The same year that Toho Co.’s Godzilla stomped all over Japanese cinemas, American drive-ins were attacked by the giant irradiated ants of Them! Released in the summer of 1954, Them! sounds like an absolutely absurd sci-fi chiller that would have been right at home on the pages of an EC Comic book . Who would be scared by a bunch of giant ants mutated by invisible clouds of drifting atomic radiation? It turns out that many drive-in audience members were shaken up by Them!, and many critics and genre aficionados have taken notice of the affection audiences have for this creature feature. Regarded as the first “giant bug” movie, Them! is another product of the Atomic Age—a well-spoken B-movie that shivers and shakes at atomic bombs, mushroom clouds, and drifting radiation that was quietly wrecking havoc on nature. Directed by Gordon Douglas, Them! takes its subject very seriously, and the film slowly gains intensity through a disciplined pace, chilling set pieces that never fail to impress, rock-solid performances from a hugely talented cast, and a slew of beasts that are sure to scare the pants off of first time viewers.
Them! begins in the New Mexico desert, with two police officers, Ben (played by James Whitmore) and Ed (played by Chris Drake), stumbling upon a little girl wandering around in a state of shock. As Ben and Ed try to find the little girl’s home, they discover a wrecked trailer and a destroyed general store. While exploring the general store, Ed is suddenly attacked and killed by a towering unknown assailant. Ed’s death proves even more suspicious after the coroner discovers large amounts of formic acid in his system. With more disappearances being reported and a strange animal print found in the sand, the FBI dispatches agent Robert Graham (played by James Arness), renowned scientist Dr. Harold Medford (played by Edmund Gwenn), and his lovely daughter, Dr. Pat Medford (played by Joan Weldon), to investigate. While the trio explores the windy plains of the desert, they begin hearing eerie high-pitched calls from an unknown location. Their investigation really takes a turn when they come face-to-face with a giant ant that proceeds to attack Pat. The military soon tracks down the ants’ nest and launches an attack to wipe out whatever is inside, but Harold discovers evidence that suggests two queen ants have escaped the attack. Desperate to keep the giant ants a secret and away from heavily populated areas, the military races to track down and destroy what is left of the ants. However, the military’s worst fears are slowly confirmed as reports of ant sightings start popping up around San Francisco.
Like all great creature features, Them! isn’t in any particular hurry to show off its mutated monsters. It starts off slow, allowing the unsettling isolation of the New Mexico desert to set in before Douglas starts exploring the mysterious ruins of a trailer and a general store. As winds howl and the police scratch their scalps in confusion, that high-pitched screeching noise kicks in and pushes the suspense to the brink. About a half-hour in, Douglas sends his team in to get to the bottom of what occurred out in the desert, and it is here that he allows us our first glimpse of one those mutated ants. Of course this first glimpse is only a tease, the beast slowly and silently working it’s way over a hill before emitting its grim song and charging at its lunch. It’s a fantastic sequence that offers a jolt of terror that takes the viewer by storm. While our first glimpse of the ants reveals a severely dated monster, the way that Douglas reveals the creature and the ominous build-up that preceded the encounter maximizes the monster’s impact. If you were left unimpressed by this first encounter, wait until our protagonists find the nest, which offers another startling look at these mutated monstrosities. As helicopters circle above, an ant emerges from a massive hole still gnawing on one victim’s rib cage. After sucking the meat clean, the bones drop into a heaping pile of skulls, tattered clothing, and more. As the ant wanders away from the festering pile of death, Pat gravely observes that they have found all the individuals that have been reported missing over the past weeks. Now THAT is creepy.
After the attack on the nest and the discovery of the escaped queens, Them! reverts back to being a character-driven picture. Douglas allows the terror to trickle in as reports are made of demolished trains, ravaged freighters, and creepy reports of ant-shaped UFOs swooping in and attacking small planes. Along the way, Douglas elevates some of the tension by executing some wonderful moments of comedy, specifically from Gwenn’s Dr. Harold Medford, who can’t seem to figure out how to properly use a helicopter radio. And there is also the drunk-tank sequence, where a belligerent drunk named Jensen bargains that he will share information about the ants if he is made “a sergeant in charge of the booze.” Of course, Douglas is offering us a breather before his final burst of horror and action. The climax gets rolling as authorities issue martial law throughout the streets of San Francisco, warning citizens to take shelter in the comfort of their homes. With the ants nestled deep under the city, and reports of two small boys having suddenly disappeared, the pressure is on to send troops down into the shadows of the city’s storm drains. It is at this show-stopping climax that Douglas really lets his ants do some damage. As flamethrowers roar, machine-guns snarl, and ants screech, Them! lets loose a searing fury of violence that concludes with a warning that mankind has entered a terrifying new world—an unknown world that may crawl with horrors we never could have predicted.
Further adding to the strength of Them! are the spirited performances, specifically from Whitmore, Arness, Gwenn, and Weldon. Arness is a man of authority as Graham, an FBI agent swiftly trying to track down the ants before they invade the streets of San Francisco. Whitmore gets to play action hero as Ben, a flame-thrower packing, machine-gun toting cop who mows the ants down with teeth gritted. Gwenn steals nearly every scene he is in as the bumbling-but-wise Dr. Harold Medford, the levelheaded scientist who fumbles and sighs at helicopter radios and crooked goggles. Weldon finds a pleasant middle ground as Pat, Harold’s brilliant daughter who proves to be a strong-voiced ally in the race to stop the ants. She is naturally thrust into several scenes that require her to be the damsel-in-distress, but when the chips are down, she bravely treks through those threatening storm drains right along with the male protagonists. Overall, a far throw from some of the other chintzy sci-fi guilty pleasures of the era, Them! remains an ingenious and wildly frightening look at man’s radioactive entrance into the Atomic Age. It creeps and crawls with fidgeting paranoia and crackling action, and it’s guided by assured direction and straight-faced performances. Them! fully deserves its place as a Cold War classic.