After watching BIG ASS SPIDER! a
while back, I was in the mood for another giant bug movie, so when Svengoolie
showed one of the granddaddies of the genre, THEM!, I recorded it and we got
around to watching it this week. I’d seen this before, but the last time was
more than 50 years ago, so I think it counts as overlooked.
All the staples of Fifties sci-fi horror are there: the guy who first encounters the menace and gets drawn into the effort to defeat it (a New Mexico highway patrolman played by James Whitmore); the stalwart forces of the government (FBI agent James Arness) and military (officers Onslow Stevens and Sean McClory); a brilliant but eccentric scientist (Edmund Gwenn) and his beautiful daughter (Joan Weldon), who is also a brilliant scientist. After a truly creepy opening featuring Whitmore and his partner finding a little girl wandering through the desert in a catatonic state, more grim discoveries are made as it becomes apparent that something is killing the inhabitants of this sparsely populated area. The giant ants (mutated by nuclear tests at White Sands, natch) soon show up and go on a rampage, and our heroes gather to do battle against them, a war that ultimately winds up in the sewers underneath Los Angeles.
But all of you know that because you’ve seen this movie, too. But maybe a few of you haven’t. When we watched it, Livia commented that she didn’t remember ever seeing it before. I remembered the basics of the plot, but that’s all.
What I didn’t recall is what a really well-made movie THEM! is. Director Gordon Douglas, who made some pretty good Westerns, too, keeps things moving along very nicely, the photography is excellent, and the special effects are pretty good for the era. But the cast really carries this movie. James Whitmore isn’t who you think of when you talk about action heroes, but he does a fine job as an average joe caught up in something big and terrible. Edmund Gwenn is good in anything (although, yes, it is hard not to think about MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET when he’s talking). James Arness wasn’t a great actor at this point of his career, but he already has a really commanding screen presence. And there are a few moments, when his character loses his temper, that pure Matt Dillon comes through. Fess Parker, Davy and Dan’l his own self, is great in a short scene as a Texas rancher who encounters the giant ants and is locked away in the loony bin when he tells his story. (Yes, I know “loony bin” is politically incorrect, but it wasn’t in 1954.) Elsewhere in the cast are Leonard Nimoy (don’t blink, or you will miss him), Western stalwart Dub “Cannonball” Taylor, and former major league infielder John Beradino, a fine character actor who appeared in countless Western and detective TV series in the Fifties before settling down to a long run as Dr. Steve Hardy on the soap opera GENERAL HOSPITAL. He was actually the leading man/protagonist of GH in its early years.
We also get the usual Fifties sci-fi lectures and veiled warnings about the unknown dangers of nuclear weapons, all of them delivered by Gwenn in distinguished but ominous tones. So THEM! checks the right boxes and pushes the right buttons for its genre, but it does that so well that I found it a pure pleasure to watch. I really enjoyed it, and if you haven’t seen it lately, or at all, I think it’s well worth the time.
Besides, in what other movie will you ever see Matt Dillon shake hands with Santa Claus?