Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments:#72-Them!(1954)

By Eric Polk-
The killer bug sub-genre of horror has, like all other sub-genres, been hit or miss. You have disasters such as The Swarm, the surprisingly good Kingdom of the Spiders featuring a mercifully subdued William Shatner, the fodder for MST3K The Beginning of the End and then there is the one that started it all, the Gordon Douglas-directed Them! Not to be confused with the band or King Diamond album of the same name.

The film begins with New Mexico State Police Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and his patrol partner Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) discovering a little girl wandering the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, mute and in a state of shock. They track her back to a trailer owned by an FBI agent named Ellinson, who was on vacation in the area with his wife and two children. The side of the trailer is found to have been ripped open from the outside, a sugar bowl is spilled inside, and the parents are missing and presumed dead. The girl briefly responds when strange sounds echo out of the desert wind, but the troopers miss this moment.

The elder Doctor Medford arrives on the scene with a theory, but will not disclose it until he tries an experiment on the Ellinson girl, having her smell the contents of a vial of formic acid, which frees her from her state of near-catatonic withdrawal, screaming "Them! Them!" Returning to the destroyed trailer with Peterson, Graham, and his daughter, Medford has his theory dramatically given its final proof when the group encounters a foraging ant, mutated by atomic radiation to the size of an automobile. The ants produce loud, distinctive calls that become the iconic signature of the beasts. The lawmen kill the creature with a Thompson submachine gun(I guess they didn't have any Raid) after finding that their revolvers have little effect. They aimed for the antennae on Medford's advice that they were helpless without them.

A U.S. Air Force unit is brought in, led by General O'Brien  which locates the ants' nest and exterminates the inhabitants with poison gas. The younger Dr. Medford, who accompanies Peterson and Graham into the nest, finds evidence that two young queens have hatched and flown away to establish new colonies. Trying to avoid a general panic, the government covertly monitors and investigates any reports of unusual activities as sightings of "flying saucers". One of the queens ends up in the hold of an ocean-going freighter loaded with sugar, which is then overrun by the ants and subsequently sunk by a U.S. Navy cruiser. From the rantings of an alcoholic, and an investigation into the death of a father protecting his two young, now missing, sons from an apparent ant attack, the other queen is finally tracked to the Los Angeles storm drain system, forcing the U.S. Army to openly declare martial law and launch a major assault.

If the name James Arness sounds familiar to you, then your folks or your grandfolks must have been fans of the tv show Gunsmoke because, yes, it is Marshall Matt Dillon in a supporting role. As for the movie the itself, it's done quite well. The scene were we first see the mutant ants is very scary for its time. The ants themselves need to some leeway because the SFX weren't quite so special back then.
Nevertheless, if you're looking for metaphor for the uncertain nuclear age, look no further.

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