Our review of TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Sci-Fi Adventures, published February 2nd, 2010, is also available.
A horror horde of crawl-and-crush giants clawing put of the earth from mile-deep catacombs!
I just love a movie about big bugs. Big drooling bugs. Big drooling bugs that kill, kill, KILL! Recently I watched the CGI heavy Eight Legged Freaks, a flick about big drooling mutant spiders that invade an Arizona town. I liked that movie. I also liked Mimic and Starship Troopers.
Have I mentioned that I like movies about big old slobbering bugs?
Of course, the idea of gargantuan insects had to start somewhere, and for most folks the introduction came in the 1950s with those great "atomic age" movies. You know the ones I'm talking about. They all end with people standing around saying things like "we meddled in God's pastures and now we've got to pay." In the 1954 sci-fi classic Them!, God's pastures are overrun by giant, man-eating ants. How lovely. Warner Brothers brings the evil that is Them! to your DVD player!
Facts of the Case
It begins with a little girl wandering through the desert alone and scared. Where did she come from? What had happened to her? And why is she so terrified whenever she hears the word…THEM?!? James Whitmore (The Shawshank Redemption) plays Ben Petersen, a loyal cop who attempts to find out just what's going on in the dry lands of New Mexico. A general store is ransacked…a family trailer torn apart…and a body found with enough formic acid to kill over 20 men! As the evidence starts mounting, it soon becomes clear that these are no ordinary crimes! The perpetrators aren't man but beast—mutant ants spanning over nine feet in length with appetites as big as a house! It seems that some atomic testing in the desert has made these usually tiny insects the size of giants and seemingly nothing can stop them! With the help of elderly scientist Dr. Medford (Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street) and his perky daughter Pat (Joan Weldon), Ben, the local authorities, and the US government must figure out a way to annihilate Them!…before it's too late!!!
As I've grown older, I've discovered a newfound respect for older movies (or "classics," if you prefer, though they certainly aren't all that). More specifically, I've really gotten into sci-fi and horror movies of yesteryear. What Halloween holiday would be complete without such classics like the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, or Ed Wood's classically bad Plan 9 From Outer Space? In the tradition of these great movies comes the atomic age warning Them! Them! is considered to be one of the best of its time, a movie that features really big bugs doing really bad things to the really brainless local citizens. Not surprisingly, the citizens live in a small town…in a desert…in the middle of nowhere. Everyone say it with me: "They're screwed!"
The effects in Them! are to be savored—here is a movie that was nominated for an Oscar for its effects, and yet they're all painstakingly fake and cheesy. While this may be a hindrance on most movies, with Them! it's a fitting tribute to a time and decade long since past. Sure, the ants look like giant radio controlled beasties covered in carpet. Whenever they show up on screen, it's painfully (and laughably) obvious that there's sixteen guys working behind them with remote controls. Even their antennae flop around as if fitted by sixteen pipe cleaners and some super glue. Needless to say, I loved every minute of it.
The performances are all typical of the 1950s acting style—wooden and dead-pan serious. It's interesting to compare the acting of Them! to something like Eight Legged Freaks (a movie I just watched a few weeks ago). Fifty years ago, filmmakers sought to make the radioactive mutant movie a serious, highly stoic moviegoing experience. While there are sprinklings of humor, overall it's a fairly straightforward film. On the other hand, Eight Legged Freaks revels in its sense of the absurd (mutant spiders) by letting its cast, led by David "I'm a Goon" Arquette, act like complete and utter whack jobs. A very young James Whitmore (the only other film I saw him in was 1994's The Shawshank Redemption) is given the thankless task of scratching his head under his police cap while mumbling lines like, "them dang ants is everywhere!…"or something of that nature. My favorite character was Dr. Melford, the bumbling, blustering scientist who refuses to say what's going on, all the while hinting that it's something "big" (his coyness is matched only by his sense of foreboding doom).
The movie includes a lot of nice touches. There's a fun scene where some of the heroes find the ant's eggs in a large underground nest and burn them to the ground with flamethrowers. Hmm…I wonder if James Cameron's Aliens was influenced by this scene at all? Whenever the characters scream in fear, they never move quickly—apparently if you were attacked by mutant bugs back in 1954, your only course of action was to put your hands over your face (palms forward, or course) and scream like a Catholic school girl. Dear Lord, I loved this movie.
I highly recommend Them! to anyone who ever tried to burn an ant in the sun under a scalding hot magnifying glass.
Their time has come.
Them! is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Warner has done a very nice job of cleaning up this print, making sure that all the black, white, and gray levels are richly textured and saturated. Of course, since this film was produced nearly 50 years ago, it's not surprising to find a few instances of grain, dirt, of other imperfections in the image. However, on the whole the defects are minimal, making this a very attractive picture that should please fans.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono in English and is very apt for the film it supports. Directional effects and surround sounds are absent, though this never poses a problem for the film. The flat mono track actually enhances the viewing and lets us relive the glory that was the 1950s! Most of the dialogue, effects, and music are free and clear of any distortion save for a few rare instances of static. Overall this is a solid 1.0 soundtrack. Also included on this disc are subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese (haven't the Asians taken enough of a beating by Godzilla?!?).
The extra features on Them! have generally been kept to the bare minimum, save for some "behind-the-scenes" footage that must have been laying dormant for decades in the Warner Brothers' archival film vault. Most of the footage included here are just snippets of the ants coming out of the ground, then going back in. While it's nice to get a very brief look at some of the effects from the film, overall this wasn't the most interesting of supplements.
Also included on this disc is a useless cast and crew list, a short text history of mutant insects in cinema titled "Bugged at the Movies," a photo gallery with some images from the film and production, and an amusing full frame theatrical trailer for the film.
Them! is a great little trip back to the 1950s drive-in era. I wish that drive-ins still played movies like this at midnight weekend showings. Alas, Them! is now a cherished piece of nostalgia that will thrill fans of "atomic age" movies. Warner's work on this disc is great, though I would have preferred a few extra supplements (Whitmore is still alive, so why not a taped retrospective documentary or commentary track?)
What kind of reviewer would I be if I didn't completely acquit Them! on all charges? Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Behind-the-Scenes Footage
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