Welcome back to the UNSEEN HORROR. Things may look a little different, as we move out of the cemetery and into the realms of science fiction. Don’t worry, there’ll still be  scares. Sci-fi produced plenty of terror over the years. Films like ALIEN remain staples of both genres. Today, we take a look at one of the earliest efforts of sci-fi terror. This is a tale of the atom, and a tale of man facing a new and unexpected foe. This is THEM!

The Plot

A vacationing family is attacked in a New Mexico town; only the youngest daughter survives. The police find rampant signs of destruction at the scene, and strangely, sugar. Another man is brutally killed, and his body is covered with formic acid. The acid, along with other bits of evidence, suggest insects, but no one knows exactly why. However, the police soon encounter a giant ant, mutated by atomic testing. An entire giant colony exists in the desert. The police and government agents are able to destroy it, but not before finding that two queen ants have hatched and left to form other colonies. Los Angeles undergoes martial law as everyone tries to find the queens before it’s too late.

The Real Horror of THEM!

THEM! was not the first atomic monster movie, but it was the first giant bug movie. The film’s success spawned a host of imitators like TARANTULA and THE GIANT MANTIS. However, those films were nowhere near as meaningful as THEM! turned out. The film was made in the 1950’s, when atomic energy was a new and untapped science. The world had seen the devastation of the atomic bomb, and there was considerable fear about what this new form of energy was capable of.

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Hollywood began to exploit those fears, creating a number of films based on atomic monsters. THEM! therefore works as not only sci-fi, but a parable about mankind’s fear of the atom. The idea of giant ants attacking humanity certainly has silly aspects, but that was the point of these kinds of films. THEM! takes those fears and reflects them back through entertainment. They used the atomic bomb to create monsters, but did so for entertainment. That gave these kind of films a strange kind of feeling for people of the time. They went to the films to be entertained. Yet as fun as the giant ants were, there was always the underlying fear of “could this really happen? Or could it be something worse?”

Lizards and Ants

THEM! gets all those fears down pat, while still providing plenty of excitement. The build up to the ant colonies in the small town are dramatic and well-paced. However, the film hits its stride when it moves to L.A. The martial law and panic in the streets echoes the original GODZILLA (or GOJIRA), as people panic and run from the monsters of the atom. Indeed, the two movies feel akin to each other. Both have strong characters, a sense of build, and commentary on the dangers of the atom. THEM! tends to be more optimistic and fun then the somber GOJIRA, but that does not dispell it’s meaning either. And that’s not bad for a movie about giant ants.

The Who and Whats of THEM!

As compelling as the ideas of THEM! are, the film still needed strong actors and performances to succeed. Luckily, both were in abundance here. James Whitimore gives a strong performance as the small town sheriff. Whitimore plays the role straight at first, coming off like many other sci-fi leading men. However, he gets a chance to shine when he rescues two boys from the ants. Whitimore is killed (a rarity for these types of films), but keeps all his focus on saving the kids. It gives him a dignified, heroic death that enhances his character. James Arness gives another strong performance as an FBI agent. In fact, this role helped him land his signature role on GUNSMOKE as Marshall Matt Dillon. Throw in Edmund Gwenn as a scientist, and the film has a solid base of character actors.

However, the ants are the true stars, and luckily they come off quite well. The huge creatures were made well before CGI, and are legitimate, eight foot long creatures. There is plenty of detail in their design and while they don’t do a lot of ‘walking’ they move enough to complete the image.

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Even the limited movements are impressive to see, especially given the resources of the 50’s. The ants come off as real threats, and the desert landscapes helps to build them up as real, natural creatures. Even when they move to L.A., the ants feel like actual insects, and that makes the film work perfectly.

THEM!’s Legacy

THEM! probably wouldn’t be too frightening to modern audiences. However, it’s messages about the dangers of science, solid performances, and great effects are still sure to entertain. There’s a reason this film is held so highly in sci-fi circles– though the execution may be dated, the message and entertainment value still hold up. THEM! may be a reflection of it’s time, but it’s a great story as well.

And for a deeper reflection, come back for the last UNSEEN HORROR of the year, where we look at a movie that examines the connection between reality and horror…

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