Ed. note- This has always been one of my favorite horror films, and it’s the greatest of the giant bug films, of which it was the first. And those effects are one of the reasons it holds up some 60 years later.- P.F.
Them! Them! It’s THEM!
For any subgenre of film, there’s always the one that started it all. It’s usually among the best of the bunch, and though it inspires many, those to come in its wake are mere imitators. In 1954, the granddaddy of all giant bug movies arrived in the form of THEM! Unlike so many to follow, it has great special effects, an admirable cast, and an atmosphere that is terrifying in the best of ways. It is, without question, the exemplary giant bug movie.
THEM! has a great setup. Two police officers come across a mute girl wandering the desert. When they investigate further, they find the girl’s family slaughtered and their mobile home torn to shreds. What starts out as a murder mystery rapidly turns into an altogether different film, where the threat is something much worse, for the small desert community and the entire planet. Because this isn’t just some killer roaming the desert. It’s a colony of giant ants.
Once they authorities make this discovery, the film kicks off. The battle between man and ant keeps growing in scale. First, cops fire on one and kill it. But an anthill proves there’s more than one. The longer the film goes, the grander the scale of this menace grows, to the point where the whole world is in danger of being infested, and mankind wiped out by a superior race of giant ants. The payoff is impressive.
THEM really could have been a 1950s programmer. It could have been done very cheaply, with awful footage of real ants blown up to super size, longwinded scenes with scientists explaining things so the movie doesn’t have to show those things, and a cast of nobodies and broken down has-beens. But Warner Bros. did it the right way, and that starts with its cast. James Whitmore as a confounded cop, Edmund Gwynn as a scientist, and the powerful presence of James Arness top an impressive list. Joan Weldon plays the female scientist, a thankless role in this subgenre, but she does enough to distinguish herself from those that would follow.
X Marks the Oscar: This is not only one great horror flick, but it also has a decorated cast of Academy nominees and winners. James Whitmore was nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. Best known for playing Santa, Edmund Gwynn won for the role and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor three years later. James Arness heads a list of a number of Emmy winners and nominees, but X only recognizes Oscar. THEM! was nominated for Best Special Effects. It’s a crime that it lost to 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.
But let’s face it. The real stars are the ants themselves. Those who swear CGI is a more realistic alternative to special effects can go and compare something like EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS or even quality work in THE MIST to the craftsmanship of the giant ants in THEM! Long before the age of computer technology, when real artistry was vital to making effects look like they weren’t effects, the team at Warner Brothers created a number of giant ants. The best part? They look REAL. Legs, heads, antennae all move like they do on an actual ant. Putting these colossal bugs in the same frame with normal-sized actors makes them scary as Hell, especially when it looks like they’ll set up colonies across the Earth. And the sound they make… it chills my spine to this day.
THEM! is also a message movie about the dreaded consequences of atomic bombs. That same year, Toho Studios would tackle the same territory with its own social commentary. That movie was GODZILLA (GOJIRA), and it stars a giant lizard instead of bugs. It’s a potent flick, but I’ll take my ants in THEM! as the superior atomic monster movie.
I wrote my original review for THEM! around the same time I wrote one for INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. They’re both groundbreaking films in the sci-fi/ horror hybrid, and 60 years later, they both still work for me. As for history, THEM! started a subgenre that would define the term “law of diminishing returns,” and is responsible for the career of Bert I. Gordon. Forget the imitators, though. THEM! is the original, and for this writer, it’s still the gold standard of giant bug flicks.