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Director: Gordon Douglas
Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness
“When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict”.
Originally planned to be shot in colour 3D, the idea was scrapped leaving only that magnificent title card jumping out at the viewer and some obvious camera setups. It doesn’t matter though, as Them! doesn’t need any more gimmicks other than its central one – it’s got giant frickin’ ants eating people.
When State Police Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Trooper Ed Blackburn (Ed Drake) discover a little girl in a state of near-catatonia wandering the New Mexico desert, they discover the vacation trailer where she and her family had been staying nearly destroyed with no signs of life remaining.
After another similarly mysterious attack occurs at a local general store, the FBI sends Special Agent Robert Graham (James Arness) to New Mexico to investigate. He’s aided by Department of Agriculture myrmecologists Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter, Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon).
The cause of the destruction and missing persons is revealed to be eight-foot-tall ants, mutated due to the first testing of and atomic bomb in nearby Alamogordo. The team track the monstrous beasts down to their nest and manage to destroy them with cyanide, but two queen ants escape and with them the ability to breed thousands more of their kind. Worse, if they aren’t found and destroyed, humanity itself could be extinct in only a year.
One is tracked to a disused freighter at sea, but the other one remains missing until reports come in that it appears to have nested right in the middle of Los Angeles itself and it’s not you
As hokey and fun as the concept of killer giant ants is, the opening scenes are anything but daft. A child wandering the desert in a state of catatonic shock is a harrowing sight, establishing a feeling of unease and dread immediately. Then we are slowly drip fed scenes of devastation and horror, but the reveal is still delayed, adding to the tension even though we know what’s behind it.
When the ants finally show UK about a third of the way in, they look…pretty good actually. Considering the time and budget, they could look a lot worse and certainly don’t take you out of the film. In fact, watching them withstand a fair bit of gunfire or surround a helpless child still has the desired effect of making you recoil. These are dangerous, predatory creatures, each as big as a van and there’s thousands of the things.
There’s some truly shocking moments in Them! too, such as the charnel pit where what’s left of their victims are discarded, such as the very obvious ribcage that’s left in the foreground of one shot, or the death of one of the major characters that for once you just don’t see coming.
Them! kind of sets a template for these kind of creature features, but it gets it right in a way that a lot of the initiators failed to understand. It’s played deadly serious, not just the ludicrous idea of giant insects but the danger they pose not just to the characters in the vicinity but the world itself.
Yes, it’s a none-too-subtle metaphor for the relatively new nuclear threat, but is all done so well that Them! is thrilling from that haunting beginning to the high-action finale in the Los Angeles storm drain system.
A classic and important film about giant frickin’ ants eating people. What more do you want?
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy