be revealed giant ants, whose presence is still suggested by their freakish whistling sounds.
The mystery becomes all the more intriguing when Dr. Medford and his daughter arrive after a plaster cast of the strange print found at the trailer is sent to the Department of Agriculture. It's obvious through their hushed, cryptic conversations, their odd questions and requests, such as where the first atomic bomb back in 1945 was detonated and that they should go to the drug store to buy some formic acid, and such that they have a very definite idea of what's happening but they refuse to tell Peterson and Robert Graham, and by extension, us, what it is until they're absolutely sure. The scene where Medford uses the fumes of formic acid to bring the little girl out of her catatonic state, prompting her to repeatedly scream, "Them!" and cower in the corner while doing so is your first real clue that whatever happened to her family was terrifying beyond comprehension and that the situation is more serious than just some simple unsolved murders and vandalisms. In the scene where they investigate the now vacant spot where the car and trailer were, we get more hints that something monstrous is happening, with Pat telling her father, "They'd turn carnivorous want for lack of a vegetable diet," Medford asking Peterson if there's been a report of an odd, cone-shaped structure recently formed out in the desert, and, when they find another oddly shaped print, Medford calculating that whatever made it was about 2 1/2 meters long and that "it" came from a certain direction. Peterson and Graham are now determined to make Medford tell them what exactly this "it" is and Medford assures them that he is not being coy with them by keeping his theory from them, going as far as to tell them that the mounting evidence suggests that, "Something incredible has happened in this desert, in which case none of us will dare risk revealing it because none of us can risk a nationwide panic." Graham's response of, "A panic?!" is exactly the same reaction that anybody would have, knowing that the stakes have been raised from a mysterious string of crimes to something much, much bigger. Right after that is when we get our first look at the giant ants and, even though this solitary scout is killed by Peterson and Graham, Medford tells them that this was only one of an enormous colony living somewhere in the desert, a colony that must be destroyed as soon as possible. That scene ends on an especially eerie note, with the sounds of more ants somewhere out in the desert, obscured by the strong sandstorm that's happening at the time, and, as the sounds of both the unseen monsters and the howling winds fill the air, Medford gives a very chilling bit of dialogue: "We may be witnesses to a biblical prophecy come true. 'And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation, and the beasts shall reign over the Earth.'"
And with that, the feel of the movie shifts from a strange mystery into a full-blown science fiction monster movie with apocalyptic overtones. We're first told just how serious the situation is when it's discovered that two newborn queen ants escaped from the nest along with some winged males in order to establish new colonies elsewhere and that there's no telling how far these enormous ants are capable of flying to do so. Graham comments, "And I thought today was the end of it," to which Medford responds, "No. We haven't seen the end of them. We've only had a close view of the beginning of what may be the end of us." We're given an even clearer idea of how desperate it is when Medford gives a group of government officials in Washington a lesson in the life cycle and behavior of ants, ending it by telling them that not only are ants the only creatures on Earth besides man that instigate wars but that, "Even the most minute of them have an instinct and talent for industry, social organization, and savagery that makes man look feeble by comparison." Transplant that mindset to entire nests of these enormous mutations and you have a better understanding of what a threat they are to mankind. Medford sums it up to the officials by informing them that they must, "Consider this problem and, I hope, solve it. Because unless you solve it, unless these queens are located and destroyed before they've established thriving colonies and can produce heaven alone knows how many more queen ants, man, as the dominant species of life on Earth, will probably be extinct within..." he looks at another scientist and finishes with, "a year, doctor?" Said scientist then forlornly nods his head to that question. As a result of that, you can understand why the spare no expense in trying to find the queen ants and also why they're all determined to keep it a secret from the public. As Peterson himself says when he tells the officials that his superiors aren't aware of the ants' existence, the panic that would occur if the general public knew that entire nests of these monsters were somewhere out there would be unbelievable and, when they're forced to finally reveal it when it's discovered that a new colony has been established beneath Los Angeles, General O'Brien, in his public address, is sure to make everyone clear about how this isn't something to take lightly by first telling them that the city is under martial law and then about the actual situation: "The New Mexico colony was destroyed but two queen ants escaped. One has been accounted for and destroyed, the other has not yet been found but is now known to have established a nest somewhere in the storm drains beneath the streets of Los Angeles. It is not known how long this nest has been established or how many of these lethal monsters have hatched: maybe a few, maybe thousands. But if new queen ants have escaped this nest, other American cities even now may be in danger. These creatures are extremely dangerous. They have already killed a number of persons. Stay in your homes. I repeat, stay in your homes. Your safety, the safety of the entire city, depends upon your full cooperation during this crisis." You can just imagine what it would be like if you suddenly saw this broadcast appear over your local airwaves and the terror what would wash over you as a result. It's very palpable.
I always like movies like this that take place in isolated, expansive areas such as the Antarctic or, in this case, the desert. Science fiction films of the 1950's made good use of the eerie, loneliness of the desert in order to tell their stories, most notably in Jack Arnold's films It Came from Outer Space and Tarantula, as well as The Monolith Monsters, which Arnold wrote. However, I think Them! tops them all in terms of sheer atmosphere. Just the feeling that the little girl's family and Gramps Johnson were attacked literally out in the middle of nowhere, where there was nobody that could help them is a very scary thought to me. Even during the daytime, the desert is a creepy place with how expansive and empty it is, creating a feeling that you are completely alone. Those shots of the desert when you can hear the sounds of the ants communicating with each other are extremely effective in creeping you out and the same goes for the sound of the howling wind during the frequent sandstorms. That scene where Peterson and Blackburn investigate the wreckage of Gramps' store as the wind continuously howls outside and, as a result, moves the overhanging lamps back and forth, casting shadows here and there, is the definition of atmosphere. And that previously mentioned scene where, after killing the first ant that they come across, they all hear the sounds of more of them echo across the desert along with the sound of the wind, as Medford gives his speech about how this could be a prophecy from the Bible come true, is just bone-chilling. In addition to the empty expanses of the desert, the film also makes good use of narrow, claustrophobic tunnels, be they in the New Mexico ant nest or during the climax in the storm drains of Los Angeles. That's another thing that gets to me, the idea of having to battle something like these monsters in cramped spaces where you have little to no hope of escaping, although, ironically, the only person to actually be killed in the film as a result is Ben Peterson and he came very close to getting away (I'm not counting the soldier who got injured when a bit of a tunnel's ceiling caved in on him). One type of claustrophobia that isn't dwelt upon but is something that I can't stop thinking about has to do with the small scene where we learn that one of the queen ants created a nest aboard a ship. You want to talk about having nowhere to escape to. Those poor guys didn't have a chance against those ants when they were stuck with them on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Okay, you do learn that a couple of survivors were picked up but, nevertheless, that's a pretty scary situation to be trapped in to me.
The special effects used to bring the giant ants to life in this film are also unique for the time. Typically, giant monsters were conceived by one of several ways back then: stop-motion, guys in suits, or normal-sized puppets or real animals that are matted in to look gigantic. Instead of using any of those techniques, the special effects artists for Them! created full-sized ant models that they could operate off-camera and, while this would become much more commonplace in the following years, it was almost unheard of back then. The only instances similar to this that I can think of were in the original King Kong when they used a full-sized model of Kong for some shots as well as full-sized hands for when he was holding Fay Wray, with similar techniques being used in Son of Kong and other related movies, but I'm pretty sure that Them! was the first movie to use this technique for the film's entirety. These special effects, which were nominated for an Oscar, help in making this film more believable than most monster movies of this era because it's clear that the actors are really interacting with and are on the set with these enormous ants rather than being matted in with them later, which could very easily become quite noticeable back then, even with the biggest budgets and the best technicians. True, the models are not capable of moving very fast, which could make you wonder how these things are able to kill so many people, but when you take into account their sheer numbers and that a lot of the attacks take place in confined areas, be they at the trailer with that family trapped inside, unable to escape, Gramps Johnson unable to do much to get away when the ants attack his store, particularly when you take into account how old he was, or during the climax in Los Angeles' sewer system, it doesn't take long for their lethality to become apparent. Plus, in addition to actually seeing them, the simple idea of these creatures foraging for victims mainly at night since, according to Dr. Medford, they don't like the heat of the desert, and coming back to areas that they've already visited, which is proven by their finding more prints and by the death of Ed Blackburn at the store, is unsettling enough as it is. For that matter, I get even more creeped out when Jensen tells them that he's been seeing the ants at night near the storm drains of Los Angeles. With their being able to go out looking for food at night near such a large city, there's no telling how many people they killed besides the confirmed death of Mr. Lodge, especially when you take into account that it's not known exactly how long that nest has been beneath the city.
I think the actual look and behavior of the ants is effective in getting across how potentially dangerous entire colonies of these things could be. They're big, hairy, and ugly, with these wicked-looking mandibles that are strong enough to tear buildings apart just by pulling at the sides and can easily crush a person unlucky enough to be caught in them, long, hairy antennae that, like normal ants, allow them to sense everything around them, and stingers at the end of their abdomens that can pump a lethal amount of formic acid into you, so much so that the ants themselves wreak of the stuff (you only get a good look at one of the stingers when the first giant ant is killed but, like the mandibles, it's clearly not something you'd want to get stuck with). Their eyes range in design from being rather dull-colored to looking much lighter and more aware of their surroundings, the latter of which is shown in that image in the previous paragraph and is the freakier of the two in my opinion. And let's not forget the eerie sounds that they constantly make. It sounds like a combination between a whistle and a screech and it has a pulsating quality to it as well as a loud, chortling chirp that you constantly hear in the midst of the call (can you believe that the sounds were actually nothing more than the calls of tree-frogs, with a couple of species mixed together to make it sound even stranger?) In addition the first giant ant that they encounter lets out a guttural death cry when it's gunned down by Peterson, a sound that I think they should have used a couple of more times because that was bloodcurdling as well. When Peterson, Graham, and Pat investigate the destroyed New Mexico nest, you see that, like their smaller relatives, the giant ants are able to construct impressive labyrinths of tunnels using nothing more than dirt and their own saliva which can go down hundreds of feet into the Earth and contain various rooms such as food chambers, water traps to prevent drowning during the rainy season, and a chamber where the queen can lay her eggs. Speaking of which, we also learn that, as a result of their mutated genetic makeup, the ants are able to bypass the typical insect life cycle that involves larvae and pupae and, instead, can hatch right out of their eggs as fully formed ants.
This film doesn't completely shy away from the death and carnage that the ants cause either. Not only do we see the emotional toll that their attacks have on people such as the traumatized little girl and the grief-stricken Mrs. Lodge but we also hear about as well as see just how nasty the aftermaths of these creatures' attacks can get. It's not uncommon for monster films of the time to tell you how badly mutilated someone was or to see a doctor give autopsy reports but this film feels like it has a bit more of an impact to it in that respect, with our being told that the ants tore off one of Mr. Lodge's arms and yet, he still managed to drive a fair distance before crashing, as well as the autopsy report on Gramps Johnson which tells us that, in addition to his body being filled with an enormous amount of formic acid, his neck and back were broken, his chest was crushed, and his skull was fractured. When Peterson and Blackburn investigate the destroyed trailer at the beginning of the film, Peterson discovers a handkerchief that's covered in blood. Of course, it's a black and white film so the graphicness of it isn't really felt, but still, the idea of seeing blood in a 50's film is rather shocking. That's nothing, however, compared to what you see when they first discover the New Mexico ant colony. As they fly over the entrance, an ant crawls out to have a look and we immediately see that he has a freaking ribcage in his mandibles! Moreover, when he drops the ribcage, it falls down the side of the mound and we see that there's a small boneyard there, with skulls and other bones, prompting Pat to gravely tell Graham, "We've found your missing persons." Before we fade to the next scene, we get a close shot of a gun holster, indicating that Ed Blackburn's remains are amongst them. Yes, I'm well aware that it's not probable that enormous ants like these would be able to pick the bones clean like normal ones due to their size but you know they weren't going to show bones with flesh on them back then and besides, these picked clean bones are more than enough to get the point across.
I could be wrong but I'm pretty sure that Them! was the first film in which the monsters were created as a result of atomic tests. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms the previous year had something of a link to it in that the monster in that film was released from his imprisonment in ice by a nuclear test but that's where it ends. The radiation didn't mutate or influence the beast in any way. However, the giant ants here could quite possibly be the first in a long line of animals that were ballooned into enormous, marauding monsters by man's obsession with nuclear weapons. In fact, this film's very ending seems to predict the myriad of films that would come in its wake, with Graham asking, "If these monsters got started by the first atomic bomb in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?" and Medford ending the film with the warning that, "When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door to a new world. What we'll eventually find in that new world, no one can predict." As a result of that, you could almost say that all of these films take place in the same universe; in fact, I personally like to think that Them! takes place in the same universe as the Godzilla series, what with the original Godzilla being released in Japan the same year as this film and the film's ending feeling like it's building up to something even more horrific. It's just me but I like to think of it as working out with Godzilla's first appearance later that year being a confirmation of Medford's warning and that the world learns that these giant ants were only a prelude to something all the more threatening to mankind. I'm sure no one else thinks this and feels that there are flaws in that theory that I'm not seeing but, hey, I can dream, can't I?
One interesting tidbit about the film is that it was initially intended to be much gimmickier than it ended up being. When the film was first green-lit, Warner Bros. wanted the film to be in both 3-D and color but, when the 3-D cameras they were planning on using malfunctioned during tests, that idea was scrapped and so was the color in order to keep costs down. Interestingly enough, some of the elements from the original plan for the film is retained in the final version, most notably the bright red and blue title as well as the fact that said title comes right at the screen and that there are some shots where the flamethrowers used during the battles with the ants are fired directly at the camera (I don't know how they kept from destroying the camera while filming that), as you would see in a 3-D picture. Incidentally, after the 3-D and color plans for the movie were dropped, Warner Bros. decided to compensate by having it be shot in widescreen, as had been the case with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which had been a big hit for the studio the previous year; however, the widescreen idea was dropped too, again due to money issues. These changes made little difference since, not only is Them! a superb film without these extrapolations, but it was also Warner Bros.' highest grossing film of that year, so they had no need to "gild the lilly" so to speak.
There's no shortage of exciting and suspenseful sequences to be found here. After the opening where you have the discovery of the little girl and the investigation of the wrecked trailer and general, as well as the off-screen death of Ed Blackburn at the end of the latter scene, the next major scene, aside from the last one with the little girl, is when we see one of the giant ants for the first time. While Peterson, Graham, and Dr. Medford talk near where the car and trailer were, Pat goes off to search for more evidence and, upon finding another track, she and the men hear the sound of the ants calling to each other. As Pat looks around, wondering what that strange sound is, one of the ants peeks its head over the small hill Pat is crouching beneath and, upon catching sight of her, increases the volume of its shrieking. Pat screams and runs from the enormous insect but momentarily falls and the ant immediately gives chase. The men, having heard her screams, run for the site, where Pat has gotten back on her feet and away from the ant, which Peterson and Graham fire upon. Medford informs them to shoot the antennae and, after Peterson manages to shoot one of them off with his pistol, he runs back to his police car to get a machine gun while Graham shoots at and eventually scores a hit on the ant's other antenna. Now unable to function, the ant is no match for Peterson, who arrives back on the scene with his machine gun and pumps the monster full of lead, prompting it to give off a guttural death cry as it collapses. This leads into Medford finally informing Peterson and Graham of his theory, telling them that this ant is one of many such enormous mutations caused by lingering radiation from the first atomic test in 1945 and that they must locate and destroy the nest as quickly as possible.
The scene where they attack and then investigate the ant nest after they've discovered it begins with Peterson and Maj. Kibbee using bazookas filled with napalm to ignite the surface area above the nest so as to keep the ants contained within it so they can later kill them all with cyanide gas bombs. After shooting four napalm-filled rockets at the top of the nest, Peterson and Graham, dressed in radiation suits, walk to the top of the still-burning entrance to throw the cyanide gas into the bowels of the nest. Just when they're about to do so, an ant appears below them but, as Graham later tells Medford, he's more interested in escaping rather than attacking them. Peterson and Graham immediately bomb him with cyanide, eventually causing him to drop back down into the nest as they continue doing so. Later on, with the surface of the nest cooled off and the nest apparently saturated enough with cyanide to kill all of the ants, Peterson, Graham, and Pat descend into the nest to make sure that all of the ants are indeed dead, being forced to use climbing gear in order to make it down the deep and steep drop-offs that make up the nest's structure. They see a lot of dead ants as they venture down the dark tunnels, which are also "foggy" with the poison gas, but there's one moment where several ants who were not killed by the gas because their tunnel caved in burst out of the wall and attack. Peterson and Graham are able to make short work of them with their weapons and the continue onward, eventually coming upon the queen's chamber, which is full of un-hatched eggs (you can actually see the unborn ants moving inside the eggs when light is shined on them) and two empty ones that once contained two queen ants. After Pat takes pictures of the chamber, Peterson and Graham burn everything inside it with their flamethrowers before they head back to the surface.
After the short scene where you see the crew of this ship getting slaughtered by some ants who hatched aboard it, the next major sequence of the film is the climax where the military heads into the storm drains beneath Los Angeles once it's discovered that the other missing queen ant has established a colony there. Intending to find out whether the two missing Lodge kids are still alive as well as if any other queens have escaped, the military moves in. After several minutes of driving through the tunnels without finding anything, Peterson hears something in a nearby pipe and crawls through it in order to see. After the soldier accompanying him orders for some construction lights in this unfinished part of the system to be turned on, Peterson discovers that the Lodge boys are indeed alive but they're currently trapped in a small area by two ants. Peterson tells the soldier that the place has the same smell of formic acid as that of the nest in New Mexico, indicating that he's found the center of the nest, and tells him to call in for reinforcements. As the troops converge on the target area, Peterson manages to get through the pipe and blasts the two ants threatening the boys with his flamethrower without harming the kids. He then proceeds to help the boys get into the pipe to safety but doesn't realize that another ant is approaching until it's almost on top of them. While Peterson manages to save the boys, the ant grabs him with its mandibles and roughly throttles him back and forth. Graham and the other soldiers arrive and kill the ant but it's too late for Peterson, who dies from his injuries after telling Graham that the boys are okay. Afterward, the soldiers fight an explosive battle with more ants, using their guns and grenade launchers to kill and drive the ants back. After the firefight continues for several minutes, Gen. O'Brien and Dr. Medford arrive to tell them to stop using explosives since it could possibly cause a cave-in that would block off the nest. Graham and the soldiers then press on, but one of the soldiers is injured when a bit of the ceiling collapses on him and is forced to be taken back. Another ant attacks and even though the soldiers manage to kill it, a small cave-in does happen and it momentarily traps Graham on the other side with more ants. Graham is able to hold them off as best as he can but is almost overwhelmed before his comrades are able to dig through and give him the support he needs. After killing some more ants, Graham and the soldiers reach the queen's chamber, where they come across some newly hatched queens. After waiting for Medford to arrive and confirm that this is what they're after, O'Brien gives the order for the queens to be destroyed and the soldiers then proceed to incinerate them with the flamethrowers, ending the film on a high.
The film's music score, composed by veteran Polish composer Bronislau Kaper, works extremely well for the film, as all good film scores should. Save for some touching sentimental music that plays during the scene where Graham talks to the distraught Mrs. Lodge, the score is made up entirely of music that's meant to either creep out or enthrall you. The theme for the opening credits, which begins with a low crash of piano keys before moving on to a high-pitched, urgent section before ending with a quiet sound before the film officially begins sets the mood perfectly and the same goes for the quiet, slightly eerie music that plays when Peterson and Blackburn investigate the trailer after picking up the little girl, the loud, horrific music during the scene where the smell of formic acid snaps the little girl out of her catatonic state and she screams, "Them!", the music that plays during the build-up to the scene with the ants attacking the crew of the ship, which then turns horrific during that actual scene, and the urgent, threatening music that plays after Los Angeles is placed under martial law and the military moves into the storm drains beneath the city to destroy the nest. It also goes without saying that the music for the action sequences when they're attacking the surface of the New Mexico nest and when the soldiers battle the ants in the Los Angeles storm drains does its job in making those sequences as thrilling and exciting as they possibly can be. What I really like about this score is that it knows when to be loud and bombastic and when it needs to be either soft and subtle or completely silent. The subtle music that plays when Peterson and Blackburn investigate the wrecked trailer, when Peterson leaves Blackburn behind to guard Gramps Johnson's general store, and when Alan Crotty tells Graham, Pat, and Maj. Kibbee about his experience with the "flying saucers," works very, very well for those scenes but, scenes such as when Peterson and Blackburn look around the trashed general store and when they first encounter the giant ants at the site where the car and trailer were wouldn't have worked so well if they had any music over them at all. Those are much more effectively eerie when the music is non-existent. And finally, I like the final bit of score at the end when Medford warns that there's no telling what the other nuclear tests that have been conducted since the first one in 1945 will bring about. It starts off soft and creepy and, as the movie ends, it swells into a loud finale that is somewhat triumphant but also does have a feeling to it that suggests that, as Medford says, this might have only been the beginning of what man will eventually have to face.
Them! is truly a classic of not only 50's science fiction but of science fiction in general. It's one of those movies where I honestly can't find a single thing wrong with it. The cast, especially Edmund Gwenn, does a great job, the film is suspenseful, thrilling, and thoroughly entertaining throughout its 92-minute running time, the locations of the desert and, later on, the storm drains beneath Los Angeles are put to good use, the special effects used to bring the giant ants to life are done very well considering the times and the ants themselves are often quite threatening, the film is something of a ground-breaker in that it could be the first film where the monsters are created by radiation, and the music score fits the film to a T. My only complaint is that, despite the fact that is as highly lauded as it is, it feels as though the film doesn't get talked about nowadays as much as it should. Maybe that's just me but I can't shake the feeling that it kind of gets overlooked nowadays by the general public, probably because of people who refuse to watch old films just because they're black and white, which is a shallow way of thinking that I simply don't get. Bottom line, if you're a fan of monster movies and you've never seen Them!, you owe it to yourself to give it a watch. It's highly unlikely that you'll be disappointed.