Sometimes you forget what’s lying in your DVD collection, but it’s funny how they manage to pop back out when you’re lying in your sick bed fighting a chest infection.
And this is exactly what happened with this movie. I remember buying it for a fiver because I remembered it vividly from one of those double bills they used to have on BBC2. Them is very much a movie of its time, yet echoes themes that threaten our world today. And I love nothing more than a giant insect and in many regards this movie is years before its time.
Made in 1954, this was one of the few movies in its genre nominated for an Academy award for its special effects. And fair play to director Gordon Douglas, it really has stood the test of time. Starring James Arness who – would play the titular Thing in the Thing from Another World – we learn that with the detonation of the atomic bomb, ants are mutated by the ensuing radiation into giant fearsome creatures that begin attacking the human populace before.
Douglas has set out to make this different to other movies in a similar vein with gruesome imagery and a slow steady build of tension before the ants are finally revealed.
We open with a little girl walking through a desert carrying a doll with a smashed skull. Local cops rescue her but she is traumatised and unable to speak. Finding her trailer they find it smashed to pieces. They find the other part of the skull nicely mirroring what has happened to her parents. And from out across the arid wastes a strange high pitched chirping is heard. Later, a store is ripped apart (and all the sugar stolen) as is the store owner and one of the hapless cops; victims to whatever is making the strange sound. And the horror continues when the little girl breaks down and screams “Them! Them!”.
The desert is a perfect setting and completely adds to the atmosphere Douglas had built up with the chirping that haunts the empty horizon. Calling in the experts, a stereotypical old English professor who is an expert in everything and his daughter Pat, the mystery deepens as they investigate the murder sight. Not once do we see the ants up to this point, only a plaster cast of their footprints which cannot be identified. However, Pat and her dad have an idea what is happening. While they’re in the desert a sand storm whips up and Pat ventures off on her own to look for more tracks. And that’s when the ants are revealed for the first time.
For a 1954 movie the design of the ants are very impressive, huge mechanical props that can lift a man between its mandibles and, as we learned off screen, rips them apart.
It was the impact of the ant’s design that really makes this movie stand out from all the rest. Add in their chirping while they march across the sand and they are a really powerful image and everything thus far has really set the viewer up to be scared.
This is where Douglas excels by telling the horror through characters rather than showing it and the reveal of the creatures is a stand out moment for the audience. Even down to the professor and Pat’s knowing looks and hushed exchanges when in the presence of the government men, it is telling that this threat may be beyond anything anyone could possibly imagine.
And this is where the movie is ahead of its time. Pat is no more a shrinking violet than I am and she holds her own with the men of the FBI and law enforcement. She is the one that finds the huge ant nest and leads the way down because she knows more about these monsters than anyone else. She does have the obligatory love interest with James Arness’ character, but it only adds to her character rather than detract from it. Though they all smoke for Ireland which firmly places it in its own time when cigs were good for you; they apparently give you fresh lungs. Oh how times have changed.
The movie then takes a wonderful turn as several months pass after the Queen ant escaped and now they must find it before more nests spring up. Flame throwers and machine guns are the only thing that can stop them, so the additional horror is the fear of the ants swarming through a defenceless neighbourhood. Tracking them is done via UFO reports and sugar theft. In one telling scene, an innocent man has seen UFOs in the shape of ants and the government keep him institutionalised to keep the invasion a secret.
But their fears come true when a father is found mutilated and his two young sons are missing. This leads to a battle in the storm drains where they manage to find two new Queens in a visual which I never forgot. And again the ants smash through concrete walls in a gasp out loud moment that made the audience wonder how they did that and in a scene that terrified me, would smash through solid wood beams to attack the two kids trapped in the drain. The ants are relentless and you do wonder how they managed to get the props to behave so life like.
You believed they would rip you apart and that is down to the serious acting and superb direction. Douglas was a man that knew his stuff and set out to make something new and exciting rather than a rubber monster movie. He also echoed the fear that these new deadly bombs would destroy our world in ways we would never expect and if the ants really did take over, we had no one but ourselves to blame. This echoes today with all the environmental issues that face us every day which lifts this movie above all the crap of the day.
If you want to see a B movie that signifies the best of the genre and can alongside the likes of It Came from Outer Space and The Thing then this is the one for you.