The iconic, bloodcurdling scream of little Sandy Descher heralds the arrival of THEM!, the first and best of the 50’s “Big Bug” atomic thrillers. Warner Brothers had one of their biggest hits of 1954 with this sci-fi shocker, putting it up there with Cukor’s A STAR IS BORN, Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER, and Wellman’s THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY as their highest-grossing films of the year. Not bad company for director Gordon Douglas , previously known for his work with Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy! THEM! was also Oscar nominated that year for its special effects (and should’ve been for Bronislaw Kaper’s terrific score).
The movie begins with the look and feel of a noir mystery courtesy of DP Sidney Hickox’s (DARK PASSAGE, THE BIG SLEEP , WHITE HEAT) brooding shadows and sandstorm-battered landscape. New Mexico policemen Ben Peterson and Ed Blackburn come across a little girl wandering the desert highway near Alamogordo, a eyes locked in a blank, faraway stare. Further investigation takes the pair to a trailer that’s been trashed, sugar cubes scattered around, and some mysterious paw prints like those of a wild animal. Peterson finds a piece of her doll’s head and a tear from her robe, indicating this is where she was before becoming catatonic. While being loaded in an ambulance, an eerie, high-pitched noise wakes her, her eyes widening with fright, unnoticed by the cop and the medic.
Ben and Ed stop at Gramps’ General Store to find a similar scene – the place has been violently ransacked, sugar cubes strewn about. This time they find a body, the old man with a look of sheer horror on his face. Peterson leaves the scene, Blackburn staying behind to secure it, when he hears that eerie, high-pitched noise. He goes outside, gun drawn, as the noise grows louder. Offscreen we hear gunshots, followed by the cop’s death throes.
Cut to police headquarters, as Peterson is being consoled for the loss of his partner. The cops believe a homicidal maniac may be on the loose, and FBI agent Robert Graham has called in. It seems the little girl’s dad was an agent on vacation. The coroner’s report states Gramps’ mutilated body contained “enough formic acid to kill twenty men”. The Department of Agriculture sends eminent myrmecologists (ant experts) Dr. Medord and his daughter Pat, and when the elder scientist gives the girl a whiff of formic acid, she wakens in terror, screaming, “THEM! THEM! THEM!”.
Back in the desert, Medford finds a footprint despite the raging sandstorm, estimating it’s owner must be “over eight feet”, yet not ready to tell Ben or Bob what exactly his theory is. They soon find out as Pat is menaced by a giant ant, and both lawmen shoot in vain until Medford instructs them to aim for the creature’s antennae, stopping the big bug in its tracks. Medford’s suspicions have now been confirmed, the ant was “probably created by lingering radiation from the first atomic bomb”, tested right there in the Alamogordo desert!
Ben, Bob, and the Medfords take to the skies to look for more, and find a huge anthill the size of a mesa! There’s an entire colony of the mutated bugs down there, and a plan is devised to blast the opening with bazooka fire at high noon, then drop cyanide down the hole to destroy the beasts. When the smoke and gas clear, Ben, Bob, and Pat explore the strange underground chambers, littered with the carcasses of giant dead ants. A few survivors are blasted with flame throwers, and the trio continue to the queen’s chamber. They torch all the eggs, yet discover two have hatched already, two winged queens who’ve left the colony and taken flight…
Unlike subsequent “Big Bug” epics, THEM! boasts a talented cast of actors that make the audience buy into the outlandish premise. James Whitmore lends his blue-collar believability to the part of cop Ben Peterson, risking both life and limb in the name of service. Big James Arness , former alien in THE THING and future Marshal Dillon of TV’s GUNSMOKE, is the brawny FBI agent. Joan Weldon plays Pat, Arness’s love interest (oh, those 50’s lady scientists!). Oscar winner Edmund Gwenn is perfectly cast as the somewhat scatterbrained but knowledgable scientist Medford. Rounding out the cast are a plethora of Familiar Faces in smaller roles: John Beradino, Willis Bouchey, Richard Deacon, Ann Doran, Olin Howlin, Sean McClory, Jan Merlin, Leonard Nimoy, Fess Parker, William Schallert, Onslow Stevens, Dub Taylor, Dick Wessel, Harry Wilson, and Dick York.
I’ve deliberately left out any ending spoilers for those among you who haven’t seen this sci-fi/horror classic. Suffice it to say, there’s lots more to the story, and if I’ve gained you’re interest I urge you to add THEM! to your Halloween watch list. The rest of you have, like me, probably enjoyed the film more than once, and you already know it’s worth watching again!