Them! (1954) ***

Director: Gordon Douglas

Staring: James Whitmore, James Arness, Edmund Green, and Joan Weldon

Runtime: 1h 34m

Categories: Giant Bugs, It's Radioactive, and The Whatsit

The 1950s and early 1960s were the golden age for non-descriptive horror movie titles. Littering the cinematic landscape were dozens of films that promised to show The Creature, The Monster, The Beast but gave no indication of it’s specifics. Audiences may have been able to deduce that The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) was amphibious, or narrow down the proving grounds of the Beast of Yucca Flats (1961); but they were able to gain little substantive information from the titles. Even less descriptive was The Thing (1951), which promised that the film’s main antagonist was composed of matter and occupied space and nothing more. In this case it may have been regrettable that they did not go with the more descriptive Vampire Carrot From Beyond the Moon. There was also a succession of sci-fi/horror movies where the menacing alien was described with a neuter pronoun: It Conquered the World (1956), It: Terror From Beyond Space (1958), It Came From Outer Space (1953), etc. By far though the most elegant of these non-descriptive titles was Them! It gives the audience nothing more to go on than the fact that there is more than one monster. As the entire first act of the film will be given over to the mystery of what is behind the mysterious events in White Sands New Mexico, first run audiences must have found it gripping. Later viewers, who know full well that the title refers to a breed of mutated giant ants, will find the first thirty minutes a lot more tedious. Fortunately, a solid mid century monster movie waits in the remaining hour as a reward for viewers with longer attention spans.

The film opens with garish blue and red title card; the only artifact of the film’s originally planned Technicolor and 3D. From there we join police Sargent Ben Peterson and his partner Ed Blackburn as they investigate some odd occurrences out in the desert. Given the size of the area they have to cover, the department has sent them some air support in the form of a plane; it’s the pilot who first spots a girl wandering through the desert and the ruined trailer that she has presumably escaped from. The girl is in shock, and is completely non-responsive so Ben and Ed pack her into the prowl-car and head up to the trailer. They find the trailer destroyed, its side torn open and its insides ransacked. There’s plenty of blood but no bodies, and the presence of money strew across the floor neatly rules out any possibility of robbery. There are tracks near the camper, but they aren’t human and nobody, not even the zoologist from the local college, can identify what made them. The camera gives us the first clue as to what’s really behind the attack when it cuts away to an open box of sugar cubes and plays a riff of ominous music. The second comes in the form of a strange, high pitched warbling that echoes across the desert. None of the characters notice, but the little girl who has been all but comatose this entire time actually sits up, a look of horror on her face.

The next stop for Ben and Ed is a stop at the local general store run by Old Man Johnson; they find it in a similar state as the camper. This time there’s a body though: What’s left of Old Man Johnson is lying in a crumpled heap in the corner. Not far from him is a .308 rifle, which has been bent halfway around in a way that evokes the common fate of Elmer Fudd’s firearms. They find the store’s sugar barrel has been overturned and it’s contents largely carried off. There’s a close up on the remaining sugar and another ominous musical riff, in case the audience hasn't realized that they're being given a clue yet. This time though, we're given another hint as to the real identity of the unseen monster: the sugar is teeming with ants (of the regular sized variety). Ben leaves Ed to guard the scene while he heads to the hospital to see if the little girl from the first crime scene is up to talk yet. Ben figures it will only be a few minutes until the cavalry arrives, so he doesn’t fret about leaving his partner alone. As soon as Ben leaves Ed hears the same strange high-pitched noise coming from the desert. As he heads off camera to investigate we hear the noise get louder, followed by the crack of gunfire and terrified scream.

The Police are absolutely baffled by the case, and agent Robert Graham (who, as the tallest and most conventionally handsome actor in he film is the defacto protagonist) from the FBI doesn’t have much help to offer. No one can identify the tracks, the girl is still in shock and no conventional motive for the killings makes any sense. There’s another twist to the evidence too, it turns out Old Man Johnson didn’t die from trauma but from being injected with a huge amount of formic acid. The cops only gets a break when they hear back from Washington that the Department of Agriculture has dispatched two doctors Medford, a father and daughter team. The elder Doctor Medford is an absentminded, almost senile old man, but nonetheless a brilliant Myrmecologists (Entomology nerds, fans of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and anyone who has seen the movie’s poster should be able to figure out what that means). The younger is his daughter and protégée, Patricia. The pair of Dr. Medfords refuses to explain anything about their mission and instead drag Ben and Graham around the desert to reexamine every aspect of the case, all the while hinting obliquely that whatever is going on here may have been caused by the atomic bomb tests ten years earlier. Doctor Medford is still unwilling to explain his theory up until the point where a giant ant lumbers out a sandstorm and gets the drop on our heroes. Some sharp shooting from Graham disables its antennae and a barrage of fire from Ben’s tommy gun puts the creature down for good.

The confirmation of Medford’s theories about giant ants is enough to call in some reinforcements, which arrive off-screen in the form of General O’Brian and Major Kibbie. They quickly locate the site of the ant colony, which is way out in the desert. General O’Brian favors a tactical bombing strike followed by an infantry charge to mop up any survivors. The problems with this plan are numerous: 1). If they called in that many soldiers there would be no way to keep things quiet, and it would probably spark widespread panic. 2). Nobody knows how far down the giant ant tunnels go and it’s uncertain that the lowest levels would be touched by aerial bombardment. 3). If bombing was effective it would probably destroy the queen’s chamber, and then there would be no way to tell if any new giant queens had been born and escaped. The team decides to go with a more tactical approach, covering the entrance of the nest with phosphorus to drive the ants down and then killing them all with chlorine gas. With the ants wiped out they can send a team down to investigate.

The plan goes off without a hitch, and Ben and Graham are all set to scout to the nest. The only hiccup is that Graham doesn’t think a chlorine soaked underground colony of giant ants is any place for a lady. At first he insists that Patricia stay behind with her father and the two air force officers, Pat wins him over however with her stubborn instance that a trained myrmecologist survey the nest. Good thing too, because Pat finds a pair of hatched eggs that can only belong to newborn queens, meaning there are potentially two more colonies of giant ants in the American South West. The short sequence in which the group descends into the destroyed ant colony is one of the best in the entire film. The trio makes their way through an utterly alien landscape, littered with the hulking bodies of dead ants, visible through the clouds of fog meant to be chlorine gas (real chlorine is invisible to the human eye). The only disappointment is that the whole thing only lasts five minutes.

Following the discovery of the two missing queens the federal government lurches into action, creating a very large task force charged with combing the news for any news that could relate to the appearance of giant ants. There’s no telling how far the giant queens could have flown, so they have to keep an eye on everything within a thousand mile radius of the original nest. All the while the existence of these ants is kept under wraps, as Doctor Medford fears the possibility of nationwide panic should their existence become known to the public. Even the desk jockeys scanning the news reports have no idea what it is they are looking for; they follow a set of posted guidelines but have no idea of the real danger facing their country. The efforts at secrecy are so extreme that one eyewitness, a pilot who reported “ant-shaped flying saucers” is detained in a local sanitarium until the crisis is resolved. Nor is this the most drastic measure that Medford’s team takes: When one of the queens is found aboard a ship at sea, they order a nearby navy cruiser sinks the ship. The ant task force then keeps the cruiser at sea and incommunicado to keep any news of the ant attacks from leaking back to the mainland.

The big break for the government’s ant’s task force comes with the report of a 40-ton sugar robbery in Los Angles. The local police have arrested the night watchman for lack of any other suspects. The watchmen pleads that he’s innocent, because why would anyone steal a sugar shipment? When interviewed by Graham he playfully asks “Have you ever heard of a fence for hot sugar?” A man’s body is also found in the same area, pumped full of Formic acid the same as the last victim of the ants. His wife reports that he was out with his two kids, neither of whom has been found. Ben and Graham interview a series of drunks and traffic violations who were out late at night until they hit on information from an especially loony alcoholic who claims to have seen giant ants crawling in an out of the city’s flood drainage system. With that information in hand they decide that it’s time to abandon the policy of secrecy and call in the army to deal with the ants once and for all. Only trouble is that two kids are still missing in the sewers, meaning a small rescue party will have to go in and search for them before the ants can be eradicated.

The first act of Them! Must have packed much more of a punch when the film wasn’t also known as “the movie with the giant ants.” The clues to figure out the identity of the mysterious antagonists are all there, but an audience that had never before seen a giant bug picture would be slower in putting the pieces together. Much like Psycho (1960), Them! Is a victim of it’s own success; there’s simply no mystery when everyone in the world knows the twist walking in. Even if Them! was less well known, modern audiences, at least those who watch 50s horror movies, are already accustomed to the giant bug subgenre and would be able to guess Them!’s game a lot faster.

However, after the first act Them! is an excellent example of a horror movie that doesn’t fuck around. No screen time is wasted on melodrama; even the romantic subplot between Robert Graham and Patricia Medford is given no more than passing attention. Sure, we all know they are suppose to be in love but there’s no scene where they talk candidly about their feelings for each other, indeed there’s no indication that she reciprocates his attraction until the final push on the ant nest under LA. As someone who has seen whole 2nd acts swallowed up by tacked-on love stories more often than I care to remember, this comes as quite a relief. The actual action comes only in fits and starts but it is always satisfying, in particular the exploration of the ant’s colony I mentioned above. The final confrontation with the ants is sufficiently action packed, crowned where Graham fends off swarms of ants single-handily after he’s trapped on the wrong side of a cave in. What filler there is at least has the virtue of consistently advancing the plot. The lectures and videos from the elder Doctor Medford for instance, help to ground the fantastical film in reality.

Though the elder Doctor Medford introduces the ants with a quote from the book of revelations and depicts them as harbingers of the apocalypse, the film never manages to convince me that the ants are that big of a threat. They are dangerous sure, they kill more than a few people, but unlike later giant monsters like Godzilla or the Giant Claw, the ants are vulnerable to conventional weapons. When General O’Brian says he can wipe out an ant colony with a squadron of bombers and an infantry division there’s no reason not to believe him. The size, numbers, appetite and ferocity of the ants would make them a public danger, but nothing in Them! suggests that they would ever pose an existential threat to human civilization. In this way Them!’s laudable commitment to scientific realism works against them. Ants aren’t bulletproof, they don’t breathe fire, and they sure as hell aren’t protected by an anti-matter shield. Indeed the only aspect of the ants that strains credulity is the fact that a whole nest of them could live unnoticed beneath the streets of a major city for several weeks. The ants are simply too big, and too ambitious as scavengers to hide so close to a human population for that long. The only other detraction that a viewer could make are things common to all giant monster movies that are general ignored like ‘Where the hell do these giant monsters find enough food to eat?’

Watching this movie again as an adult, I was struck by something I missed altogether as a child: the frightening commitment to secrecy carried out by the nominally good authorities. Witnesses are locked up, soldiers held incommunicado, and even the agency charged with tracking the threat is kept largely in the dark of what it is they are actually doing. The government keeping secrets from its voters is hardly a new phenomenon, even in the mid 1950s, but what's really shocking is how positively Them! portrays all this secrecy. The morality of our heroes is never question, and their decision to keep knowledge of the giant ants from going public is always framed as being for the good of the people, less news of the monsters spark a panic. The fact that the ants are nowhere near as dangerous as Medford represents them combined with their origin as the byproduct of real life, state-sponsored mad science makes the commitment to secrecy all the more alarming. The film’s closing note, a sobering reminder of the potential horrors of the atomic age becomes all the more distressing for a viewer who realizes those dangers have been identified, cataloged and hidden by a state more interested in the docility of it’s citizens than their ability to function as informed electors. Its here that Them! remains relevant and horrifying, probably in ways that the creators never expected it to be.

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