I hate to say it but I feel bad for the youth of today. The only entertainment they know are video games, movies loaded with CGI effects and weak storylines, and music by artists that need to digitize their voices just to sound good. These childhood memories are not the kind that as adults, they will look back on and cherish.
Hollywood has currently run out of original ideas and feels it is easier and more cost-effective to remake so many of the movies, that when I was a kid, were just amazing to behold. The only original movies to be seen these days are actually imported from other countries (and you can bet that if these movies have any success, Hollywood will remake them too).
One of my fondest memories as a child of the 70’s was every Saturday afternoon watching the CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE. This was pre-cable when watching shows such as this meant roof antennas or rabbit ears. It also meant that viewing my favorite monster movies was dependent on the weather…the clearer the weather, the clearer the signal.
I was always a huge fan of the 1950’s monster and science fiction movies. Since I also have a love of entomology (the study of insects), I was also partial to movies such as TARANTULA (1955), THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957), THE BLACK SCORPION (1957) and of course the subject of this blog, the 1954 giant ant classic THEM! Atomic testing and radiation were the themes of many of these movies from the 50’s. The radiation would either cause the mutated growth of every day animals, it would re-awaken prehistoric giants, or aliens from other civilizations would visit us to warn of the dangers of atomic testing.
THEM! was released in June of 1954 and takes place in New Mexico. Atomic bomb testings from 1945 have mutated common ants into giants, with appetites to match. The movie opens with a little girl (played by Sandy Descher) wandering alone in the desert. She is found by two policemen (featuring James Whitmore as Police Sergeant Ben Peterson) who are then directed to a camper further down the street. Upon arrival they find evidence that something is terribly wrong. Not only is the camper torn to shreds, it is obvious that the camper was pulled out, as opposed to being crushed in. A strange footprint is also found.
As the story progresses, another location is found, with the same kind of damage as was suffered by the camper. A shotgun is found bent in half and a bloody corpse is found in the basement of the building. Strange, unidentifiable sounds are also heard. From there, a train car is found with similar damage, that was hauling a huge sugar delivery. As the evidence grows, we are then introduced to the scientists. Dr. Harold Medford (played by Edmund Gwenn, who also played Kris Kringle in the 1947 version of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET) and his daughter Pat (played by Joan Weldon) have a good idea of what the menace is but need more proof before revealing what they think.
Upon searching the desert more, not only do they find and kill a giant ant, they then find a giant nest as well. It is here that we see one of the creepiest scenes of the film. As the scientists hover over the nest in a helicopter, they view an ant bringing out the remains of its last meal…a human ribcage. This ribcage is then dropped down the side of the giant ant mound to land on a pile of obviously human bones. It is also here where we finally get to see the ants in all of their glory. After dropping cyanide gas into the nest, they explore it to make sure they killed all of the ants only to find that a new queen and receptive male ants had hatched prior to them bombing the nest with cyanide and escaped, which means they must now locate the new nest.
The new nest is soon found after some boys who were playing near the local underground sewer system end up missing. The boys are found alive but so are more of the huge insects. Military forces, as well as the local police, battle the ants with machine guns and flame throwers and are able to eradicate all of them, in some amazing special effects sequences.
I think when this movie was originally released there was no question that the title creatures were giant ants. This movie does a beautiful job though of slowly building the story and tension up until we first see the ants themselves. This is something that was regularly done in the 50’s, but usually because the title monster was made on a severely limited budget and looked bad, so onscreen viewings of the monster was also very limited, and usually in the dark. In this case the ants, in my opinion, look amazing and are very scary, even by today’s standards. The scenes in the ants’ nest and in the sewer at the end are very claustrophobic and creepy, adding to the tension and suspense of the movie.
Something else that I enjoyed about this movie is the characters themselves! There is nice character development and all of the actors and actresses do great in their respective parts. Though Sandy Descher is only on-screen for a short time during the beginning of the film, she does a wonderful job of playing a little girl in shock. The absolute terror she shows when she snaps out of it is genuine and you really feel bad for her that she had to go through this experience. James Whitmore is fantastic as Police Sergeant Ben Peterson. He takes his job very seriously and is a brave and tough individual and yet when he finds the Ellinson girl, his concern for her is also very genuine.
Unfortunately, most movie makers of today forget that you need an even blend of character development and monster scenes. It seems like most monster movies have one or the other (like Gareth Edwards’ MONSTERS and the Japanese film DEMEKING, both of which concentrate so much on character development that you rarely see the monsters, even though they look really cool). The point of a monster movie is to have monsters, especially if you are advertising your films as a monster movie. Fans do not want to see a character driven film…yes caring about a character is important but it can be overdone.
Different types of special effects were used in the making of these fun films. TARANTULA featured footage of an actual tarantula superimposed over scenes to make it look huge. THE DEADLY MANTIS used models and miniatures to pull off their effects. THE BLACK SCORPION utilized stop motion animation by the great Ray Harryhausen. THEM! featured full-scale models that could be operated as giant puppets. The ants in THEM! are very realistic in their design and even their movements are scary. These are definitely not a creature you would ever want to come face to face with in real life. Insects are fascinating and at times, scary creatures in their design as is and to bring them to larger than life proportions just makes them all the more scary.
I just recently re-watched THEM! and was happy to see that it still held up as well after all these years. While watching it one of my nephews came in to see what I was watching and refused to watch it because it is in black and white. I was then saddened that he then went to watch STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH. These kids just don’t know what they’re missing!
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