Them! (1954)

Pam here. Nate and I decided it was time to do another joint review, and while we were debating on what movie to review, MMT reader Timothy H. happened to E-mail us with a list of movies he’d like to see us review. One of the movies was Them!, and after a brief discussion, Nate and I decided to go with that one, since it’s a classic horror movie I’d never seen. Thanks, Timothy!

The movie cuts to the exciting stuff immediately. It opens with a pilot flying a small airplane over a desert. The plane is marked “New Mexico State Police,” and from the communication between the pilot and two policemen in a car below, we learn the pilot is looking for a little girl someone reported seeing wandering in the desert. He spots her and the policemen pick her up, but something seems wrong with her. For one thing, she’s wearing a bathrobe for her stroll in the desert, but more than that, she stares blankly ahead and doesn’t say a word. There were no signs of buildings when the plane was flying, but the pilot radios the policemen to tell them he saw a trailer and a car about three miles ahead. The policemen load the little girl into their car and set off to check.

Blu-ray rip, by the way.

Man, cellphones back then were lame.

The side of the trailer that’s facing the road looks normal, but the side away from the road is a different story. There’s an enormous hole in it, and the police step inside to find the interior has been completely trashed and there’s a good quantity of dried blood, but no other signs of people. They spot some money in the debris, so it seems that whatever the motivation of the person or persons who broke in, robbery wasn’t on their minds. Actually, “broke in” isn’t the right expression. Whoever got in, ripped a jagged hole in the trailer wall big enough for grown men to walk through, and although so far I like this movie, it seems to me the police ought to be remarking on this a lot more than they are. How often do they come across burglars who can do this?

Love that old station wagon, I bet it has rear-facing seats in the back.

Mysterious damage.

Anyway, they proceed with their investigation. They note there are no footprints or tire marks around the trailer, and they also note there’s a lot of sugar cubes scattered around inside and outside the trailer. One of the policemen does find a strange indentation of some sort outside the trailer. It looks like an animal track, but neither one is familiar with an animal that leaves tracks that look like that. Through all this, the little girl hasn’t said a word, but she finally falls asleep. The police call for a photographer to photograph the crime scene and for an ambulance to take the girl to a hospital. She’s just been put in the ambulance when a shrill noise starts. She sits up but still doesn’t say anything, and nobody can identify the sound. It dies away after a few seconds, the girl lies back down, and everybody dismisses it as the wind. But we readers of MMT know better, don’t we?

Aww, how nice.

”Hey, is that the sound of snarky critics?”

The policemen head to a small general store nearby to see if its owner saw anything suspicious. However, the store is in the same shape as the trailer, with a big hole in one of the walls and everything inside thrown around and broken. There’s a pot of coffee on the stove and a shotgun whose barrel has been bent so much it’s almost broken off. There’s money in the cash register and a lot of sugar scattered around. This time, though, there’s a body: the owner is lying dead under a wooden pallet. The sergeant instructs his subordinate to stay at the store until the crime scene investigators get there. He’s going to go to the hospital to see if the girl has recovered enough to talk, but no sooner does he leave than the strange sound starts again. The policeman draws his gun and goes to investigate, but as soon as he’s off-camera we hear several shots, then a loud scream.

Ritz crackers were around in 1954?

Old shopkeep went out hard.

Back at Headquarters, the police are at a loss. The owner of the car and trailer was an FBI agent on vacation with his wife and two children, but other than that, nobody can figure out what’s going on. Evidently the policeman’s body offers no clue as to what happened to him, or maybe there wasn’t a body, this isn’t clear. The mysterious print in the sand hasn’t been identified, and we’re told even a zoologist who saw it doesn’t know what it is. An autopsy on the store owner reveals his neck and back were broken, his chest was crushed, and his skull was fractured. He also had a lot of formic acid in his body, and nobody understands this at all.

Drinking away the guilt.

”The dailies are in, this scene sucks.”

But help is on the way. Two Dr. Medfords from the Department of Agriculture are coming, I suppose to try to figure out what the print is. I’m not sure exactly why they’re coming, and neither is the police sergeant. Since the sergeant is shaping up to be a major character in this movie, not just a background figure, I’ll tell you his name is Ben Peterson. I really should have known before that he was important, since he’s played by James Whitmore, the most famous actor in this movie. As an aside, James Arness and Fess Parker are also in this movie, in lesser roles.

Ben the cop. He looks like a cop.

Can I get telegrams on my iPhone?

Two Dr. Medfords? Yes, one is an elderly man who seems to be the standard B-movie absent-minded scientist, and the other is his rather attractive daughter Patricia, who seems to be all business and rather stand-offish. They are indeed here in hopes they can identify the print, although I’m not sure why it takes two of them. Dr. Medford, the male Dr. Medford that is, asks where the first atomic bomb was exploded in 1945, and as it turns out, it was in the general area of the trailer and the store. Dr. Medford now has a theory. It seems, though, he’s going to toy with the police and us for a while, and he refuses to tell anybody what his theory is until he’s certain he’s correct. He’s going to start by questioning the little girl. So off he goes to do a little investigating, trailed by his daughter, Ben, and an FBI agent named Robert Graham, who is played by James Arness. This movie was made about a year before Gunsmoke began, and James Arness was still blond in this movie.

Meeting the elder Medford.

And the younger Medford, nice to meet you, ma'am.

So, Nate, what do they find out in the desert?

Ants, Pam, ants!!!! Lots of them! Big ones in a massive underground nest of painted styrofoam and plywood! Mutant ants with gnashing mandibles and hairy Italian arms, evil creatures bent on doing evil ant things on a colossal scale. How big? Eh, 9 to 12 feet long for the adults, bigger for the Queens, luckily there are only three of those at the moment. Hold on there, sport, you say, surely the ant effects are realized by shoddy back-projection techniques, ala Killers from Space? No, actual real physical props! But, Ah, you say, surely the puppets are terrible Frankensteins of PVC pipe and burlap tarps that would make Ed Wood cringe in disappointment? No, well, sorta, but the faces are excellent and the bulbous eyes are top notch for any b-movie. And they seem to be (relatively) full-size and they made at least a half dozen to spec, clearly some money went into making the marquee monsters look scary and real.

Obscured by convientant sand storm.

Looks incredulously at gun when it runs empty, classic!

In this scene the first ant we see jumps out at Patricia, who instantly falls down, clutches her pearls, and screams for a man to help her like a good 1950s girl should. Unlike the radioactive motherfuckers that keep killing me in nearly every damn level of Fallout: New Vegas, however, these post-nuclear (test) ants are highly susceptible to regular small arms fire, as shown by the policeman murdering it to death with a submachinegun. Since a regular-sized ant has a tough carapace, and presumably that would also scale-up in size, I'd expect it to have a bit more of an armor factor. Speaking of things scaling up, they keep showing these footprints as evidence of the ants, but the ants themselves are clearly the size of buffaloes, which makes it laughable that they would produce shallow pancake-sized footprints that are only a quarter-inch deep in soft soil.

Unless it only weighs half a pound.

Windy enough for goggles but his hat stays firm.

While I'm at it, regular-sized ants are pretty fast, right? It's been a while since I've had ants here, but I do recall that Fat Kelby had some difficulty chasing an ant down once, but that might have had more to do with him tripping on his empty tequila bottles than the foot-speed of the ant. But still, you'd think a Ford F-250-sized ant would be pretty fast and agile, right? Or maybe their spindly legs would not be able to support their increased weight sufficiently to allow for smooth, rapid locomotion? Ants also lack the sort of wide foot base that you'd think would be necessary to travel across sandy ground, with their large mass and all, right? Why am I even thinking about this?

Can either of you tell me the answer?

Helpful map (and finger) shows us where the action is.

Anyway, our know-it-all scientists heroes (who are fast approaching Toho-like levels of “Only Scientists in the Entire World”) and some interchangable FBI agents, local cops, and buzzcut Army officers track the ant's path back to the colony deep in the New Mexico desert (two doors down from Walter White's Winnebago...). The nest is, apparently, quite close to where Trinity went boom in 1945, the energetic event that presumably mutated the ants to begin with.

”This script page says we're in a helicopter now.”

Hey, is that an ultra-rare Sikorsky H-5?

The scientists rightly determine that if this colony of super-sized ants gets to breeding like ants do, exponentially increasing the population of hungry beasts with a taste for raw human flesh, then we might be looking at an Extinction Level Event of Biblical proportions. So they cinch up their belts and cock their hats at a manly angle and attack the nest with bazookas, phosphorus grenades, and poison gas. Once the smoke clears, the guys and Patricia go dow...wait, wait, wait, is that girl wearing pants???? Oh my god, where are her 5-inch heels and her starched-collar blouse? Why isn't she offering to make the men coffee or get them a sandwich? I don't care if she's got a PhD, doesn't she know this is 1954!?!

Wait, why is Ben here?

Silly girl.

I'm only half joking, because Them! is oozing with sexism and passive-aggressive mysogany, sadly typical of 1950s b-movies. From all the male characters ogling her, the camera following her legs around, to her introduction where she gets her dress caught on a ladder for the dudes to giggle about, poor (Doctor!) Patricia gets zero respect and a lot of leers. That first scene in the blazing desert where they go traipsing around looking for clues? They put the bug scientist in a tight skirt and heels, because 1954. When the square-jawed FBI guy struggles with her title, she actually says, “If the Doctor part bothers you, why don't you just call me Pat.” Because men can't handle intelligent women, of course. When he sees her in pants he insultingly asks, “What are you all made up for?” and “This is no place for you or any other woman”. Really? Or course, this being 1954, Patricia just rolls with all the sexist comments, she maybe even likes it.

FBI dude just needs someone to change the channel for him.

Whaa? Chicks can't read maps.

Old people don't fare much better in this movie. The Professor is played almost comically as a bumbling, absent-minded old man. He has zero social skills and can't even put on sunglasses or talk into a radio mic without being told how to, because Book Smarts = No Street Smarts in Hollywood. The old guys in the hospital (from later) are also treated like cartoon characters. Luckily for them there are no blacks or Latinos in this entire movie, despite it being set in New Mexico and Southern California, because I can only imagine how cringe-worthy that would be. About the only people group that doesn't get regularly insulted in 1950s b-movies are white guys and little kids. Sorta.

”Here kid, drink this booze.”

Ben can't understand the olds.

Must get back on track, so the guys and the boot-wearing girl scientist (must be a lesbian) go down into the smoldering colony and root around. They find nearly all the ants dead and they mop up the survivors with flamethrowers and automatic weapons fired from the hip. They find one dead Queen, but obvious signs that two other Queens have escaped the slaughter, and since they are flight-capable, who knows where they went off to. Oh, that's not good, if not found and stabbed repeatedly, those Queens could create new colonies of massive radioactive ant critters and then I'd have to RESTART THAT FUCKING NEW VEGAS LEVEL OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN UNTIL I GIVE UP AND CONSOLE-COMMAND IN A CHEAT CODE BECAUSE GAWDDAMN I HATE THOSE MUTANT ANTS! Grrr...

Gas masks but exposed skin? Ok.

Flamethrower vs ant. Ant does not win.

So the race is on, with humankind's tenuous hold on the Most Dominant Species title in the balance. One Queen is quickly caught and killed off the Mexican coast by the Navy, but the other is suspected to have gained entrance to the vast and twisting sewage tunnel system beneath the city of Los Angeles. Because of course Los Angeles. You know there are other cities in America other than New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, right? I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Before they discover the last Queen in LA, they have to do a lot of gumshoe detective work collecting clues and CAP observer reports and talking to homeless winos in prisons. Interesting stuff, but not really suitable for a “monster movie”, this middle act seems like it was written as a classic noire crime story, as the cops chase a mysterious killer who is preying on random strangers. Maybe they should have edited about 20 minutes out of this section, tighten it up a bit, move directly from New Mexico to Los Angeles? Actually, I'd love it if they trimmed the detectivework section down and added the extra running time to the barely-seen battle between the second Queen and the US Navy off the coast. I'd pay real money (not really) to see a swarm of flying ants attack a cruiser at sea, guns blazing and wings buzzing, Go Navy!

Why even bother with spoken dialogue?

Do horny teens at drive-ins even read?

Now the final stage has been set, the Mutant Ant Queen and her brood against the puny humans. Pam, take us to the thrilling end, please!

Glad to, Nate. Things are getting serious. Evidence has led our heroes to conclude the missing Queen ant is indeed in the storm drains below Los Angeles. Not only that, but it appears the Queen or her ant minions have taken two little boys into the storm drains as well. Nobody knows if the boys are dead or alive, but the good guys are going in! The ants killed the boys’ father, and their distraught mother is standing just outside the storm drains – any bets on whether the boys are alive and there’s going to be a touching reunion? Bear in mind this is a B-movie made in 1954, before Americans got so cynical, and bet accordingly. The Army and the Marines have been brought to the entrance to the sewers, but Ben and Robert are going in, too. Don’t ask me why a New Mexico state trooper and an FBI agent are still involved in this, because I don’t know. Also, they’re both now in Army uniforms, and I don’t know why that is, either. Patricia Medford is going in, too, and I’m surprised a woman is allowed to take part, but at least there’s a good reason for her to be there: she’s going to look for evidence to see if another Queen ant has hatched and escaped the area.

Calling all plot holes.

Gathering the troops.

So Ben, Robert, and Patricia, along with a bunch of extras, split up to hunt ants, and we have a few minutes of a not-very-exciting Jeep drive through the storm drains with nothing to be seen but darkness and headlights (the background music becomes dramatic and stirring here, but it doesn’t help). Finally Ben, because he’s played by the most famous actor in the movie, hears a loud knocking sound. Of course Ben, because he’s played by the most famous actor in the movie, goes to investigate, flamethrower strapped to his back. Ben has found the ant nest, and yes, the boys are alive! I guess these ants weren’t hungry, unlike all the others we’ve seen so far who killed their human prey right away. But because of the boys, Ben can’t use his flamethrower. So troops are ordered in through every entrance, and many Jeeps drive rapidly through the drains, accompanied by more loud stirring music. Now we have true suspense. Will the troops, played by nameless extras, rescue the boys instead of Ben, played by the most famous actor in the movie? Will Ben, played by the most famous actor in the movie, have carried around that flamethrower (a weapon which a New Mexico state trooper is surely an expert in using) for nothing? Will the ants kill the boys at the last minute before they can be touchingly reunited with their mother? Will Patricia Medford get a chance to do something heroic and save the men? What about Robert, played by the second-most-famous actor in the movie, will he miss out on all the action?

Hey, you need a smaller helmet.

These last scenes are poorly lit.

Ha. Ha ha ha. Ben gets the boys out of the way, fries a few ants with his flamethrower, lifts the boys into a pipe leading outside seconds before another ant shows up, and is grabbed by the ant but is almost rescued a mere instant before death by Robert, who comes zooming up in a Jeep. Note I said “almost.” Ben does die, but he gets a heroic death scene while gazing intently into Robert’s face. I can’t tell whether he died of injuries caused by the ant, or if Robert was a little careless with his bullets, but I think we’re supposed to assume it was the ant that got him. This, of course, will leave Robert free to make time with Patricia. Robert’s better-looking than Ben, anyway.

Ben gets ant'd.

But goes out a hero.

Many, many shots later, the ants are pretty much all dead. As it happens, the ants chose to inhabit a portion of the drain system that was under construction, which allows for a little extra drama as there are many wooden supports that collapse as the troops fire and advance. After most of the ants have been killed, the male Dr. Medford ventures underground and fussily insists they look for the egg chamber. He accompanies the troops as they proceed deeper into the drains, although he hangs back at the rear. Why isn’t Patricia doing this? I thought her father was too old and frail for this activity? Patricia is even in uniform herself, although her hair is still stylishly coiffed and she’s elected to accessorize her fatigues with a wide, tight leather belt. However, uniform or no uniform, it seems she retreated to the entrance once the firing started. Do they find the egg chamber? Yes, of course, and Patricia appears at the last moment. She and Robert exchange a meaningful look. Dr. Medford looks over the nest and states that no Queens have escaped (Patricia isn’t asked for her opinion) and the troops open up with their flamethrowers. All eggs are successfully destroyed, but lest the audience get too complacent, we’re reminded that other atomic bombs have been exploded in other parts of the world, and who knows what else might be waiting for us out there? Well, actually, any MMT readers already know it’s Godzilla.

Scientists are always short?

Clearing out the tunnels.

You may think I’ve been rather hard on this movie, but it really isn’t that bad. It was made by Warner Brothers, who knew what they were doing even when they were making an unimportant B-movie. If you watch it slowly and pick it apart, there are some problems, but if you sit back and watch it, it moves fast and you tend to miss the smaller flaws, such as why Ben and Robert continue to be the most important characters in the movie even after the action has shifted from New Mexico and the disappearance of the FBI agent and his family. The usual thing in this kind of movie is to have the characters played by the most famous actors take the lead in the action, whether or not their characters would plausibly be doing this in real life. This has happened in better movies than this one.

You don't pay these guys for nothing.

One flaw it’s more difficult to miss is the break in the action a little more than halfway through the movie when the action stops dead to let Dr. Medford give a five-minute-long boring lecture on the habits of ants. Was this just filler, to pad out the running time? Or could it have been done to give Edmund Gwenn, the actor who plays him, a little more screen time? Although I’ve been calling James Arness the second-most-famous actor in this movie, this is true now but wasn’t at the time the movie was made. Edmund Gwenn was a veteran actor who was better known in 1954, most notably for playing Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. He got second billing in this movie, just after James Whitmore, but James Arness got only fourth billing. However, it looks as though Edmund Gwenn wasn’t at his best when he made this movie. He was about 77 and has a genuinely vague look on his face most of the time when he’s on screen. At times it looks as though he was ad-libbing a lot of his lines and actions and the other actors were covering for him. I think the absent-minded part of his characterization was for real. That lecture on ants gave him several minutes of easy screen time, since it allowed him to stand sideways to the camera and do nothing but talk and read his lines off cue cards as necessary, and maybe that’s why the lecture was put in.

I think he drew this himself.

Then there’s the flaw Nate’s already pointed out, the way Patricia Medford was treated. True, in movies of this vintage, the lady scientist was assumed to have become a lady scientist only because she couldn’t catch a husband and is secretly longing to chuck all this career nonsense and get married so she can stay home and make babies. However, she’s treated very disrespectfully, more so than women usually were in movies of this era, and she’s leered at enough so that I was surprised this was allowed in a family movie. She does so little, there doesn’t seem any point in having her in the movie, and she didn’t even end up with one of the male leads. That meaningful look between her and Robert led nowhere. The actress who plays her seems to speak unnecessarily forcefully a lot of the time, maybe because she thought that’s how a woman with a Ph.D. would talk, but maybe because she was trying to show her character was more than an adjunct to her father. Could it be that somebody at Warner Brothers who had a lot of input into this movie felt threatened by women who were better-educated than he?

Where's her mom?

Nate, is there anything you’d like to add?

Well, Pam, I was trying to be snarky all review long, but there's really not much to poke at here, it's a pretty nice movie. A bit dated and more than a bit insulting to modern audiences, but overall an enjoyable film and a telling window on the American public's fears over radiation in 1954, just nine short years since the world's first atomic explosion. The overall theme of this movie is “fear the splitting atom”, which, while I can understand it from a naive early 1950s viewpoint, history has not shown those fears to be valid. Not counting Chernobyl and Fukushima, there have been 1,352 peaceful nuclear explosions as of today, and 5 warshots (Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the three nuclear demolition mines used against the hold-out Nazi Antarctic base in 1947) and in not one single case has there been giant mutant radioactive killer animals as a result. Or so the government wants us to believe.

Fallout's Ant Queen is a real bitch, by the way.

In the interest of fairness, I wanted to offer Senior Research Intern Kelby an opportunity to refute to my earlier testimony about his inability to catch an ant because he's a fat drunk. But at time of press I was unable to contact him for comment because he left work early again to go to the strip club and clearly doesn't have his cell on. Therefore I stand by my comment, the only way Kelbs could catch an ant is if it was trapped between the boobs of his favorite stripper Trixie and even then he'd need help. Truth.

PS: Hat tip to Nameless Slovakian Dude for the Bluray burn, nice up.

The End.

Written in March 2016 by Nathan Decker and Pam Burda.

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