Saturday, November 12, 2011

Them: Best of the Giant Bug Movies

A shell-shocked little girl wandering through the New Mexico desert.  A mangled, deserted travel trailer.  An eerie piping from the desert wastes (“must have been the wind… it’s pretty freakish in these parts”).  A devastated general store in the midst of a sandstorm, the electric light bobbing wildly in the wind.  So begins the classic 1950s monster movie Them!, one of the best of the genre and certainly the best of the giant insect sub-genre.

The film starts out slow and sinister, as grizzled police Sergeant Peterson (James Whitmore) and fresh-faced FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) try to solve a string of disappearances and murders.  The lonely desert, with tumbleweeds, blowing sand, and howling wind, is used to great effect.  Soon, the doctors Medford, a father and daughter team of myrmecologists from the Department of Agriculture join the team, having identified a mysterious footprint as that of an oversized ant.  As the senior Dr. Medford, the great character actor Edmund Gwenn (who was in his late seventies when the movie was shot) injects a great deal of energy and humor to the film.  As his daughter, Joan Weldon gives a rather bland performance, perhaps aided by the fact that no romance really develops – it’s all about the ants.  Still, most of the acting is quite decent.     

The special effects, using enormous ant puppets, are surprisingly effective, and the first appearance of a giant ant, looming monstrously over a sand dune, is thrilling.  Much of the film is action-packed, with an arsenal of machine guns, flamethrowers, bazookas, and grenade launchers being deployed to combat the red (ant) menace.  Soldiers descend into creepy, dark ant nests in scenes reminiscent of the Alien films.  The pacing slows a little too much in the middle, but picks up again as the ants begin to spread across the country.  The finale is tense, claustrophobic, and, naturally, chock full of ants.      

It turns out the ants have mutated as a result of radiation from the first atomic bomb test.  As Dr. Medford gravely states, “When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door into a new world.”  Nuclear-age warning, communist allegory, or simply a good science fiction horror story, Them! is a must see.

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