‘A horror horde of crawl-and-crush giants clawing out of the earth from mile-deep catacombs!’
Them! is a 1954 American science fiction horror film directed by Gordon Douglas (Zombies on Broadway; Spooky Hooky) based on an original story treatment by George Worthing Yates. It was developed into a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes for Warner Bros. Pictures and was produced by David Weisbart. The movie stars James Whitmore (The Relic), Edmund Gwenn (The Walking Dead), Joan Weldon and James Arness (The Thing from Another World).
One of the first of the “nuclear monster” movies, and the first “big bug” film, it starts off as a simple suspense story, with police investigating mysterious disappearances and unexplainable deaths. The giant ants are not even seen until almost a third of the way into the film.
Incredibly influential, Them! is a tangible demonstration of the fears and paranoia experienced by many in the Western World who felt invasion by the mysterious Russians was due at any time.
Warner Bros were extremely nervous about the production and at the last minute decided not only to abandon the 3D aspect of the film but even the colour and widescreen; the only remnants of these remaining are the red and blue titles and scenes of the ants attacking the camera, clearly originally intended to scare the cinema audience witless as they loomed through the screen. The studio’s concerns were utterly unfounded and it became their biggest grossing film of 1954.
Initial scenes were filmed in Palmdale on the westernmost point of the Mojave desert and there is a feeling of an alien world and impending dread, aided admirably by brilliant soundscaping; the aural advance of the menacing ants is as alarming at their eventual appearance. The eerie, piercing screech was actually the sound of bird-song tree frogs, the tone, unfamiliarity and difficulty in being able to discern from which direction the sound is emanating all helped to disarm the audience. Later scenes filmed in the storm drains of Los Angeles were equalled effective.
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The pacing of Them! goes in its favour; it begins as a standard police mystery, the cast fitting exactly the blueprint expected. The appearance of the monstrous giant ants a third of the way through must have shaken audiences at the time considerably. The mechanically constructed ants were operated off-camera by a crew and were not black but actually a purplish-green colour.
James Whitmore in particular deals well with a surprisingly wordy script and continued to appear in roles of a similar nature, on TV in the likes of The Twilight Zone and The Invaders and film, Planet of the Apes. The humans ultimately protect themselves, rather uniquely, with flame-throwers.
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Contemporary reviews were positive. The New York Times review noted ” . . . from the moment James Whitmore, playing a New Mexico state trooper, discovers a six-year-old moppet wandering around the desert in a state of shock, to the time when the cause of that mental trauma is traced and destroyed, Them! is taut science-fiction.”
“Brog” in Variety opined it was a “top-notch science fiction shocker. It has a well-plotted story, expertly directed and acted in a matter-of-fact style to rate a chiller payoff and thoroughly satisfy the fans of hackle-raising melodrama.”
The British Film Institute’s Monthly Film Bulletin said: “Them! is a “well-built example of the neo-monstrous” adding “less absurdly sensational than most.”
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Since its original release, Them! has become generally regarded as one of the very best science-fiction/horror films of the 1950s. Bill Warren described the film as “… tight, fast-paced and credible…[T]he picture is suspenseful.”
Phil Hardy’s The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction noted, “Directed by [Gordon] Douglas in semi-documentary fashion, Them! is one of the best American science-fiction films of the fifties.” Danny Peary believed the film “Ranks with The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as the best of the countless fifties science fiction films.”
Them! utilised what has become known as the ‘Wilhelm Scream’, a stock sound effect heard in dozens of features from Disney cartoons, to Star Wars to computer games. The influence of the film can be felt, not only in the ensuing avalanche of atomically infected creatures but also in the world of popular music (Van Morrison’s band Them and The Misfits song of the same title), computer games, cartoons and the 2018 Marvel film Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA (with additions by Adrian J Smith)
“The cast, script and action sequences all forge a momentum that makes this one of the better matinee monster flicks of the ’50s. For Them, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.” The Terror Trap
“The giant ants do look a bit phony, but they are never on screen long enough to become bothersome. In fact, the image of dozens of giant ants in their underground nest is unforgettable […] The film is produced and performed with such seriousness that one becomes engrossed in the logistics of dealing with such creatures and forgets about plausibility.” TV Guide
“Them! builds to a rousing conclusion… at about the 45-minute mark. Then some queen ants fly away from their nest and the movie has to start all over again […] But despite some draggy sequences late in the game, Them! remains required viewing for fans of 50’s horror and sci-fi.” The Video Vacuum
“Throughout, the focus is more on the characters’ reactions to the situation than on the critters themselves. That’s fine because these are not particularly convincing and the real point is the audiences’ fears of the then-new “atomic age.” Videohound’s Complete Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics
Doctor Harold Medford: “No. We haven’t seen the end of Them. We’ve only seen a close view of what may be the beginning of the end of us.” (In 1957 Bert I. Gordon filmed a giant locust movie called Beginning of the End).
Doctor Harold Medford: “When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict”
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Credited cast and characters:
James Whitmore … Police Sergeant Ben Peterson
Edmund Gwenn … Doctor Harold Medford
Joan Weldon … Doctor Patricia Medford
James Arness … Robert Graham
Onslow Stevens … Brigadier General Robert O’Brien
Sean McClory … Major Kibbee
Chris Drake … Trooper Ed Blackburn
Sandy Descher … The Ellinson Girl
Mary Alan Hokanson … Mrs Lodge (as Mary Ann Hokanson)
Don Shelton … Trooper Capt. Fred Edwards
Fess Parker … Alan Crotty
Olin Howland … Jensen (as Olin Howlin)
Black and white
Aspect ratio: 1.75: 1
Audio: Mono (RCA Sound System)
Leonard Nimoy had an early uncredited role as an army sergeant in the information centre (his other 50s horror movie role was in The Brain Eaters, four years later).
Dick York had an early uncredited role as a teen in the police station. York was later famous as Darrin Stephens in the TV sitcom Bewitched.
The sounds the giant ants emit in the film were the calls of Bird-voiced tree frogs mixed in with the calls of a wood thrush, hooded warbler, and red-bellied woodpecker. It was recorded at Indian Island, Georgia, on April 11, 1947, by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Both the film itself and promotional posters show gigantic ants with menacing human-like eyes rather than the compound eyes of an ant.