Them! Released in June 1954, is not just another giant insect movie from the 1950s, it is THE giant insect movie from the 1950s.
The police find a girl walking through the desert, she is expressionless, dirty and holding a doll with a shattered head. She reacts to nothing. When she does respond it is when she is being put in an ambulance, there is a strange unsettling sound, she suddenly sits up, only to lie back down when the noise disappears. All this goes unnoticed by those helping her as they have been distracted by the noise.
The build up to the reveal is good. We are introduced to two doctors: Dr. Patricia Medford and her father Dr. Harold Medford, played by Edmund (Miracle on 34th Street) Gwenn. That’s right Santa has shaved his beard and is fighting giant atomic ants. The cast is completed with two leads: Police Sgt. Ben Peterson and FBI agent Robert Graham.
The scene of them investigating the ants nest is great. Small humans navigating through alien-like caverns, walking past large dead ants, and having to take out a living one till they get to the egg chamber. You can definitely see how these scenes inspired the Alien franchise. All the while Dr Patricia and Santa urge haste, aware of a possible danger.
This is one of the things that annoys me in this film genre : scientists not telling people things. Although it builds suspense, the longer it goes on you think, well maybe things would go better if you just told people.
But the danger becomes clear, two winged queens have left the hive to establish new colonies and with what we saw in the desert, we know that these ants would replace man as the dominant species on Earth. I find that a common theme in American films. I suspect that as a super power, the idea of someone or something else taking that position away from them is terrifying, although it must be remembered this was the 1950s, there were two super powers at the time.
The second half of the film is somewhat weaker than the first. An annoying educational segment follows with stock footage of actual ants ,another thing I get annoyed at by in some films of this age, probably mandatory, but nothing ruins suspense more than education sequences in a horror or science fiction movie. We are now focused on the search for the ants. But that’s the problem, we don’t see them enough. The ants were really well done. These weren’t green screened but large animatronics. You really feel the ants were there, and after seeing them, you want to see more.
High points in the second half are the scene of the ants attacking a boat that they had built a hive on, and the doomed sailors fighting futilely while sending a SOS. The finale: while investigating some missing children our heroes find the ants have built a nest in the storm drains under Los Angeles. Finding the children being menaced by the ants Ben Peterson sacrifices his life (complete with Wilhelm scream) to save them. What follows is the final assault on the ants.
The film ends with the surviving heroes finding two winged females, still in the nest, before setting them on fire with flamethrowers and FBI agent Robert Graham pondering that if these ants were created from the first atomic tests, what about all the others since then.
Them: 1954 Director: Douglas Gordon