Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a deep dive into a classic horror film or hidden gem and reveal its history and juicy behind the scenes secrets. July is Greedy Guts month here at Nightmare on Film Street, and we’re diving into our favorite B-Movies and guilty pleasures all month long. For Silver Screams, we’re going to be diving into a 50s SciFi chiller that’s a guilty pleasure in premise only. It’s a film that has all the trappings of a drive-in schlockfest but somehow, through great care and filmmaking, turned out as an excellent, genuinely suspenseful, and emotionally effective genre trailblazer, 1954’s Them!
Yes, we’re talking about that giant ant movie. It was the film that established the tropes that would define the 50s drive-in era while avoiding the pitfalls that would send much of the market output straight to Mystery Science Theater 3000. With all due deference to the genuinely bad-good movies of the era that we love, Them! is extraordinary in how it takes every component of the 50s B-Movie and manages to pull it off in a genuinely great piece of horror filmmaking. It was one of the first Nuclear Monster films of the Atomic Age and the first of the decade’s popular “giant bug” creature features. But it was also a tightly written film that manages to contain two distinctive genres seamlessly while paving the way for horror sci-fi for decades to come.
A Mystery in the Desert
Them! features one of the most haunting and intriguing openings in sci-fi horror. After an eye-popping opening title, with the title in color font against the black and white landscape, Them! follows two New Mexico State police investigating a report of a child spotted wandering in the desert. The little girl is finally found, wandering through the desolate southern New Mexican landscape in a catatonic daze, still wearing her nightgown and clutching her baby doll. The officers, Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Trooper Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) then discover a trailer campsite with evidence of a violent struggle, the side caved out, a mysterious footprint, and clues that this was the origin of the little girl. As they load the girl into an ambulance, the surrounding desert is briefly filled with a strange, echoing chirping sound, temporarily rousing the girl from her trance, though the officers and medic fail to notice, too distracted are they by the brief and unsettling sound.
“Them! is extraordinary in how it takes every component of the 50s B-Movie and manages to pull it off in a genuinely great piece of horror filmmaking.”
The powerful opening of Them! stands as the first indication that this is far from the average 50s B-Movie. It is understated and creepy, with a genuinely intriguing mystery, shot in the style of a desert noir. Them! works so well because it was a project made with sincerity and passion from the beginning. The film was conceived by Warner Bros. staff producer Ted Sherdeman, who was fascinated by the science of ants and their status as the only creatures besides humans known to wage planned warfare, complete with soldiers, battle strategies, and the practice of enslaving captured ants from rival colonies. He knew that while the idea of giant ants could be seen as a comical concept at first, the deadly insects could actually be a believable threat to the survival of humankind.
The idea was developed from there into a story and first draft screenplay by George Worthing Yates, who was replaced with studio contract writer Russell Hughes when Yates’ treatment included too many effects shots to fit within a budget. Hughes’ approach proved to be the key factor in the film’s unique structure. He was the first to conceive of the film’s first act as a mystery thriller and the second as a military action film. This unique genre mashup would survive to the final film, even after Hughes tragically died of a heart attack only twenty pages into his script. Sherdeman finished the script himself, honoring Hughes’ vision.
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Another key factor that made Them! work was the choice of director, Gordon Douglas. Douglas had a background directing comedies before moving on to helming two film noirs for Warner Bros, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) and I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951). Douglas brought his noir talents to the moody first act and peppered the film with moments of comedy that genuinely work. The moments of sincere levity add emotional weight and suspense to the film’s serious tone, avoiding the unintentional comedy that could doom a genre film about giant bugs.
“If Them! had been in color, it’s doubtful it would have worked as well as it ultimately did.”
Sherdeman believed so strongly in Them! that he campaigned for its production with studio execs tirelessly, commissioning a documentary about ants from two UCLA entomologists to show to his superiors, and had art designer Larry Meiggs create a mock-up, fully functioning ant head to prove to execs that the special effects could work. Studio head Jack L. Warner wasn’t convinced, and the project was almost bought by Fox, but Warner producer Walter McCuhan saw how much Fox was ready to pay for the script and convinced the studio to make the giant ant movie, no matter how silly it seemed.
All in the Execution
And it’s true, Them! sounds ridiculous on paper, but the execution makes it anything but. The film was almost shot in color and 3D, and if the studios 3D camera hadn’t malfunctioned during test shots, it would have. But thankfully, the studio changed the plan to black and white, resulting in a beautiful, noirish, and spooky showcase of black and white cinematography. If Them! had been in color, it’s doubtful it would have worked as well as it ultimately did. The early scenes of the police investigating baffling crime scenes are particularly beautiful. The bright desert daylight is filmed like a stark and oddly ominous landscape, where it’s difficult to imagine what could be hiding among the huge expanse. The parallel scene where the same two officers check on the owner of a local general store at night achieves Hitchcockian levels of suspense. The eerie wind, radio left on, and the shadowy lighting of hanging bulbs blown about comes together to spine-chilling effect, showcasing Douglas’ noir talents.
The film’s first half is such an effective mystery that one might worry that once the giant ants are revealed, the power of Them! would be diminished. Yet the film makes a seamless pivot into the adventure genre and introduces the requisite quirky scientists and government agent characters with aplomb. In fact, for the entomologist Dr. Harold Medford, Sherdeman wanted acclaimed English stage actor Edmund Gwenn, most famous in Hollywood for his role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and he succeeded despite studio reluctance. Gwenn brings a perfect blend of comedy and gravitas to the role, adding both comic relief and the necessary musings on nuclear extinction wonderfully. As Dr. Pat Medord, the equally esteemed daughter of the famous scientist, Joan Weldon plays a competent and confident woman who remains a commanding character even as she plays the requisite love interest for FBI Agent Robert Graham (James Arness). The “lady scientist” is still a common way for Hollywood to include a female character in sci-fi, but Pat remains an equal and valued member of the team battling the ants without being relegated to a damsel in distress. She has more in common with Jurrasic Park’s Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) than Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) even though Them! and Creature were both released in ‘54.
“Them! works so well because it was a project made with sincerity and passion from the beginning.”
In fact, Them! predicted much of modern horror/sci-fi in many ways. Its successful pivot from suspense to adventure film midway through is echoed in Jaws (1975) and its use of real insect biology for horror is a precursor of the Alien films. In fact, the sequences in which the heroes descend into ant nests to route out the queens are so reminiscent of scenes in Aliens (1986), complete with rescuing children from the egg chambers, that I’m surprised Them! isn’t mentioned more often as one inspiration for the ‘86 film. Them! is also significant as one of the first American films to directly address the unknowable dangers of nuclear weapons. In the same year that Godzilla was released in Japan, Them! offered its own critique of the Atomic Age from an American perspective. The mutant ants are directly caused by the Trinity test, the first explosion of an atomic bomb, in the desert outside of Alamogordo, NM in 1945. The devastation wrought on innocent people in the film makes a clear statement on the danger of wielding nuclear technology without full knowledge of its effects, and Gwenn delivers a sobering speech about the Atomic Age that offers more warning than Americans were comfortable with at the time. Before Them!, nuclear technology was mostly approached with excitement in American culture. After, the nuclear monster subgenre of horror began to dominate the drive-in circuit of midcentury America.
Them! may have paved the way for a subgenre of 50s cheese, but the film itself is a shockingly effective little chiller for a flick about giant bugs. Even critics of the time praised the film for being effective and well made, despite their initial balking at the premise. The film was a sizeable hit at the box office, and its effects earned the film an Oscar nomination.
Today, the giant ants work pretty well. The massive puppets are impressive and convincingly insectoid enough to encourage audiences to suspend their disbelief, though, much like the shark in Jaws, they are far more effective in the film’s early scenes when they are merely suggested by their unique chirping sound. But the film’s craftsmanship and sincerity pull it through any dated moments, making it the perfect 50s creature feature for a modern audience. It has all the tropes we love about the genre, but it manages to pull us in with its competence until we can’t believe we’re biting our nails over a flick about giant bugs.
So why not recreate a vintage drive-in this summer with the 50s B-Movie that stands the test of time? For a great double feature, you can pair Them! with my pick for last year’s Greedy Guts month, The Blob (1958), and enjoy two great but very different examples of 50s SciFi fare. And until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams!