Another day off, another Review, and time for yet another trip down the nostalgic byways of your favorite Catgirl’s youth once more. This time out, a “Lil’ Kitten Classics” look at probably one of the best of those 1950’s “Big Bug” monster movies, 1954’s “Them!”. This one really brings back those memories big time!! Saturday afternoon…. home sick with a nasty cold… and me and Grandma watching TV. She loved her very unladylike lil’ granddaughter (even if I was soooo, soooo “American” and such a lil’ tomboy in many ways)… and would often watch these movies with me, even if they did convince her her little Miyuki was never gonna grow up to be the perfect lil’ Japanese woman she was always hoping for.
Our synopsis? Well, here it goes: “Gigantic mutant ants, spawned by the lingering radiation from the first Atomic Tests in New Mexico run rampant, threatening to overrun the world and cause the extinction of all all Mankind. Only a heroic effort by the Army and the police can bring the dire mutant menace to an end through deadly combat using all the weapons and resources at their combined disposal before it’s too late… and the Earth is ruled by “THEM!!”
Mmmmm! Now this one truly deserves the tile of “Classic”. Almost all of the subsequent atomic menace movies of the 50’s, 60’s and even the 1970’s owe more than a little nod to this one for getting the ball rolling. With it’s excellent cast, top notch cinematography and amazing effects, it still holds up remarkably well even in today’s digital age. It completely captivated lil’ Miyuki waaaay back when (as well as completely freaked out poor Grandma….) and I’m happy the DVD has made it’s way back into my collection after all these years.
Want more memories? Then you’ll just have to “Read On” then won’t you, o’ Gentle Visitor!!
These days, “Big Bugs” are really no big deal…. We’ve all probably seen more movies like this than you can even remember. But… way back in a more innocent age, this movie really tapped into that most human of all Fears… that of the sheer “alien” creepy feel of insects that we all share on some basic instinctive level.
All those legs…. those freaky compound eyes…… and the mandibles…. brrrrr!!! All by themselves they just make your skin crawl, so imagine if they weren’t just the teeny tiny creepy things we know…. What if they were big enough to be a real threat. Now we’re talking.
Put that menace into a film like “Them!” and you’ve got a winner on your hand…. even Carolyn knew this one, and had her own memories of seeing it as a girl, so it wasn’t hard to get her to watch it again with me for an evening of nostalgic movie fun.
Our story starts with the title sequence… all bright and colorful, and yet totally unlike the way I remembered it all those years ago on TV…. but apparently this one shot actually was part of the original theatrical release of “Them!” waaaay back in the 50’s and that had gotten lost by the time it made it’s way to my TV in the early 80’s. My researches discovered that this one almost made it’s way to theaters as a full color 3D film only to have technical problems cause that to be abandoned in favor of the Black & White film we all remember. Still… the bright colored title shot was left in place… done with a vibrant Eastman Color section that was spliced into each print of the film to give it a surprising shock effect to it’s opening title sequence. Later VHS and DVD releases have restored this lil’ piece of history to give even your Favorite Catgirl Princess something old that’s new again.
We meet one of our main characters right away…. New Mexico State Police Sergeant Ben Peterson (played by James Whitmore) as he and his partner find a little girl (played by adorable lil’ actress Sandy Descher) wandering alone in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, so terrified that she’s been reduced to a nearly catatonic zombie by her experiences. It doesn’t take them long to trace her back to a deserted camper and car, now a ravaged wreck with all the makings of a terrible struggle, blood and ruin everywhere, but no sign of her parents. The poor little girl herself is no help in her condition… and so Ben and his partner send her off to the hospital while they look around for some sort of clues to explain what exactly happened. It isn’t long before another of the film’s haunting elements has them scratching their heads…. the eerie sound of some unknown thing somewhere out in the desert. That sound…. made by our mutant ants of course…. is one of those memorable things that sticks with you about this film. It was years before yours truly learned that ants don’t really sound like a gang of crazy giant crickets…… Hehehehe!! Still… from a movie perspective, it’s a simple, yet very effective story tool that kept you on the edge of your seat waiting for those big ants to show up and try to kill everybody.
From the crime scene the guys decide to mosey on down the road a piece to check whether local store owner Gramps Johnson has anything to add about the missing family. They find his store a ruin…. just like the camper, it’s been torn into and poor old Gramps is as dead as a doornob with the sort of wounds that make one think he’d taken a nap under a speeding truck… as well as got himself pumped full of enough formic acid to kill an entire football team. Well… that just don’t make Sergent Peterson happy… so he leaves his partner to “secure the crime scene” and heads back to HQ to let everybody in on the discovery. Whooops…. you just know poor ol’ Ed’s gonna end up ant food for sure….. No surprise really when the freaky cricket sound starts up and our valiant policeman wanders outside to see just what the heck is up with that.
Next we skip to our second hero, FBI agent Robert Graham (played by “Gunsmoke”s James Arness) who’s brought in on the case because the little girl turns out to be the daughter of a vacationing FBI agent. Gotta love how those guys really go that extra mile for one of their own….. Unfortunately, he’s just as baffled by all the weird evidence of crazy unknown footprints and the seemingly motiveless murders as our New Mexican police squad. Still he ships it all off to Washington to “see what the lab boys can make of it”. Not long after this… our prerequisite absent minded professor, Doctor Harold Medford (played by Edmund Gwenn) and his pretty daughter Pat (played by Joan Weldon), from the Department of Agriculture show up to poke around. The Doc plays it cagey… he’s already pretty certain there’s a giant ant outbreak… but he’s gonna keep that to himself for a while. No sense sounding like a wacky crank right from the start. This irritates Ben and Robert… but considering how cute and attractive Pat is, they humor the old guy. Ahhh… the 1950’s…. gotta love the gender roles. Pat’s a brilliant entomologist, but without a great set of gams, her and her father would have never lasted an afternoon with our heroes.
Mind you… we’re about a third of the way into our story and still haven’t gotten a look at one of our big ants…. but that changes quickly as Ben and Robert take our two eggheads to the scene of the attack on the Ellison Camper and in the midst of a sandstorm, Pat nearly becomes lunch for the very impressive (and full sized) giant ant puppet she runs into accidental while doing the whole “look for clues” thing. Here’s where our filmmakers spent their budget on this one…. These giant ants are… well…. just plain cool!! Little Miyuki loved them waaaay back when, and even today they still are pretty darn impressive considering the technology available to the special effects people of the 1950’s. Much of that is pure technique…. knowing both how to film such effects as well as when to reveal them and the conditions under which they are used. In the sandstorm, they actually look fairly menacing…. and are promptly shot to bits by Ben and his trusty tommy gun before they have to do much walking around…. so even better. In fact… you’ll have to actually pay pretty close attention to the film to even realize you never actually see one of the ants do any real walking at all. It’s that well woven into the film and stage managed to fool you into thinking you see more than you really do.
At this point, the movie goes into high gear… and like all the best movies of the time, we get to see the army track down the giant ants to their nest, gas them and then invade like they’re hitting the beaches of Iwo Jima. But not to worry… it doesn’t end all that easily. Seems some queen ants hatched out and flew away before the attack, and are somewhere establishing new colonies of their own. If they can’t be found… and found soon… they could breed fast enough to completely overwhelm the human race!! OH, NO!!
One by one those queens are found. One starts a nest on board a ship full of sugar… and they get destroyed by the trusty Navy, sunk by destroyer gunfire after eating most all of that poor doomed freighter crew.
But… the best part of the film has to be the climax…. For you see the last queen makes her nest in the labyrinth of storm sewer tunnels beneath the city of Los Angeles. We get to see the whole 50’s sci-fi military extravaganza here. Troops in jeeps invade the sewers on a search and destroy mission lead inexplicably enough by our two manly heroes, Ben and Robert with spunky Pat along to do all the heavy thinking and “Sciency” stuff….. all togged out in that nifty vintage combat gear from the time. They even let our policeman Ben run around with his very own flamethrower!! (A pretty scary notion in itself….) Just the thing for roasting giant mutant ants…. As one can guess, there’s a heck of a battle…. all the ants get destroyed and humanity is saved… at least until the next nuclear menace rears it’s ugly mutant head!!
So how does this one rate? No contest…. “Them!” has to be the absolute best of the 1950’s “Big Bug” genre, surpassing even the perhaps more famous “Tarantula” in effects, plot, and just plain over the top exuberance. Not a perfect story… it manages somehow though to rise above it’s somewhat “B” movie premise and gives you a real entertainment experience that still… over 50 years later… works. Lil’ Miyuki and grown up Miyuki heartily agree on this one and give it 5 “Meows” out of 5. Trust me… you won’t find a more fun sci-fi horror movie anywhere to pass along to a lil’ kitten of your own….
Of course there’s a Trailer… and here it is!! Enjoy!!