Them! (1954)

Them! (1954)


Atomic testing in New Mexico causes normal ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters. Tracking the queens, a team of scientists discover that the ants are nesting in the sewer system of Los Angeles and with the way they are multiplying in number, could threaten the world within weeks.


One of the earliest of the 50s ‘atomic monster’ movies, Them! was the first one to feature mutated insects as its main threat which would become the genre norm in the years following (with the world having survived the onslaught of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms in 1953 and Godzilla in 1954).Spiders, a giant mantis, locusts and giant antimatter space buzzards would all start to terrorise the world throughout the rest of the decade but it is with Them! that the roots of the genre are sown. The first one is also the best one by a country mile.

Them! is rightfully heralded as a sci-fi classic and it’s easy to see why. Director Gordon Douglas creates a suspenseful film in which its success is based upon how well you stomach the notion of giant mutated ants running amok in the desert. Thankfully the first-rate script does a fantastic job of building everything up nicely throughout the opening half: the appearance of the traumatised girl, a local store found destroyed, giant footprints in the sand, a state trooper goes missing off-screen. It all gives credible evidence to a serious threat and the ants are nowhere to be seen – but at least heard. The ants are given an effectively eerie high pitch shrieking noise which indicates their presence even if they aren’t sighted. And that they won’t be for a good portion of the film. This can get dialogue-heavy at times but that doesn’t detract from the quality on show.

It is the film’s cast of characters that have to keep driving the film forward and with the strong cast, they do just that. James Whitmore and James Arness make for likeable leads with Edmund Gwenn providing the scientific jargon with his elderly scientist. Gwenn steals the show with some seriously downbeat lines but he’s also there to throw in some minor comic relief from time to time. Watching him boss about the two younger men during action sequences is quite funny with the doddery old Gwenn leaving the physical side of the film to his co-stars. Also of note is Joan Wheldon who plays what would be considered the female love interest although the film is less concerned with providing a soppy romantic sub-plot than it is having Wheldon’s character at least attempt to portray some intelligence and self-control.

Finally when the ants do appear, all of the talk, the jargon and the plot hints have been building up nicely so that their impact is immediate. The ants are brought to life through the use of giant mechanical creations and although they may look a little dated nowadays, they still cause quite a stir whenever they’re on screen because at least there’s a physical presence for the actors to interact with, fending off mandibles and claws in desperation. Even then, Douglas tries to mask the failings of the ants, hiding them in the dark for the finale or battering the camera with sandstorms in a bid to cover everything up.

The final climax in the storm sewers of Los Angeles is a barnstorming way to end the film. Using the cramped and dark location to good advantage, the cinematographer creates an ominous setting where it is literally a struggle for survival between the army and the ants. Whilst other films were content to show famous landmarks being destroyed above ground, Them! proves that it could portray such an out-of-sight struggle and still be as effective in delivering an exciting spectacle. This finale in particular seems to be a prototype for any number of modern classics where people go looking for monsters in dark, labyrinthian settings.


Them! is classic 50s sci-fi at its most thought-provoking and entertainingly ludicrous. Why settle for second best with The Giant Mantis or Tarantula?  Watch Them!, the pinnacle of 50s atomic monster movies and a real gem of a long-lost genre of cinema. Giant bug flicks should never be as good as this.





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