21 April 2010

Fin's Review: Them

I realised when starting to write this review that the tragic events in Japan make Dr Harold Medford's closing melancholic remarks in Them very relevant when he says, "When man entered the atomic age he opened a door into a new world. What he will find in that new world nobody can predict". In many ways the fear of nuclear power that is the overarching theme of this film is (as demonstrated with the crisis in Japan) still with us and continues to be relevant some five decades later.

Although I'm slightly embarrassed to admit it, I'm one of those people that when a film made before 1970 comes on TV I almost instantly turn it off. I don't know if it is a result of being raised watching Star Wars, Jurassic Park, ET and a host of other special-effects-driven films, but I find most pre-70s films bland, boring, and overlong. The exception to this, however, are 50s and early 60s B movies and creature features. It doesn't matter if it is The Day The Earth Stood Still, Earth Versus the Flying Saucers or It Came From Outer Space - I can't get enough. The ultimate example of this sub-genre is the 1954 film, Them. This film opened to acclaim, it was Warner Brothers' highest-grossing picture of the year and has come to be recognised as one of the most influential and best of the 1950's B movies.

Them focuses on the discovery of a hive of giant radioactive ants in the New Mexico desert caused by America's early nuclear weapons tests. There are two main reasons that it is worth your time to check out this film. The first is its importance to the development of the horror genre. The second and most important reason is that it is simply a fun way to spend a couple of hours. Massed ranks of troops moving through LA's storm drains, fast cracking CIA operatives, Biblical prophecy mixed with apocalyptic science - what more do you need?

The film opens with the now iconic and still creepy scene of a lone traumatised little girl walking aimlessly in her pajamas down a lonely, dusty New Mexico trail. It is from this little girl that the film derives its title: when the great entomologist Dr Harold Medfordholds a vial of formic acid deposited by the as yet unknown creatures under the mute girls nose, something that would now definitely be frowned upon, she begins to manically scream, "Them! Them! Them!".

From this point on the film continues on at breakneck pace to its explosive finale. One of the funniest parts of watching this film is the 50s culture aspect, which now seems so dated. For example, after more mysterious disappearances, the FBI send in an agent to help with the investigation, a character who turns out to be the chiseled jaw hero of the piece. Agent Robert Graham is a blue-eyed all-American hero, a representation of an FBI agent that would be impossible in our more cynical post 1960s world. A big play is also made of the introduction of Dr Medford's daughter, who - shock horror - also happens to be an entomologist and a doctor no less. A number of shocked looks are passed between the male characters when this is revealed followed by Agent Graham's enlightened line, "If she's a doctor, I've got a fever". Then when the Ants are finally discovered, the amazing plan devised by the main characters is to carpet-bomb the entire New Mexico dessert with chemical weapons, a decision the characters come to after about a full 5 minutes of deliberation. Despite these unintentional comedy moments the film still stands up and indeed has a number of lessons to teach modern directors.

Although now 57 years old, Them still has a number of impressive and eery scenes and this is largely due to the way director Gordon Douglas shoots the film in an almost documentary style. Gordon rejects any of the self parody that would become associated with the B movie sub genre in later years and plays the film completely straight. The early investigative scenes are particularly creepy - Gordon uses a mixture of sounds and imagery to create genuinely spooky scenes. A notable example is when our heroes are investigating a remote general store during a dust storm. The store is found ransacked, the owner violently killed, and out of the murk there is a constant high-pitched squeal - genuinely creepy.

The first reveal of the ants is also fantastic. This film was released at the tail end of an era beginning in the 1930s when moviegoing audiences embraced horror cinema in way that has never been seen since. As a result of this, Warner Brothers spent a significant amount of money on the film and the spectacular special effects are the result. It is easy to laugh at the giant ants from the point of view of a hyper-stimulated, visually numb modern audience, but they are, by the standards of the time, cutting edge. When we first see one of these creatures looming over the head of Dr Patricia Medford it is truly impressive. I would argue, as I have many times in the past, that despite the obvious limitations of 50s special effects the fact that these ants are physically real, and have been created with skill and creative talent, makes them something you can invest in and believe in, in a way that Avatar-style CGI cannot touch. Rather than alienating, these special effects draw you into the adventure and romance of the story.

For me this film achieves a peak that B movies would never be able to touch again and, alongside Quartermass And the Pit, is the high-water mark of the genre.

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