October is in full swing and unless you’ve been living in an ant hill in the New Mexico desert for the last few weeks then you’ll be well aware that Halloween is rapidly approaching. The time of year when horror fans make an extra effort to spend some time with our favourite movies.
When I read that Warner Brothers were releasing a Blu-Ray and DVD super version of the 1954 classic Them as part of its new Premium collection, I took it as a perfect opportunity to revisit a film that is very close to my heart and was essential Halloween viewing in my formative years.
For the uninitiated Them tells the story of Ben Peterson (James Whitmore), a Sargent in the New Mexico police. What starts of as a routine investigation into a lost girl in the desert quickly descends into a battle for the fate of mankind as Peterson’s partner is killed by sugar crazed giant Ants. (Yes you read that correctly) Peterson must team up with the impeccably dressed FBI Agent Robert Graham (James Arness) and an eccentric father daughter duo of insect specialists to find the Ant Queens and exterminate them before they can build a hive large enough to take over the planet.
Arguably the most well-known of the 50’s Nuclear Monster movies (outside of Godzilla of course which was released the same year) Them is a masterclass in suspense and old school American film making which has stood the test of time and works as the perfect pallet cleanser during Halloween horror marathons.
From the opening shots of Them the whole film oozes a classic Hollywood look. I have a great love of the film studio back lot look made famous in many of the Universal Monster movies, the kind where you can almost sense that an office or desert set has probably featured in hundreds of different films throughout the years. Director Gordan Douglas does a great job of capturing the dusty desert feel for most of the film and the set design on display in Them, while seen many times before, gives off a classic smoke filled 50’s aesthetic that is impossible not to be charmed by.
As Peterson and Graham trek across the states in pursuit of our new insect overlords Them does a brilliant job of conveying a sense of place in locations such as Los Angeles and New Mexico despite much of the film actually being shot in rural California. The whole feel of the film is elevated to new heights by a fantastic orchestral score from composer Bronisław Kaper whose bombastic soundtrack is 50’s science fiction at its best.
As great as Them looks and sounds however it’s the performances that really make it shine. Whitmore and Arness both play their parts well as the straight laced, chain smoking lawmen but the real stars of the show are the beautiful Dr Pat Medford (Joan Weldon) and her eccentric father Harold (Edmund Gwenn). Weldon personifies the classy yet sassy fifties glamour look but her role is actually pretty progressive for the time as she leads the charge gun in hand against the insect threat and in many cases actually shows the cast of squared jawed alpha males what for.
The back and forth as the team of bug killers work to prevent Armageddon is full of fun moments but Edmund Gwenn steals every moment of screen time he is involved in with classic acting chops. He gives the character of Harold Medford this amazing, almost laissez faire quality where he bumbles through the film calmly explaining to his team just how deep trouble they are in. My two favourites scenes in the film aren’t bombastic fights with giant ants (although these are great) but quieter moments where Gwenn descends into these beautifully shot monologues about the war like nature of ants and the limit of mankind’s knowledge as it enters into the Atomic Age.
Of course no review of Them would be complete without talking about the Ants. When I first watched this film the huge, lumbering insects terrified me and I can only imagine how chilled audiences were back in the fifties when the blood thirsty critters were on drive through screens across America. A great deal of work was clearly put into building the giant mutants and as they scuttle across the screens you get a real sense that you are watching the foundations of horror and science fiction special effects. Granted they look a little comical now but it all adds to the endearing and lighthearted nature of the film.
Endearing is in fact that best way I can describe Them. It’s a solidly made film brought to life by some great character moments that end up inspiring smiles just as much as screams. Will the ants and their iconic sonar sound effects ever be able to shock viewers like they did back in the day? Perhaps not. What Them can do however is offer an earnest and lighthearted trip back in time to an era when society genuinely feared the after effects of a World War still fresh in its mind and when Sharknado or Lake Placid had yet to make creature features more comedy than horror.
From terrorising drive through audiences over sixty years ago to the Saturday afternoon marathons of my youth Them remains a great watch. It’s a film good enough to still be relevant today and stands shoulder to shoulder with its scaly and ape like cousins. A black and white classic that has stood the test of time and a film that fans of the genre should consider essential viewing. The recent Blu-Ray/DVD release doesn’t have too much in the way of special features but comes in some gorgeous packing with some neat little art cards making it well worth your money if you feel like adding this film to your collection.
Cast: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, and James Arness Dir: Gordan Douglas