Them! (1954) — Better call the Orkin Man for this infestation

“We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true ― ‘And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation, and the beasts shall reign over the earth.’”

Zombiedog’s rating: Good for family and party viewing, but probably be a hard sell to anybody under 20.

Zombiedog’s review: If there’s a single decade that is responsible for the birth of B-movies, it would have to be the 1950s.

Above all, the ’50s was a transformative decade. The postwar era gave way to economic growth, which in turn fueled cultural and social changes for a whole new generation. The arts were one of the areas in society that was changing, and music, literature, and even cinema experienced exponential growth. The availability of entertainment embraced new venues and reached audiences that were previously underserved. Teenagers and young adults now were seeking these new forms of entertainment in such a way as to be a cause for growth in the entertainment industry.

Now, I wasn’t alive during this. But these films are near and dear to my heart because they played as reruns and midnight movies during the ’70s. I am from the Chicago area, and we mostly got our fill of monster movies from the Son of Svengoolie (1978–1986), which still plays today on MeTV. The show is a hosted series that creates a variety of skits for commercial breaks and doesn’t take itself too seriously because it knows that it’s showing solid B-rated movies. Son of Svengoolie truly captured the spirit that B-movies embrace.

Really, I would recommend almost all of the ’50s monster movies, good and bad. They’re fun, non-serious viewing, and with family and friends they are almost always worth it.

Yet there is an elephant in the room that has to be talked about: The bulk of these movies are black-and-white. This seems like a death knell for capturing new viewers. My completely biased perspective is that they are missing out. Black-and-white as a film medium can be used to harness just as much emotional depth as its color film counterpart. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which won seven Oscars, was filmed entirely in black-and-white. During the ’80s and ’90s, the independent film movement used black-and-white to great effect. Even mainstream movies such as Dead Man and Ed Wood (coincidentally both starring Johnny Depp, but with different directors) enjoyed commercial success. More to the point, they captured an artistic — if not unique — perspective by using that style.

I feel this needs to be said, but yes, ’50s directors knew they were filming in black-and-white. Color film stock had been available since at least 1939 when Gone with the Wind and The Wizard Of Oz both made captivating use of the technology. The 1950s monster movies were as much as embracing a new trend as they were trying to make money along the way. Black-and-white film was simply cheaper, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be used to effect.

What I mean by that is that the cinematography and lighting were geared to take the most advantage of the film stock. However, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that some of the movies from this period are bad. They have bad stories and while the campy special-effects can propel you through a film and make it enjoyable, it is still nice when the movie has a bit more to keep you interested. Them! has that.

At this point Them! is almost 70 years old, and I don’t feel as though I’m giving any spoilers to say that the story revolves around giant ants. It’s even on the poster, so I would be willing to say moviegoers knew what they were getting themselves into.

What this movie is really about, however, is an ever-growing number of people trying to solve a serious problem. It’s truly atmospheric and creepy from the opening scene, with the sound design pulling you in. In a desert, the police are trying to figure out what is going on while we hear sounds on the wind offering clues. Combine this with a child who has been terrorized by seeing the death of her parents. As we don’t see the killings, it makes it worse. The child is clearly traumatized, and the actor they chose to play her does an amazing job. One of the strengths of this movie is attention to detail, and small little things make this movie worth the time.

At about the ten-minute mark while the police are still investigating the mystery, they come up on a store that is been broken into. With the wind howling in the background, the police slowly try to gather any clue that might shed light on the situation. The black-and-white enhances this to the degree that color film stock never could. The darkness when the shadows hit makes it feel all that much more eerie and produce a feeling of dread.

Many of these films follow the same pattern in that after the police have exhausted all of their resources, they call in “The Scientist.” Them! is no different, however it does seem to fit and does propel the movie forward. This is also where we get another stereotype, which is the capable-yet-vulnerable woman.

In any case, it doesn’t take them long to figure out they have an ant problem. They instantly call the military which lights the ants on fire and throw cyanide into the nest. I must admit, this was a pretty good plan — and it actually works in the movie.

Unfortunately, they discover that two other queens have been hatched and have left the nest. If they’re not found, the ants could threaten all of humanity.

These types of creature features directly exploited or gave voice to society’s fear of nuclear weapons. Nuclear technology was a devastating new weapon of war and was quite frightening. The characters in Them! theorize that the ants were caused by nuclear testing in the desert. Let’s not forget that the original Godzilla movie wasn’t as much a man in a suit as it was a horrifying representation of the effects of radiation and humanity’s willingness to unleash it onto the world. To be fair, stories have been used since the dawn of time to give us some element of control over our fears. We gave form to the formless and empowered the powerless even if the danger was imaginary.

Them! is wonderful for family and party viewing. There certainly is a lot of fun attached to this movie and there is room to cheer when the ants are defeated. More than that though, this is one of the best films of this genre. The giant monster/insects/whatever came in multiple forms.

If you have never dabbled in the ’50s monster movies, Them! is a great place to start. Just remember to be black-and-white tolerant and ready to embrace some really bad special effects.

Quick recommendations:

  • Tarantula! (1955)
  • The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
  • The Deadly Mantis (1957)

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