Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Classic Cinema Corner: Them! Them!! Them!!! or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Giant Mutant Killer Ants From Hell

The film starts thus: The police find a little girl, just 5 or 6 years old, wandering through the New Mexico desert near White Sands Proving Ground (the testing area for the first nuclear bombs, a piece of historical fact that ends up being the narrative crux of the story). The girl is in shock, unable to speak or even react to the officer's pleas. Later on, this same girl, still in the same state, is visited at the hospital by one of the aforementioned police officers, an FBI agent and a pair of father/daughter scientists. When she is given a sort of smelling salts by the elder scientist, her eyes open wide and with a look of disturbing horror twisting across her once eerily serene face, she screams "Them! Them! Them!" and runs for the corner of the room, cowering in obvious and utterly all-consuming fear. Until this moment, about twenty minutes in, we are given a feeling of stockpiling dread, after this incident, we are in full-on panic mode. Who or what are Them!, and why is this little girl so scared of Them!?

Yes, of course we all know just what Them! are. Even 1954 moviegoers would have known going in since those gigantic radiated mutant ants are front and center on the poster, but still, knowing or not, the fear in this little girl's face is palpable enough to get even the most jaded of modern hearts a-flutterin'. The real thrill of watching Them! is as basic as basic primal urges can be - we want to see giant mutant ants eating people. But then, who doesn't? Looking back at 1950's science fiction movies, made at the height of the cold war, at the height of widespread (and government sanctioned) paranoia, one should expect to get the type of escapist entertainment that involved beasts from other worlds and other dimensions, creatures from below the ocean waves and burrowing up from the Earth's core, and big-ass freakin' ants, mutated by the very radiation of which we were all so scared! I mean come on, who doesn't love giant mutant ants from hell? Seriously though, director Gordon Douglas (he would go on to direct the best of the Rat Pack films, Robin and the 7 Hoods and then direct Sinatra in one of his best films, 1968's Detective) takes the idea of nuclear testing (a popular topic at the height of the Cold War) and creates one of the best damn monster movies this side of the Pecos.

The first in the genre of "big bug" films (and yes, that was a genre, or at least a sub-genre - as paranoia swept across the nation, everyone was afraid of nuclear attack at this point in history and this fear was exploited by not just the government, but by those in Hollywood as well) and certainly the best, the wonderfully named Them! tells the story of a small New Mexico community that is besieged by an unknown killer or killers. The high pitched screams and screeches of these aforementioned giant killer ants (the film showcases one of the earliest uses of the patented Wilhelm Scream) echo through the desert like mysterious impending doom. Meanwhile, the state trooper, the FBI agent, the requisite old professor and the even more requisite hot professor's daughter, must join forces and find and destroy this mysterious assailant(s). Of course, as we all know, these assailants are giant freakin' mutant ants from hell (or some close facsimile of hell at least), their cursed mandibles snatching their prey at will, and James Arness (the aforementioned FBI agent, the year before he would become Marshall Matt Dillon) and his gang of requisite archetypes, must stop these creatures before they devour the town, New Mexico, the United States, and eventually (insert audible gasps and foreboding music here) the world.

With surprisingly realistic (and Oscar nominated) special effects, at least for the time period (watch a contemporaneous film like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman for some heee-larious comparison) Them! is more than just a fun romp and fodder for the MST3K crowd. Sure, perhaps today's so-called sophisticated movie watcher (the one's lulled into complacency by the ever-ramping up of CGI effects) may find this a bit silly and cheap looking, but what do they know, as most of them enjoyed Avatar, a film that despite it's so-called visual perfection (technologically speaking, of course) doesn't have the story or narrative, or auteuristic chutzpah, to compete with a film such as Them!. Them! is a giddily disturbing look at the paranoia rampant during this era and the dangers of nuclear warfare on nature (Douglas' film predates the first Godzilla by nearly five months - so take that!). Originally meant to cash in on the 3D boom, the film would eventually play as just 2D (some shots, including the titles remain 3D-ready) and be made in black and white (titles are done in colour as was also the original intent of the entire film) and the film would also become a moderate hit at the box office. Its reputation now is as one of the best of the 1950's sci-fi films (the best in the high point of the genre) and that is a well-deserved reputation indeed. This edition of Classic Cinema Corner, has been brought to you by the Letter T, and the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge (click on banner below for answers). That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.


3 comments:

  1. Love this movie! I have not seen it for years. They always showed these movies on a Sunday afternoon on the UHF(I think that is it) or Channel 29 in my neck of the woods before cable. Good Ole James Whitmore was wonderful in this and James aka "the carrot" Arness is also in this-The Thing. Tarantula (Clint Eastwood was in this-hahaha)-ahh the nightmares I had with this giant spider coming across the golf course towards me-must see these films again

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  2. I don't think I've ever seen this one, unless I saw it when I was quite young.

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  3. I watched all of these so-called B-movies back when I was a kid. Saturday and Sunday afternoon movies on TV. The Late Show and all that jazz. But a few years back, I decided to have My Summer of 1950's Sci-Fi Movies, and watched any I could get my hands on. That was a fun Summer, indeed.

    Thanx for stopping by guys. See ya 'round the web.

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