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Them!

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 06/18/03 22:28:13

"They Did the Mash...They Did the MONSTER MASH!"
5 stars (Awesome)

If there's one specific time or genre of film that I will always have an eternal fondness for, it'll be the 1950's cycle of 'creature features'. 'The Black Scorpion', 'Creature from the Black Lagoon', 'It Came From Beneath The Sea', 'Valley of Gwangi'...little gems one and all. But this is the grandaddy of them all. One that still pisses over the likes of 'Mimic', 'Deep Rising', 'Godzilla' to this day.

'Creature features' generally had one of two plots:

1) Explorers come across an undiscovered island/valley/cave that houses dinosaurs and/or giant insects/reptiles (delete as applicable).

2) Atomic testing results in the growth of common or garden insects into man eating giants.

'Them!' is the latter. In the Mexican desert, police officer Ben (James Whitmore) comes across a 6 year old girl wandering around in a trance. When they find her home trailer, it's been ripped to shreds with no sign of her parents. Later, they find the local store also in pieces and the owner dead. Ben leaves to get help leaving his unfortunate partner to get killed by something horrible off-screen.

When unexplained footprints are also found in the desert and the store owner is found to have been poisoned with enough formic acid to kill 20 men, FBI man Bob Graham (James Arness) and anthropologist Dr.Medford (Edmund Gwenn) are called in. The cause of their problem? Giant ants mutated by the atomic tests unleashed in the desert. As Medford solemnly explains, ants are the only creatures beside man that fight wars...

One of the most astonishing things about 'Them!' if you watch it now, is how little it's dated. If you ignore the schlocky title and the occasional jerkiness of the ant models, it could be a 90's production with the colour turned down. The first 15 minutes, as Ben slowly uncovers the mystery in the desert leading up to the death of his partner, is one of the most effectively creepy and taut sequences I've still seen.

This creepy atmosphere is sustained throughout. 'Them!' works because it keeps an admirably straight face, never descending into camp or overly ridiculous scenarios. A rising sense of panic is maintained as the ants flee the desert for the city, and it never becomes silly. Over-using the models of the ants would negate a lot of their effect, so they're kept in the background. Instead their presence is merely suggested through the use of excellent sound effects (the sound of the ants communicating in the desert still spooks me out to the day) and the clever use of eye-witness reports and newsflashes to the FBI desk.

You could argue that it's a wimp-out barely showing any ants throughout the whole middle section, but the sense of fear and tension is far more effective when portrayed through stern reports of strange deaths and appearances than through shots of 20 foot ants flying through the sky.

If that suggests that the ants themselves are poorly realised, then that's doing a dis-service to the film. They're never laughable and easily stand up to anything in 'Deep Rising' or 'Mimic' for example. Yes, they creep around very slowly but they look nasty and utterly convince when they've got killing to do. It's rare to find a film that manages to be about giant killer ants yet manages to blend the actual appearance of the creatures and the horror of the situation into an utterly convincing whole. Because convinction is the key here. The cast acquit themselves admirably with Whitmore (Handlen from 'The Shawshank Redemption) the standout. They also remain very convincing about the situation. Which is more than you can say about the cast of 'Deep Blue Sea'.

I'm actually glad I wasn't a 10 year old kid, when 'Them!' was first released because I'm sure it would have terrified me beyond all belief. From the opening sequence and descent into the ants nest, to the final fight in the LA sewer system, there's very scary moments here in a film that's constantly un-nerving in it's attempt at a realistic depiction about such an event.

The only time, it ever feels dated is the final closing statement where Medford warns the rest of the group (and the audience) about the perils of atomic experimentation. It's the only resolutely 50's moment and the only slightly sniggersome moment.

It may seem strange to wax lyrical about a 1950's film about giant ants being 'scary' and 'convincing' but it is. It's nowhere near as ludicrous as the scenario or the poster implies and still gives the shivers today. With solid acting, great photography and top-notch production values it's really not too far a stretch of the imagination to imagine 'Them!' having some small influence on 'Jaws' or even 'Alien'. Tremendous stuff, and not in a camp retro way either.

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