Watching films can be a sometimes unsurprising activity. With the majority of films you know where you stand. Something from Christopher Nolan is likely to be psychological and non-linear, something by Quentin Tarantino is likely to be dialogue-heavy with plenty of blood and swearing and something by Michael Bay is going to be loud, shot in golden sunshine and populated with heavy special effects. But every so often there’s a film that surprises you, that takes your expectations and blows them out of the water. The rarity of these films makes them standout in your mind and gives them longevity beyond their years.
Imagine my surprise then, when sitting down to watch the 1954 science fiction ˜B-Movie’ Them!. Judging from the poster and trailer, this should have been a by-the-numbers, slightly camp, badly acted science fiction film from an era that produced a lot of cheap films to stick in front of a main feature that would have comfortably sat in the Worst Films EVER section. How wrong I was.
New Mexico State Police Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) is patrolling near Alamogordo when he discovers a little girl (Sandy Descher) wandering, catatonically by the road. After investigating the nearby area he discovers her home, which has been torn apart from the inside out by an unknown force. As a sandstorm descends experts are brought to the scene and discover sugar cubes and footprints belonging to a creature of enormous size.
One of the earliest examples of nuclear threat science fiction films, Them! examines the implications of mutations on normal creatures after being exposed to years of nuclear testing. The tight script keeps the pace throughout, and there are some incredible performances, notably from Descher, whose shocked expression early on builds immediate tension. But as a product of a world that would get gripped in the fear and paranoia of the Cold War and potential nuclear holocaust, Them! is not only a very telling insight into a nations thinking for the following period, but it’s also a wonderful slice of cultural paranoia.
The specials effects, considering Them!‘s age are quite spectacular. Huge constructed ants roam the desert and while they look like a clichÃ© of every bad monster film since are genuinely creepy and disturbing. The cultural impact of the film should not be overlooked either. Owners of the 1989 computer game It Came from the Desert will immediately recognise Them! as the inspiration for most of the games content.
Originally conceived as a full colour, 3D film Them! was then changed to black and white and widescreen, before finally going back to a standard format. Despite these changes there are still some of 3D shots remaining such as the opening credits and the flamethrower scenes. Them! also includes the one of the earliest uses of the ˜Wilhelm Scream,’ which is a stock sound effect famously used in films like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones and over 200 other films.
With incredible pace, genuine tension and unbelievable engagement with the audience Them! is one of the most surprising and incredible science fiction films of the 1950s. A classic in every sense of the word, it inspired a host of later ˜B Movies’ and is referenced regularly in popular culture. If ever there was a case of never judging a film by its DVD cover, Them! is it and it stands the test of time being as enthralling and entertaining decades on as it was on its release.