Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Monsterthon 2012: Them!

Them! poster and Amazon link

It's hard to imagine a time before giant bug movies; they were a unique product of fifties nuclear paranoia, sure, but there had to be a first impulse, a first writer or producer to suggest that the anxieties of the age were best represented by insects the size of trucks. Them! was the launching point for an entire subgenre and an influence on a number of films afterwards, but it's never quite gotten the acclaim it deserves as a classic thriller. It's tense, atmospheric, and surprisingly smart, introducing an outrageous concept with enough dedication and discipline to make it work.

The film opens with two New Mexico policemen coming across an abandoned trailer, and a little girl wandering the desert in a catatonic shock. The trailer has been destroyed by some unknown force, the inhabitants apart from the little girl are missing, and a general store nearby has similarly been ransacked and its owner killed. When one of the officers is killed by something unseen, his partner Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) is paired up with FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) to investigate the case, and they in turn are unexpectedly joined by the old and odd Dr. Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his lovely daughter Patricia (Joan Weldon), both entomologists. The two doctors are at first reluctant to share their theory, but their suspicions are soon confirmed; the atomic bomb tests at White Sands have given birth to a colony of gigantic ants, prowling the deserts for food. The police and local army are able to track down and destroy the original nest, but two queen ants and their consorts have already left, and if they are not tracked down, the species will spread across the world, possibly rendering man extinct within a year.

Much of the film unfolds like a police procedural, recalling the hard-hitting crime dramas that producing studio Warner Bros. had been known for in the past. The police systematically examine the crime scene and sort through evidence, eliminating possibilities until the only one remaining is giant radioactive ants. The film's dedication to a hard-hitting style is reflected in some moody photography and a wonderfully bombastic musical score by Bronislau Kaper. There's a real verisimilitude to how the movie is shot and put together, within the bounds of a reasonably low budget.

In the midst of all the intense and methodical ant-hunting, there's not a lot of time for human development, but what we see of the characters works quite well. There's a real contrast between Whitmore and Arness as professionals, even if they don't overtly clash very much; the basic difference in their acting styles and physical presence speaks volumes about the characters. Whitmore is soft-spoken but tough, Arness hits hard and fast. Weldon, a veteran of B westerns, has the toughness needed to hold her own with the boys- there's the inevitable 1950s dispute about a woman going into a dangerous situation, she wins, and the screenplay lets it go. (There's also no romance, and the lack thereof points up the urgency of the situation.) There is room for humor, though, in the form of some solid banter, some weird supporting characters, and in Gwenn's loveable fuddy-duddy routine which served him so well playing St. Nick in Miracle on 34th Street. Not all of it works, but the encounter with a Texan pilot who ran into "flying saucers shaped like ants" is inspired.

The ants themselves are an impressive feat of mechanical engineering, almost always shown full-scale. (At some point the studio planned to make the film in 3-D, which likely ruled out stop-motion and similar techniques.) In extended shots their mechanical nature is kind of obvious, and I'm not sure I agree with the decision to give them eyes with pupils, but there are still quite a few impressive sequences. Most impressive, though, is the strange ululating chirping noise made by the ants, an eerie, beautiful, ominous effect. There's never any doubt that the ants are a dangerous force, and the story explores their existence in some scarily thoughtful ways. (This film also kicked off the tradition of using nature footage to show off whatever creature was being enlarged and talk about how deadly it already is in its native habitat.)

It's common to think of 50s monster movies as quick, slapdash affairs done without much care or artistry, and to be sure, a lot of 50s monster movies are like that. But there are more than a few diamonds in the rough, and Them! is a nicely crafted gem. It's fresh and inventive where later entries in the subgenre would go through the motions, and goes to great lengths to convince us of the danger of something that's downright impossible. Of course, it's really about the potential real dangers that came with the nuclear age, and possibly of the loss of humanity to a hive mind, reflecting fears of communism and mechanization and so on. But even if you stick with the most literal reading (i.e. there are giant radioactive ants out to kill us), Them! is a classic of the genre as well as a pop culture milestone. Someone had to tell the truth about atomic mutation, and I'm glad these guys were the ones to do it.

Story by George Worthing Yates
Adaptation by Russell Hughes
Screenplay by Ted Sherdeman
Directed by Gordon Douglas

Grade: A-

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