Them! (Warner Brothers 1954)
When it came to the run of 1950s science-fiction creature-features, it is hard to find one that has stood up quite as well as Them!, a desert tale of atomically enlarged ants, released by Warner Brothers on the 19th of June, 1954.
Tautly directed by Gordon Douglas, from a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes, Them! manages to pack quite a punch when compared to many of its 1950s sci-fi stablemates.
The young Ellinson girl (Sandy Descher) is found wandering the desert in a state of shock in Them! (Warner Brothers 1954)
A well paced and suspenseful thriller, the film only reveals its villainous ants around a third of the way in; up until then they are only heard. Originally intended to be shot in Warner Color and 3-D, this first of the ‘big bug’ epics was plagued by dodgy camera gear, and so it was eventually filmed in black and white, and even the desired widescreen format had to be abandoned due to the preparatory work for that troublesome third dimension. In final prints, the only colour used was a vivid red and blue for the opening titles.
The ants themselves were specially constructed puppets, and operated by offscreen technicians under the supervision of Ralph Ayers. In original prints, an ant was seen minus its side panel, blatantly showing off its mechanical guts; this has been ‘corrected’ in subsequent VHS and DVD releases.
The giant ants are found nesting in the storm drains of Los Angeles in Them! (Warner Brothers 1954)
What makes Them! so satisfying is its sheer style which, even by today’s standards shows it to be a well-thought-out, high budget epic. Sid Hickox’s cinematography, combined with slick, powerhouse editing by Thomas Reilly and crafted art direction by Stanley Fleischer all come to life beautifully on G W Berntsen’s lavish sets, and yet never once does style outdo substance. By turns atmospheric and broody while remaining fast-paced and deliberate, the overall concept is realised perfectly, with some beautiful performances from James Whitmore, Joan Weldon, James Arness and Onslow Stevens, but the star turn surely has to be the delightful London born Edmund Gwenn, who even manages to deliver apocalyptic lines like: “Nobody knows, Robert. When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.” From a lesser artist, these would just be cheesy.
Them! earned $2 million USD at the box office in the US and Canada alone in its first year, and was described by Variety as a “top-notch science fiction shocker [with 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.”