Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Them! (1954) at the Palm Springs Classic Science Fiction Film Festival

The final film at last month's Palm Springs Classic Science Fiction Film Festival was THEM! (1954), in which giant killer ants emerge from the New Mexico desert and head to Los Angeles.

This was one of my favorite movies of the festival, along with THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953). The ants were plenty creepy, yet simultaneously fake enough so as not to be too scary; more importantly, the film had a very well-paced script, good direction by Gordon Douglas, and a terrific cast.

THEM! is yet another sci-fi film in which we learn that atomic testing has the power to unleash disturbing creatures on the world, and it's once again affirmed that in sci-fi films "Nothing good ever happens in the desert!"

Police Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) finds a disturbed little girl (Sandy Descher) wandering in the desert. He quickly deduces that she was from a nearby travel trailer which is completely demolished, no parents in sight. What happened, and why?

A strange print from the site brings a team of experts from Washington, FBI man Bob Graham (James Arness) and Department of Agriculture scientists Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter, Dr. Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon).

It's soon disclosed that atomic testing resulted in mutant killer ants...and some of them have flown off to Los Angeles, where they build a nest in the L.A. sewer system. If the nest and baby ants aren't destroyed, before long the ants will spread all over the country, leaving massive destruction in their wake.

The screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes, from a story by George Worthing Yates, is most enjoyable, with the sincere performances of the cast selling an improbable story. Whitmore is completely invested in his role as the cop, who begins and ends the movie protecting a child. He's the policeman you want to show up at the scene when things go wrong.

Arness and Weldon carry on a subtle flirtation which helps to lighten the story, and Gwenn has some funny moments, particularly when he's got to learn how to say "Over" when using a public communications system. Alan Rode told the audience in his intro that Gwenn was suffering from arthritis but continued to act due to his medical expenses.

A side note with an interesting bit of trivia which I just recently learned: Edmund Gwenn was born Edmund Kellaway and was the cousin of Cecil Kellaway. Cecil Kellaway played a similar kind of role as the older scientist dealing with a creature unleashed by atomic testing in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

When the film moves to L.A., there's some nice atmospheric shooting in Downtown L.A. and the L.A. riverbed, between the 1st and 4th Street bridges, according to IMDb.

Another of the film's pleasures is that there are so many terrific faces scattered throughout the movie, such as Fess Parker (photo below) as a man held in a mental ward because no one believes he saw giant flying ants; Sean McClory (seen above) as a pilot; Ann Doran as the little girl's doctor; John Beradino (GENERAL HOSPITAL) as an L.A. cop, seen at the right; William Schallert as an ambulance attendant; Dub Taylor as a railroad yard employee; Leonard Nimoy as an army sergeant; and Richard Deacon as a reporter. Earlier in the weekend Deacon had turned up as a doctor in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956).

THEM! was filmed in black and white by Sid Hickox. (The title of the film is notably in color, a startling contrast to the rest of the movie.) The film runs 94 minutes.

THEM! is available in multiple DVD editions including a TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection. It was just released on Blu-ray and is also part of a new four-film Blu-ray collection. (March 2020 Update: THEM! will be reissued on DVD by the Warner Archive in April 2020.)

It can be streamed via Amazon.

THEM! is a classic of the genre, and the sci-fi festival ended on a great note with this most enjoyable film.


Blogger Bill O said...

THEM was considered for color and 3D. I assume that the title is sorta an inside j oke .

4:26 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

I won't spoil it for anyone who still has the pleasure of a first viewing of THEM! in their future. But I will just say that, among fans of sci-fi and horror films, very little touched them more than the onscreen death of one of this film's characters.

It's also fun to compare THEM! to THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS because it's obvious when you take a close look that the later film was very much built on the blueprint of the earlier film. Most obviously the characters played by the cousins Kellaway/Gwenn and their fates, but also the entire construction of the stories.

Kind of a tribute to the filmmakers, I think, that both movies, though built on the same lines, turned out to be so very good and so individual.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Bill!

Whatever the reason, the title card is certainly striking! Thanks for reading. :)

Rick, I agree, a very touching scene. And THEM! and BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS really do follow a similar template, don't they? Yet, as you say, they both work individually really wonderfully.

Best wishes,

3:28 PM  

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