31 for 31: 'Them!'

For the whole month of October, our own Kevin Stairiker will be watching a horror movie a day and cataloging his findings in a new feature called “31 for 31.”

 

Among the relative dearth of good horror films from the ’50s, “Them!” could be seen as a triumph. Movies of the decade that didn’t star either A. Vincent Price or B. a Universal horror icon (your Wolfman, Dracula, etc.) have aged worse than movies that came out a decade or two prior. “Them!” is considered the first of a short-lived horror sub-genre known aptly as “big bug” features, and it lives up to that name in hilarious fashion.

First off, you’d think with a movie called “Them!” that the main villainous creatures would be mysterious right? Nope. Before we’re even a quarter of the way through the 90-minute run time, the audience is told plaintively that these are just some big-ass radioactive ants. Stoking the real-life fears of the Cold War and nuclear radiation, it’s revealed that these ants just happened to be in the New Mexico blast zone of the first atomic bomb testings.

Now, for the ants themselves…where to begin? It wouldn’t be fair to just make fun of archaic, 60-year-old monster design. The ants are surprisingly serviceable since they really don’t have to do much on screen to stand out. In most scenes, you can see an ant peeking out of wherever it’s hiding seconds before the dramatic music even starts. It’s important also to remember that “Them!” was nominated for an Oscar in 1954. For special effects! It lost to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

The movie starts to fall under the weight of the large, radioactive ants as soon as they disappear from the screen. “Them!” attempts to mix the other-worldly Cold War fiction of giant ants while also trying to show a somewhat realistic reaction to said ants, and that’s where the movie is at its most boring. You don’t need to see the old men of the FBI yelling at each other around a “Dr. Strangelove”-esque table debating the proper way to eradicate the ants. Even after it’s all but confirmed that there are in fact giant ants, the government checks with one last source near the end of the movie, in the form of a senile old man in a hospital drunk tank. Really? That’s the guy that cinched this thing for you?

The government eventually corrals the ants with a truly hilarious amount of gunfire. Bazookas, flame throwers and various automatic weaponry. If the film is a long joke, the punchline is saved until the very end. One of the main characters, Dr. Harold Medford, gets the last line of the film as he looks out at the carnage:

“When man entered the Atomic Age, he opened to a door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.”

The film then cuts to the terrifyingly quaint image of a (large) handful of radioactive ants burning alive, nonchalantly bringing the movie to a close. It is a genuine “laugh out loud” moment, but it follows a movie that genuinely tries not to treat its audience like dumb-dumbs. You know, even for a movie about giant radioactive ants.

them-giant-atomic-ants

By the numbers:

Total deaths: 8
Bazookas fired at the ants: 11
Times a reporter actually reminds the American people that they’re familiar with the concept of ants: 1
Big ol’ spiders: 4
Wilhelm Screams: 3

Total movie death count: 161
Watched via: DVD
Worth the watch? Yes
Arbitrary rating: 3/5 declarations of Martial Law in Los Angeles

31 for 31 viewing list

  1. Jeepers Creepers (2001)
  2. Cube (1997)
  3. White Zombie (1932)
  4. Demons (Dèmoni) (1985)
  5. Phantasm II (1988)
  6. Kuroneko (1968)
  7. Creepshow (1982) / Creepshow 2 (1987)
  8. 30 Days of Night (2007)
  9. Last Man on Earth (1964)
  10. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
  11. Cat People (1942)
  12. The Brood (1979)
  13. The Fog (1980)
  14. Them! (1954)
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Kevin Stairiker is a features writer for Fly. He is a graduate of Temple University and enjoys writing in third person. When he isn't writing, he's probably playing guitar for a litany of bands, reading comics or providing well-needed muscle at The Double Deuce.

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