The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms may have established the formula by which 1950s American giant monster flicks operated (nuclear test + ordinary creature = giant monster), but it was 1954’s Them! that first did it well.
Directed by Gordon Douglas from a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes and a story by George Worthing Yates, Them! tells a tale of nature run amok.
It’s been nine years since the first nuclear bomb test in the desert of White Sands, New Mexico. Since that time, a new menace to mankind’s dominion over the world has been growing in secret — gigantic ants. These ants clock in at between nine and twelve feet in length, compared to the diminutive half an inch or so we know out here in the real world.
Like regular ants, these beasts are aggressive and territorial. As their small colony spreads throughout the desert foraging for food, they come across the rural settlements of man, and find no ready competition to their instinctual ferocity. Due to the desert heat, they attack at night, using their powerful pincers and jaws to rip through the walls of trailers and wooden buildings. The authorities, in the form of local cop Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore), are baffled. The only witness the ants have left is a little girl, who watched the ants attack and kill her parents. She’s in shock, and her almost catatonic condition only deepens the mystery.
An FBI agent, Robert Graham (James Arness), is called in after the girl’s father is identified as a fellow agent who had been vacationing in the area. All the investigators have to go on are destroyed domiciles, and a strange footprint found in the sand. A cast is made and sent back to Washington, where a pair of government scientists, father and daughter team Drs. Harold and Pat Medford (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon), come to the startling realization that the footprint belongs to an ant — one bigger than has ever been seen before. They travel to New Mexico to join the investigation, with the further aim of destroying the ants, lest they establish new colonies throughout the Americas. They believe that were this to occur, it wouldn’t take more than a year for humans to face extinction. These are the stakes.
Them! could readily be mistaken for a b-movie of the era. Like other examples, everything looks like it was made out of cardboard, including the plot. But where Roger Corman and Bert I. Gordon would struggle to maintain tension, Gordon Douglas crafted a film that held together throughout. The opening act, before the giant ants are ever seen, is quite tense, and more than a little bit frightening. It’s not shock or typical movie scares that generate this fright, but rather dread and stress. The cops are finding these locales in the desert all torn up and locals missing, and they have no idea who or what is doing it. The atmosphere of a night wind blowing in the desert, howling and dust flying about, evokes a powerful reaction in the viewer.
All this ends up being better than the payoff, but that has more to do with modern viewing sensibilities than those of the past. Like with the previous entries in this month’s Horrorshow (and subsequent), the special effects are not holding up over time. But it isn’t the responsibility of a 60-year-old movie to be timeless. It is up to the viewer to place themselves back in the context of when the film was made. The ants are giant puppets, and while they may be a slight disappointment when they do show up on screen, a little suspension of disbelief goes a long way.
One should be able to get over the production quality in a hurry, because the rest of the film is such a good watch. It’s all very 1950s. By that, I mean there is a constant cloud of cigarette smoke hovering over everything, with a coating of regular old gender roles in the next layer down. Men are gruff and all have take-charge attitudes, while Joan Weldon’s character had to nag the men into letting her participate. It’s merely another aspect of the film’s time that viewers will have to allow for.
Them! comes to a swift conclusion with a satisfying, if not spectacular, end to the monster threat. Hollywood has been making this film over and over again for over sixty years, so it will feel very familiar to the average viewer. Being a classic of the genre, however, it still has much to offer so many decades after its release.