Sunday, January 18, 2015

Them! The first and best of the 50s giant bug movies

By Steve D. Stones

Them is 1950s sci-fi/horror at its best. The film plays on the fears of the atomic age and atomic testing. It's surprising that in today's digital age, the film has not been remade with digital giant ants. A film like Them is a masterpiece for its time, and likely would not hold up well as a remake in our age of global terrorism and the Internet.

A New Mexico state trooper, played by veteran actor James Whitmore, encounters a six year old girl wandering aimlessly through the desert. The girl is in complete shock, and will not reveal how or why she ended up in the desert. Whitmore discovers that the little girl's family trailer was attacked and destroyed during the night by something large. Only the little girl survived the attack.

The FBI is called in to help solve the mystery. In the meantime, a store owner is attacked and killed not far from where the trailer was destroyed. It appears that whatever attacked the store was looking for sugar. Whitmore's trooper companion is also killed in the attack.

FBI agent James Arness, who played Matt Dillon on TV's Gunsmoke, becomes impatient in not being able to identify what the plaster casted print taken from the destroyed trailer scene is. A father-daughter team of entomologists - Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon, are called in to identify the print. The two have a good idea of what the print is, but keep their findings carefully guarded until they know for sure.

While visiting a spot near the destroyed family trailer - Arness, Whitmore, Gwenn and Weldon are confronted by a large ant. This confirms Gwenn's theory that atomic testing done in the desert before the ending of World War II has turned ants into giants.

Gwenn and Weldon discover the nest of the giant ants in the desert and order that the police and military destroy it with fire. Weldon enters the burned out nest with Arness and Whitmore - only to discover that two winged queen ants and their consorts have escaped.

After a number of reports of giant ant sightings - Arness, Gwenn, Weldon and Whitmore track the two escaped queen ants and their consorts to a nest in the underground sewer system of Los Angeles. The film ends with the military once again burning up the discovered nest.

Part of the effectiveness of Them is in not showing the giants ants very often, but implying their presence in a number of scenes. Keeping in mind that this is low budget film making at its finest - implying the presence of the giant ants helps to build the tension in a number of scenes.

Actor Edmund Gwenn is superbly cast as a grouchy old scientist who is level headed and strikes down the military whenever their suggestions jeopardize catching the giant ants. Arness is also convincing as the simple simon FBI agent who is anxious to solve the case quickly. Weldon provides window dressing for the male audience, but also plays a convincing role.

A number of giant insect films were soon to follow after the premiere of Them in 1954 - such as: The Deadly Mantis (1957), Tarantula (1955), The Black Scorpion (1957) and Monster From Green Hell (1957). Them remains the best of this sci-fi sub-genre. Happy viewing!

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