Friday, 13 April 2012

IT!....Came From the 50s #2: Them! (1954)

Them is a 1954 giant monster science fiction film. Directed by Gordon Douglas (The Little Rascals) starring James Whitmore (The Shawshank Redemption), Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street) and James Arness (The Thing From Another World). The film is considered one of the pioneers of the atomic age monster movie.

The film opens with Sgt Peterson (Whitmore) and his partner investigating some local disturbances in the New Mexico desert including break-ins and murders. There are strange circumstances surrounding the crimes in that nothing is stolen except sugar and the only witness is a mute little girl. The FBI quickly send in agent Robert Graham (Arness) followed by father and daughter team Dr Harold (Gwenn) and Patricia Medford to aid in the investigation. This leads to the discovery that due to the testing of the atomic bomb in New Mexico, a new breed of giant radioactive ants has emerged to take over the world. After a Queen ant escapes from the nest and threatens to populate California with the oversized bugs, emergency meetings are called as the government declare marshal law in an attempt to wipe Them out!

Them! is truly a pioneering film of it's day, following on from the equally groundbreaking Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953),the contemporary Gojira (1954) and of course the revolutionary King Kong (1933). Opting for puppet-based mechanical monster effects, as opposed to rubber suits or stop motion, has caused the film to age really well and the fact that the creatures were hand-built, hand-operated creations is a feat of engineering. The sound effects are equally important, the iconic ringing noise that the ants make creates a kind of tinnitus effect for the viewer and builds up a real sense of dread for the arrival of the monsters (occurring about a third into the movie). As well as the creature noise it's also worth noting that the film employs the now standard Wilhelm Scream, created only three years earlier, in some of it's key action scenes.

The trouble with Them! is it's slow, really slow. The first 30 minutes of the film plays out as a painfully slow murder mystery and for the rest of the runtime action sequences involving the ants are kept to a frustrating minimum. This may well be due to the constraints of the technology and the budget however it's telling that the 94 minute running time feels like an awful lot longer, and at times the film can be quite boring. The acting however, is solid enough to fill these lulls in action with great performances from both Whitmore and Arness as the investigatory double act. My favourite performance though, is from Edmund Gwenn as the allegorical entomologist, every 50s sci-fi movie has these characters to preach against the perils of nuclear power, scientific experimentation etc but the difference is Dr Medford is really likeable. This produces a rather schizophrenic character that is both doomsayer and comic relief, as his bewildered exchanges with the younger characters genuinely bring a smile to the viewer.

Them isn't the best 50s science fiction film, or the best giant monster film but it did legitimately break new ground and paved the way for hundreds of monster movies such as Jaws (1975) as well as giant insect movies such as Starship Troopers (1997). If you can patiently sit through a bit of tedious sleuthing you'll be rewarded with some vintage 50s sci-fi action and the film rightfully takes it's place as one of the classics of that golden era.

4 Stars ****

What did you think of Them? Do you like "giant bug" movies?

1 comment:

  1. "Them!" kicked off the Big Bug sub-genre, so it was bound to be a little rough compared to later versions. I think the newness of the Big Bug monster probably kept 1954 audiences from being bored or expecting more of screen-time. Actually, the brevity of their scenes helps. Later Big Bugs would fail (somewhat) in giving their Big Bugs too much screen time. More opportunities to look fake.

    And, I think 1954 audiences were probably more in tune with the atomic-dangers sub-text to notice the (admittedly) slower pacing.