Monday, February 4, 2013
"Them!" is easily one of the best remembered SciFi B-movies from the 1950s, in many ways iconic of its time. You got giant monsters in the desert, scientists in gray suits and gray offices working with the military to stop the threat, a no-nonsense leading man, and cheesy special effects, its everything you'd expect. It has a splashy though grammatically-confusing title: "Them!" - it just grabs you, doesn't it? They even included an exclamation mark just to make the point clear. The premise is as silly as they get, fitting of the ridiculous effects, but somehow every actor plays their part with deathly seriousness, nobody is winking at the camera as they scream at slow-moving clunky animatronics. Film would not develop a sense of irony until the Sixties or Seventies.
The plot of "Them!" is succinctly described in just two words: Giant Ants. I imagine the movie began with those words in the mind of a screenwriter or producer, and it has endured through the ages because of the magnetic yet hilarious power of that concept. This was the first giant monster movie to take something that should be very small and instead make it monster-sized, but it would definitely not be the last. In fact, giant arthropods became one of the most popular villains of American SciFi movies in this period, with such films as "Tarantula!", "Attack of the Crab Creatures", "Beginning of the End" (locusts), "The Deadly Mantis", "The Black Scorpion", "Earth vs. the Spider", "Monster from Green Hell" (ants again), and finally, in Japan, "Mothra"*. And they've been making giant bugs movies ever since, in my own lifetime there's been "Mimic", "Spiders", "Eight-Legged Freaks", and the SciFi channel's greatest idea for a movie ever, "Mongolian Death Worm".
Now as a movie, "Them!" actually isn't that bad. The first half hour is actually rather inspired and very tense, legitimately scary. Unfortunately, that's built on a mysterious lonely atmosphere that is ruthlessly abandoned for a more generic "scientists and military guys in a room" plotline. It also hurts the movie greatly when the monsters turn out to be a huge silly ant prop. But luckily the movie is speedy in its plot, it turns into something of a war movie against giant ants, and then it ends with soldiers fighting ants with flamethrowers, and who can complain about that?
This is a movie, I should note, that I saw when I was about ten years old. My grandma watched this, like many of the movies on this countdown, in theaters when she was more or less the same age. My love of giant monster movies is something I've inherited from generations of my family. And if I have the good fortune to procreate, I'm sure my offspring will have to watch giant monster movies for the Internet too.
"Them!" was produced internally at Warner Bros, following the successful release of "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms". It was directed by Gordon Douglas, a long-time veteran of the film industry, who specialized in lowest common denominator genre films, very few of which are remembered at all today. Probably the only film of Douglas' that anybody has heard of in 2013 other than "Them!" would be his sequel to "In the Heat of the Night", "They Call me MISTER Tibbs!", named for the first movie's most famous line. He was a studio creature, and "Them!" mostly comes off like a Fifties studio creation, with only a few brief flashes of accidental inspiration. The giant ant effects were made through the construction of two life-sized ant props, moved with a series of ropes and pulleys by the film crew, though occasionally miniatures were used as well. There were plans to release "Them!" in color and in 3D - yes, 3D existed even back in the mid-Fifties - but those plans fell apart during filming when the 3D cameras failed to work. The only remaining part of the film that is in color is the title splash.
Lots of B-movies in the Fifties took place in the Californian desert. It was a cheap location to film in, a favorite of legendary incompetent director, Coleman Francis. But even in other giant monster movies, like "Tarantula!", I don't think the mystery and isolation of the Southwest was ever really used to very much effect. You just have an alien landing out in the wilderness, and scientists in gray locations talk for awhile about killing it. But the opening of "Them!" is actually surprisingly creepy, shockingly creepy actually. It features two cops in the desert who find a little girl on the side of the road unable to speak due to shock. She's seen something so terrible that she's in a catatonic state. The cops then find a house that has been torn to pieces, with a corpse inside and the rest of the family missing and probably dead.
"Them!"'s first half hour is something of a masterpiece of suspenseful pacing, which is odd, since the rest of the movie has a very different tone. It reminds me of an opening to a few horror novels, specifically that of Stephen King's "Desperation", where these characters are alone in the middle of nowhere, and have stumbled upon some kind of unimaginable horror beyond all comprehension. Even better, you don't actually see the giant ants until some distance into the film, so until then you have no idea what they look like or what is really going on. There are a few normal-sized ants crawling around on some spilled sugar in the ruined house. But the only sign of the monster is a very strange high-pitching vibration noise coming out from the distance. It might be a giant ant, it might be a rusty wheel spinning, or it might be something more terrible entirely, but its a very disturbing sound. One cop gets eaten, and you don't see what got him. The little girl is only able to describe her attackers with a single word: "THEM! THEM! THEM!" I didn't know a 1950s movie was even capable of being scary, and yet "Them!" showed me otherwise.
However, that tone and discipline breaks down almost immediately at the half hour mark. The government steps in with their top scientists and captains, and begin to investigate the strange happenings. Its no coincidence that "Them!" ceases to be scary moment a giant ant is spotted by the humans, because not only does it look like a slow lumbering animatronic barely capable of movement, but it acts like one too. The humans easily dispatch it with a couple bursts of machine gun fire. It looks silly, it actually isn't all that powerful, its a disappointment. An actual swarm of thousands of ants this size would be a plague that would deserve the hyperbolic Biblical imagery of apocalypse the elderly scientist is talking about, these things are pretty lame. Stop motion effects actually allowed for some kind of movement and speed, the ants in "Them!" can mostly shudder a bit.
Worse for the movie's tone and my interest, the government in this film is amazingly effective at combating the ants. A plan is formulated almost immediately, its performed with simple quick efficiency, and it works. Most of the ants are wiped out, leaving only two Queens to survive and fight on for their genetically-mutated species. The humans are even able to immediately ascertain where the ants came from, what their weaknesses are, and even their flight patterns with ridiculous speed. Most of the remainder of the movie is the government tracking down these ants from various bureaucratic headquarters. Its interesting how Fifties SciFi for some reason had a massive fetish for orderly discipline and military controls. The perspective is usually from the government-down, as if reassuring the public that even in the event of a giant ant invasion, our military-industrial complex has us safe and secure, so don't worry about them Ruskies. Of course, nothing about that kind of propaganda is scary. "Godzilla" had the best of modern weaponry reduced to mere annoyances to the monster, "Them!" is strangely subdued.
However, the ants do have the good foresight to fly in the Los Angeles sewers and kidnap a little kid, forcing our heroes to go down into a dark lair with flamethrowers. I don't care how inconsistent this movie is, it has dudes fighting ants with flamethrowers, it had its place in history.
I suspect that "Them!" might have served as an inspiration to Robert A. Heinlein during his writing of 1959's "Starship Troopers". Its definitely one of the first instances I know of where human kind fought an invasion of giant bugs, though maybe Heinlein and Warner Bros just got the same idea at the same time. Hives of bugs as metaphors for communism seem to be somewhat popular in the Fifties. At the very least, shots of soldiers hosing down bug eggs with flamethrowers should be familiar to anybody whose seen "Aliens" (which I hope means everybody). The movie itself has been parodied often. There's even a secret campaign in "Command and Conquer: Red Alert"'s expansion packs where you can play four missions of GDI wiping out a bug infestation in a faithful adaptation of "Them!"'s storyline. We'll also be returning to the giant ants as monsters when we reach 1977, with a very strange movie by the name of "Empire of the Ants".
Next time on All-Out Giant Monster Attack!: Ray Harryhausen summons a giant octopus in, "It Came from Beneath the Sea".
* I could actually write about all of these movies, but look at how many goddamn giant bug movies there are! I'm going to limit myself to "Attack of the Crab Creatures" because that one is something of a comedy, "Beginning of the End" because it has perhaps the worst special effects of any giant monster movie ever, and "Mothra", because... Mothra. If anybody desperately wants me to review any (or even all) of those other films, all you have to do is ask.