In the 1920s and 30s, horror films largely involved supernatural entities from mythology such as ghosts, vampires and werewolves; but after the real-life horrors of World War 2 such conceits looked quaint and hokey and not nearly as scary as the appalling things that everyone had seen occurring in the world around them, from the loss of life on the battlefields to the slaughter of the holocaust.
A new generation of cathartic monster movies were needed, and in the 1950s they broadly came in two flavours: aliens from outer space such as It Came from Outer Space or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which were largely sublimations of the Communist red peril paranoia of the day) or else stories of how human scientific progress was turning nature against us by creating oversize creatures such as Godzilla and Tarantula (representing the unease people had of atomic radiation in a time of deep concern over the threat of annihilation from atomic weapons.)
The best of the latter sub-genre is arguably Them!, in which the creatures super-sized by a dose of radiation from the original atomic bomb tests in New Mexico are a colony of ants that have grown to three metres in size. The film certainly gets off to a terrific start, as we join a police search of the desert mid-progress. State trooper Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) discovers a five-year-old girl wondering alone, struck dumb and in a state of profound shock. Further investigation finds that her home has been ripped apart and her parents missing; and as a sandstorm whips up and night falls, they find that a nearby store has been similarly destroyed – and this time there’s a corpse.
It’s an incredibly effective and suspenseful opening 20 minutes, as Peterson is joined by FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) and by two government scientists from Washington who seem to have some sort of idea about what’s going on but are unwilling to say what. The ever-delightful Edmund Gwenn plays the elderly Dr Medford like a rotund, amiable version of William Hartnell’s later incarnation of Doctor Who (and there’s a hint that Classic Who monsters the Zarbi have their roots in this film) while Joan Weldon plays the ‘other’ Dr Medford, his daughter Pat. While our introduction to her character is as a pair of shapely legs dangling from the bottom of a military plane as her skirt gets caught, in fact the film pretty soon establishes her as every bit as knowledgeable, brave and effective as any of the men in the group and soon her involvement in the proceedings on a completely equal footing is taken for granted, a surprisingly enlightened attitude for the time and type of film.
After that incredibly spooky opening sequence, the film decides to suddenly reveal its protagonists full-frontal and without warning. Fortunately the ants themselves withstand the scrutiny of the film cameras, and look generally fantastic. Okay, they’re oversized puppets: but they have a physical presence and charm that no measure of pixel-perfect modern day CGI can quite duplicate. Clearly a lot of money has been spent on them, and there’s a lot of the blighters around as well – and it must have been very expensive when so many of them were required to go up in flames as part of the action.
Perhaps the best part of the film is when Peterson, Graham and Pat descend into the ant colony’s nest, which brings to mind something of Ripley’s incursion into the Aliens inner sanctum in films three decades hence. After that the film frankly goes into something of a lull, with the ants off-screen as the action switches to meeting rooms in Washington as the heroes search for further mutant ant colonies across the US. There’s even time for Dr Medford to sit us down and play us a five minute classroom science film about the life and times of real ant colonies in order for the film to deliver on its educational quota.
This part of the film is perfectly well done and even reasonably tense, but can’t carry the effective momentum of the first part of the film: only near the end when the scientists converge on a lead in the storm sewers around Los Angeles (the same iconic setting where the Terminators will duke it out on motorcycles and trucks in The Terminator 2: Judgement Day) do things pick up again into a respectable climax, even if this all-action military finale isn’t quite a match for that terrific mid-film incursion into the first nest.
Overall it’s an excellent film of its type and still thoroughly enjoyable even 58 years on. Yes, the concept of giant ants does seem a bit daft to us now; if the ants had been slimy alien monsters instead then it might have more believability and resonance with modern audiences, but a little dose of willing suspension of disbelief is all it will take to put you right back into the zone.
The DVD: What’s really extraordinary about this film is how stunningly good it looks on the disc. This is one of the finest transfers of a classic movie I think I’ve seen on disc: it is absolutely pristine, not a hint of damage or dirt, with beautifully judged grey levels that mean that the early close-ups of the catatonic young girl in the desert have the quality of black-and-white art photography. And it’s also incredibly sharp and detailed – I swear, you’d be hard pressed to improve on this DVD even if you did a first-class high-def Blu-ray transfer of it. Only in some of the location shooting under low-light conditions (such as in the LA storm drains) does the quality dip and the picture become fuzzy, but that’s entirely understandable and inevitable given the camera and film technology of the day. Sadly, very little in the way of worthwhile extras on this disc with just a scattering of photos and two minutes of outtake footage; but it does come with one of the most terrific ‘tabloid newspaper’-style menu screens I think I’ve ever seen on a DVD.