“When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, no one can predict.” Dr. Harold Medford
As I browsed through the well-stocked archive of old movies on Amazon Prime, I came across this Warner Bros classic from 1954. Never being one to turn down a creature feature, I immediately stuck it on and was instantly reminded how terrific it still is. But, is this just rose-tinted glasses talking? Absolutely no way. The special effects may seem almost comical to today’s audience, but at the time, it was nominated for an Oscar for its visuals. In fact, if you can suspend the modern perspective, you will soon realise that the terror is real, the writing is intelligent, the suspenseful iconic sound-effects eerie and the claustrophobic tunnel sequences are truly unforgettable.
Acting as the American version of Godzilla, whom made his first appearance in the same year, Them! portrays the same fear of nuclear fallout, mixed with the important invasion-paranoia theme of cold-war science-fiction. Not only is it a case that the effects were great for the time, but Them! was the first of a runaway train of big-bug movies that permeated 1950s cinema, most of which would not grace the same breathing space as Douglas’ classic. Its reveal of the irradiated ants is so patiently thought out, you can’t help but get sucked into the entire murder mystery plot at the beginning, as the police and other authorities try to piece together a recent spate of killings. It is only when Dr. Harold Medford arrives and allows his scientific knowledge to not just advise, but to dictate the army’s movements and eventual destruction of the ants, that you realise the genuine threat of these giant creatures, who he claims will spell the eradication of the human race.
On the face of it, giant ants terrorising the population of New Mexico seems borderline ridiculous, but the movie takes the matter at hand so seriously, and the ants are portrayed so perfectly as a “savage” enemy, you soon get pulled into the premise and start cheering on the old red, white and blue as they hunt down the dangerous foe. When the humans fly over the first nest in a helicopter, one of the ants takes the time to stick his head out and spit out the rib cage of one of its victims, fairly shocking for 1954, which would have left dames hand over mouth, as they buried their face into the shoulder of their date.
When the eggs of the queen ant’s nest get torched, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ripley’s destruction of the nest in Aliens, leaving me wondering how much modern science-fiction horror owes to the real ground-breakers such as Them! I think there is something about the no-holds barred approach to the human solution, which would feel inhumane and slightly parodical in today’s films, that stands these classics apart from the rest and its theme’s contextual relationship to its time. But at least it means that the golden oldies still get a look in on most DVD shelves, and I know Them! won’t be the last giant bug film I watch during this summer’s inevitable rainy weekends.
Shapstik Verdict: Punchy, scary, tense and thought-provoking all at once, Them! is the perennial bug-movie, which sets out to deliver not just a visual treat, but to educate as well. So many elements such as editing, sound-effects, cinematography and screen-writing are top-draw, leaving little to hate as you munch on your giant tub of popcorn. Lacking the pretension and long running times of modern sci-fi horror, Them! serves as a reminder that looking back can sometimes feel like looking forward. 10/10
Before rising to fame in Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy had a cameo in Them! as an Air Force technician, standing in front of a media report board.
Originally planned for 3D at the cinema, there are some camera angles in Them! where the original idea still shows, such as a fairly obviously directed flame-thrower shot at the camera.