Welcome to another edition of my HWA column “In the Spooklight.” This one’s on the classic 1954 giant ant movie, THEM! starring James Whitmore and Edmund Gwenn. I originally wrote this one for the HWA NEWSLETTER in June 2005. We ran it again in 2009, dedicated to the memory of James Whitmore, who passed away on February 6, 2009. Enjoy! —Michael Arruda
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THEM!
by Michael Arruda
This! That! These! Those!
Them! (cue ominous music).
THEM! (1954) is the quintessential giant bug movie. It’s the best of its lot from the 1950s, and ranks in the upper echelon of best horror movies ever made.
What makes THEM! stand out? The biggest reason is it’s scary, it gets underneath your skin. Now, while there are a good number of movies that also scare, that remain with you and give you the shivers long after you’ve seen them, films like THE EXORCIST (1973) and ALIEN (1979), there are precious few from our black and white past that can make the same claim. THEM! is one of these (or is it, one of them?).
From the shrill sound the ants make, which once you’ve heard you never forget, to the host of creepy scenes throughout- the off camera killing of the police officer, the little girl sitting up in the ambulance when she hears the ants in the distance, and the taut scenes in the sewers of Los Angeles during the film’s suspenseful finale. There is something very gritty about THEM! You expect either to see Robert DeNiro in front of the camera or John Frankenheimer behind it.
THEM! begins in the desert of New Mexico where a series of mysterious murders take place. Police officer Ben Peterson (James Whitmore), FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness), and father and daughter scientists Drs. Medford (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon) investigate. Edmund Gwenn (Santa Claus in the original MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET ) is wonderfully entertaining and humorous as Dr. Medford, and his attempts at radio etiquette and subsequent banter with James Whitmore will leave you chuckling. James Whitmore delivers a solid realistic performance as Ben Peterson, a police officer driven by his partner’s death to stop the ants.
Director Gordon Douglas sets up some terrific scenes, nail biting time. The trip through the ant nest in the desert is one of these, as is the ending in the L.A. sewers.
The screenplay by Ted Sherdeman, based on a story by George Worthing Yates, is filled with realistic dialogue that isn’t dated, and also includes a good amount of humor.
THEM! also stands out because—-WARNING! SPOILER ALERT!-– it’s that rarity of rarities, especially among 1950s horror/science fiction films, in that the hero dies. You don’t see it coming, and you don’t forget it.
THEM! was originally slated to be shot in color and in 3-D, but because of budget restraints, was shot in black and white, which really is a blessing in disguise. The black and white photography plays right into the mood of the movie.
Now, the special effects obviously can’t compare to today’s standards, but you know what? Somehow, the giant mechanical ants look genuine, certainly they’re scary! A lot of the credit here goes to director Douglas who often relies on the unseen for scares, and you don’t see a whole lot of the ants until the end. It’s the same card Steven Spielberg played so effectively in JAWS (1975).
If you’ve seen THEM! I’m sure you have a favorite moment, from the singing drunk, “Make me a sergeant charge the booze!” to the James Whitmore remark “He’s got a sweet tooth!” when asked why FBI agent James Arness is so interested in a large sugar theft.
THEM! is one of the all time greats, a true exercise in horror film making, as entertaining as it is scary. See it this summer, and remember, when the bugs start to come out and spoil your picnic, it could be a lot worse!
© Copyright 2005 by Michael Arruda