Wednesday, June 10, 2015

June Bugs :: Adjust Your Antennae for the Greatest Big Bug Movie of All Time! A Horror Horde of Crawl 'n' Crush Giants in Gordon Douglas' THEM! (1954)

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"Well, Old Man Johnson could've died in any one of five ways: His neck and back were broken; his chest was crushed; his skull was fractured ... And here's one for Sherlock Holmes -- there was enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men."
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Today's film is a thrilling police procedural mystery with a stylish noir flair. It also has solid action, a fine sense of comedic timing, and rousing combat sequences. And when you combine all of that with a great cast, outstanding special-effects, and some startling imagery, you got yourself a very entertaining film -- a very entertaining film that also just happens to be about giant ants.

It begins when a little girl is found wandering around the New Mexico desert alone, dazed and dirty, locked in a silent state of shock. The local Highway Patrol, led by Sgt. Ben Peterson (Whitmore), retrace her steps back to a destroyed campsite but find no sign of her parents in the wreckage. And as more and more people turn up missing or dead under violent circumstances, with the only linking clue being an odd animal footprint, the FBI is brought in in the form of Special Agent Robert Graham (Arness) to help jump-start the stalled investigation.

Since the locals can't identify the mystery print, Graham forwards it on to Washington for further analysis, and is a little baffled when his bosses answer by dispatching two experts on insects. Confusion reigns as the Doctors Medford, a father-daughter outfit (Weldon and the irascible Gwenn), won't elaborate on their findings and stubbornly refuse to comment further until they find some collaborating evidence. First stop is a visit to the local hospital to check up on the little girl (Descher). And when the elder Medford waves a glass of formic acid in front of the nearly catatonic waif, the fumes trigger one of the greatest and most effective screams in B-Movie history that rockets right up your spine and rattles your brain as it resoundingly resonates and puckers your rear end in anticipation for what's to follow.

As tension continues to mount, the Medfords continue to play it close to the vest and refuse to explain the girl's violent reaction and, instead, fearing it may already be too late, insist on a trip to the area where the girl was initially found, near the atomic testing sites at White Sands -- he typed ominously.

So into the desert they go, and though a nasty sandstorm is brewing and threatening to break wide-open, they manage to find another print. Splitting up to hopefully find more, and perhaps a trail, the younger Medford wanders off by herself, and as she tries to make out a strange, piercing screech over the howling wind, a 15-foot piece of six-legged concrete proof lumbers over a nearby sand dune, confirming their worst nightmare...

While THEM! was in pre-production, the studio execs at Warner Bros. kept the whole thing under wraps and only those directly involved knew what it was about. Hoping to combine and cash-in on the successful elements of House of Wax and The Beast from 20000 Fathoms, two of their biggest money-makers from 1953, the studio had big plans, high ambitions, and elaborate F/X budgeted for the production that was slated to be shot in Warnercolor and in 3-D. But at some point, and for some undisclosed reason, the studio lost all faith in the film, resulting in a slashed budget, black and white film stock, and a return to two-dimensions. And then there's the apocryphal story where the finished, stream-lined film was screened for Jack Warner, who was apparently not amused by what he saw and offered that anybody else wanting to make asinine giant bug movies would be banished to Republic Pictures.

With that, and without much fanfare, THEM! was quietly released in June of 1954 and proceeded to stick its ejaculatory duct into Jack Warner's ear, trailing only the likes of A Star is Born and The High and the Mighty in box-office receipts -- and for good reasons, too.

What makes this movie work in spite of it's inherently wonky premise is that everyone involved took it very seriously. Starting with the cast, Whitmore and Arness have good chemistry (-- though Whitmore had to wear four-inch lifts to better sync up with his co-star, who was a full foot taller), while Weldon does well as the feisty, no-nonsense heroine, helped by a script that leaves the idiotic romantic subplot on the back-burner until the film's very last scene. But it's Gwenn who steals the show as the fuddy, radio-impaired crackpot. Seriously, you don't want any of these people to become ant-kibble, which is why -- Spoilers Ahoy! -- Whitmore's Wilhelm-fueled heroic death at the end has such an impact.

Combine all that with another solid effort from journeyman director, Gordon Douglas, whose been rightfully gaining some traction lately for an overlooked career that's finally getting its due, and an intelligent and believable script that doesn't get bogged down in the usual sci-babble or stock-footage abuse and stays focused on a methodical mystery that doesn't cheat the audience, is it any wonder why THEM! has earned such a stellar reputation? For even after the discovery and confirmation of the giant ants existence in the opening act, things are just getting warmed up as we switch gears from an investigative effort to an all out search and destroy mission.

See, after dispatching the scout ant before it can turn anybody into a snack, a strict, need-to-know security blanket is thrown over the entire investigation as the army is called in to help find and neutralize the atomically-mutated ant colony. And despite some radio protocol gaffes, find the nest they do; the entrance littered with the bones of all those missing persons. But once more Dr. Medford blocks any attempt to blow the nest to smithereens, and is very coy as to the reasons why until the elderly scientist explains they must be certain that the nest is an isolated anomaly. And to do that, they must first make their way into the queen ant's egg chamber to make sure no other queens have hatched out and vacated to start even more colonies. For if they have, Medford warns, and those colonies breed even more colonies, mankind's reign as the dominant species on Earth will be over within a year.

Using phosphorous shells to drive the ants deeper into the nest, followed by a barrage of poisonous gas grenades, once the network of tunnels is thoroughly saturated, Peterson, Graham and the younger Medford descend into the darkness. And after a few surreal and suspenseful turns, navigating through all the carcasses and a few stray live ones, the group finds the egg chamber but they were too late; two queens have managed to hatch out and escape. With that, Medford orders the men to burn all the remaining, and still percolating, larva.

Next, our film switches gears again to a race against the clock as a wide dragnet is thrown out for any reports of strange sightings or phenomenon to try and track down the missing queens. They hit upon some luck when one of them is found aboard a cargo ship at sea -- lucky for everyone except for the poor sailors who are quickly overwhelmed and devoured. And when it is determined that a rescue operation is untenable, the freighter is sunk by Naval gunfire, which leaves only one queen still unaccounted for until a few more clues -- including a large sugar theft, and a bizarre, dismemberment death -- leads them to the sewers beneath Los Angeles. (Originally, it was to be the subways in New York, but was moved to save more money.)

But once again, Medford wants to find the egg chamber. Only this time, they can't use any gas because the dismembered man's two sons are believed to be hiding somewhere in the 700 miles of storm drains underneath the city. And as the media black-out is lifted, the army mobilizes and starts a grid search. Against all hope, Peterson manages to find the boys, alive, and the nest, and though he lifts the survivors to safety, the ants swarm to protect the queen and kill him before he can get away. ((WILHELM!!!))

Arriving too late to save his friend, Graham leads the charge as the ants are beaten back and obliterated in a hail of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. Surrounding the nest, they spy three empty shells, but the queens who came out of them are all present and accounted for. With that, the order is given and the ants are showered with napalm, ending the current threat. But who knows what other horrors are currently gestating out in the irradiated desert. For as Dr. Medford laments, "When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we'll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict." 

One of the few things to survive THEM!'s budget purge were the F/X. Here, the giant ants were realized with several life-sized mock-ups that were manipulated with hidden wires and rods that are most effective -- effectively gruesome, when the ants are burned alive. And that's one thing I really, really like about this movie is that the giant ants aren't indestructible and can be taken down with some effort. And though I could have sworn the ant's screech was provided by a loose alternator belt on an old Packard, in truth, it was a chorus of amplified tree frogs.(A couple of years ago while touring the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, I heard their siren call and traced it to a display about the tropical frogs and the button that triggered it, and then spent the next five minutes simulating a giant ant swarm. I'd probably still be there, but there were also otters.) 

Often imitated but never bettered, I think THEM! works, and has withstood the test of time, because of the opening mystery that really hooks you in, and then challenges you to hang on for the resulting chase, and then cheer during the rousing climax -- a good old-fashioned giant bug butt-kicking.

This re-post is part of June Bugs, a whole month long bucket of creepy-crawly reviews courtesy of The Celluloid Zeroes. Be sure to click on over to Cinemasochist Apocalypse, Checkpoint: Telstar, and The Terrible Claw Reviews for more insecticide insanity. Also, be sure to scuttle back here next week as I swing my shoe at another killer-bug flick.

THEM! (1954) Warner Bros. / P: David Weisbart / D: Gordon Douglas / W: Ted Sherdeman, Russell S. Hughes, George Worthing Yates (story) / C: Sid Hickox / E: Thomas Reilly / M: Bronislau Kaper / S: James Arness, James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, Onslow Stevens, Sean McClory, Sandy Descher


Doug Hudson said...

The only giant bug movie that qualifies as a classic, not just of the genre, but of movies in general. (With the possible exception of Mothra).

In addition to everything you've written, I'd like to add a shoutout to a script that has a lot of humor, even if it is of the "dark" variety. Some of my favorite lines from any movie:

"We need to wait until the nest is completely saturated."
"If we make it out of here, I'm gonna get completely saturated."

"The walls are held together by saliva."
"Spit's about the only thing that's holding me together right now."

Also, major props for allowing the woman scientist to be competent and fearless throughout the movie, unlike a lot of 50s horror where the women fall apart as soon as things get rough.

W.B. Kelso said...

The best sequence in the whole movie is the communication gaffes committed by the elder Dr. Medford, over.

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