Friday, March 22, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Them! (1954)

Them! (1954)
Directed by: Gordon Douglas.
Written by: Ted Sherdeman and Russell S. Hughes based on the story by George Worthing Yates.
Starring: James Whitmore (Police Sgt. Ben Peterson), Edmund Gwenn (Dr. Harold Medford), Joan Weldon (Dr. Patricia 'Pat' Medford), James Arness (Robert Graham), Onslow Stevens (Brig. Gen. Robert O'Brien), Sean McClory (Maj. Kibbee), Chris Drake (Trooper Ed Blackburn).

By the 1950s, paranoia about nuclear bombs and their after effects had made its way to the movies. There was the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (unseen by me) about a dinosaur awoken from under the sea by nuclear bombs that goes on a killing spree. And in 1954, the Japanese film Gojira (better known as Godzilla), the best of all the nuclear monster films, was made. In its original Japanese version, Gojira is a haunting, powerful film that deals directly with Japanese fears after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By comparison, Them! released in America the same year, is rather tame, but it still taps into that same fear.

The movie opens with a little girl, obviously in shock, walking down the street. She is picked up by Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore), and his partner, who head up the seemingly abandoned road to investigate. They find the trailer the girl and her family were staying in, and it has been thoroughly destroyed, and her family has disappeared, but by what, no one knows. When they head further up the road, they find a small store, that has also been destroyed, and the owner left dead. The only clue is a strange track that no one can identify. That is until it is sent to Dr. Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Pat (Joan Weldon), who think they have the answer – giant ants. And sure enough, when they look around in the desert, they do indeed find a colony of giant ants, and they are able to destroy them. The bad news is, the ants eggs have already hatched – and two queens have escaped. Because they can fly, there is no telling where they could have gone.

To a certain extent, Them! is just another cheesy sci-fi/horror film from the 1950s. You certainly have to accept the fact that the special effects are not as good as modern audiences are used to seeing, and that the film indulges in clich├ęs of the “giant, mutated things that can kill you” genre. And yet, if you can get past all of that, Them! works remarkably well. It gets the paranoia about nuclear weapons just about right, teases us wonderfully with the reveal of the ants, and when the climax comes – set in the sewers of Los Angeles, it is genuinely suspenseful. Whenever someone does a movie like this now, they tend to try for camp value – like in Eight Legged Freaks. But to me, those movies never really work. They try too hard to wink at the audience, and prove how clever they are, and that tends to be a turn off for me. But a movie like Them! which plays it pretty straight, is much more effective.

I sometimes fear that movies like Them! no longer work for modern audiences, who have grown too cynical for a movie like this. Yes, it is cheesy and the special effects are not great by today’s standards (although they were pretty fantastic by 1954 standards), but if you can get by that, and look at the meat of the movie, then Them! is still creepily effective.

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