10/29/12

The Bigger and Badder Halloween Top 13 :#3: Them! (1954)

The 1950s were an era of us against them, but the ‘Them’ of today’s selection for the Bigger and Badder Halloween Top 13 is a foe for all seasons and eras. I’m talking about the bane of picnics, the scourge of lemonade stands, the menace of masticating mountain men, the common ant. Just like yesterday’s film featured a tiny worm grown to gargantuan proportions, today’s takes one of the smallest and most common (and most commonly stomped on) members of the insect family and turns the size tables on humankind  Naturally, it’s also our fault. When nature attacks in the nuclear age, you can always bet that the A-bomb is not too far behind. Strangely, it also has something else behind it that most major giant monster movies lack, studio support and a budget. Taking the mutant creature feature and giving it proper effects, a solid cast, an experienced director, and a script that makes sense and leads to exciting scenes, Hollywood crafted the crown jewel of American 1950s science fiction/horror features, the exclamatorily named classic, Them!


Patrolling the New Mexico desert, Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and his partner Ed (Chris Drake) discover a young, catatonic girl wandering alone. They trace her back to a trailer owned by her family, but it is destroyed and looks like someone peeled into it like a can of peas. As more dead bodies begin to pile up, Washington sends in FBI man Robert Graham (James Arness), but the G-Man has no more idea of the culprits identity than the local police. He forwards a single track found at the scene to the National Zoological center where it ends up in the hands of a father-daughter entomologist team, Harold (Edmund Gwenn) and Pat Medford (Joan Weldon). They have wild speculations, but they refuse to identify where their suspicions lead until, while investigating the trailer where the girl was found, they run into the killer, one of many radiated giant ants. Dr. Medford muses they must be the product of nuclear testing in the desert some nine years prior, and while the police band together to wipe out the New Mexican colony, several queens had escaped the ant den. The doctors Medford, Peterson, and Graham must team up to find the other nests before life as we know it is ended by Them!

Jack Warner, of Warner Brothers Studio, hated the idea behind Them!. He didn't feel like it was the kind of picture that belonged on poverty row and not a refined establishment like his family’s studio. However, he gave the film a budget, allowed moderate level (though  Oscar nominated) stars appear in it, and even mounted an ambitious marketing campaign. There was one thing that Jack Warner would have hated more than making a  giant ant movie, and that thing was losing money on it. He needn't  have worried though. While the movie going audience had seen giant monsters, attacking dinosaurs, and even huge humans on the screen before, Them! marked the first appearance of the giant insect as a movie menace. Preying both on a nuclear fear and the base fear of the tiny, unassuming insect turned deadly killer, Them! made the mold from which films like Tarantula, Empire of the Ants, Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Black Scorpion, Tremors, Eight Legged Freaks, The Mimic, and many other films have followed. I've talked about many films being firsts which caused a shift in the genre, but, apart from the top two films still to be included on this list, I don't know of another whose influence is as long reaching or pervasive while still holding its own as a quality feature even after all these years.

In 1954, Them! was actually in contention at the Academy Awards. No, it didn’t get the two previously nominated actors (James Whitmore and Edmund Gwenn) another nomination or impress anyone enough to score a best picture nod, but it did compete in the special effects category. Sadly, it lost out to Walt Disney’s big screen opus 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (the other completion was strangely Hell or High Water, another submarine movie.) The ants, which in full color would have shine with luminescent greens and purples, were built by the film’s unsung, and unaccredited hero, Ralph Ayres. His creatures were not laughable, they actually seem pretty disturbing, and despite their limited mobility I wouldn't want to meet up with one in a dark desert. There are a few times their flaws show (including one moment late in the film where the entire inner workings get shown off), but they are so stunningly created that I can suspend my disbelief.

As I mentioned earlier, Them! geatures not one, but two, Oscar nominees. Edmund Gwenn won his award for Best Supporting Actor for the role we still know him best as, Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. In his long career he would take on many other roles, such as Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, and every time I see him pop up in a film I know I will get a quality performance no matter the material. So that means if he was going to be a nutty old scientist tracking down giant ants, he would give it his all, and he did.  James Whitmore was nominated for the same award, two years after Gwenn, in 1949, but he lost out to Dean Jagger in Twelve O'Clock High. Whitmore also delivers as the spark plug copper on the trail of ants, and the actor would remain vital in TV and film right up until his death appearing in films as diverse as Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Asphalt Jungle, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Majestic as well as hawking Miracle Grow on TV for years. 

Apart from the Oscar bait, Them! Also features a number of interesting performances and familiar faces. The first of those faces showed up early on for me when character actor William Schallert, a staple of TV and film for sixty years (seriously, he started in a movie called Dr. Jim in 1947 and appeared on True Blood as the mayor in 2011), showed up as an ambulance attendant. The legion of faces continues with Marshall Dillon a.k.a  The Thing From Another World, James Arness, as the FBI agent who later goes to interview a distressed Air Force pilot played by Fess Parker. When Walt Disney saw Them! while scouting Arness for the role of Davy Crockett  he actually found his coonskin cap wearing mountain man in the wild eyed performance of Parker here. Them! Even features a blink and you'd miss him cameo from future sci-fi legend Leonard Nimoy as if it needed to further show off how cool it is as a film. I could go on about the cast indefinitely. Clicking from name to name in IMDB reveals a near complete cast of actors who went on to appear in dozens of genre films, both the expected and unexpected, in a myriad of ways. Them! not only appears to be patient zero of the giant insect films, but also a focal point in the waning and waxing of a number of movie careers.

One of the most amazing careers associated with Them! Is that of the director Gordon Douglas. By the time he directed Them! He had been behind the camera for twenty years with fifty nine credits, shorts and features, to his name. Already he had made classic cuts of cult and genre cinema like I Was a Communist for the FBI, Zombies on Broadway, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, and The Great Gildersleeve movies.  This even, experienced hand is what is able to guide the audience through Them! without the whole affair blowing apart in a sea of laughter. Certainly, the dated effects and somewhat stilted dialog (though the script by Ted Sherdeman, who would end his career with the Toho film Latitude Zero, was deft for the era), can lead to a campy flair, but Douglas and his cast make the proceedings feel real even within their time capsule picture. Douglas would continue to move with the times, and before he laid his 97th film into the books, he also directed the features In Like Flint with James Coburn, The Detectives with Frank Sinatra, Slaughter’s Big Rip Off with Jim Brown, and Viva Knievel! with Evel Knievel.

The 1950s were the crowning age of the giant monster, and, one of the last two films on The Bigger and Badder Halloween Top 13, was also released the same year as Them! The other formulated the whole genre and brought the fear of the giant creature into the zeitgeist. While it didn't spawn it’s own franchise to include Sunday morning cartoons or a couple of prestige level remakes, I put Them! right up there with my last two choices as an event in film history that impacted a giant trend in giant sized films, and it still exerts influence over filmmakers today. Them! didn’t invent the wheel, and it didn't perfect it either, but it did provide a bite the genre. In doing so, it secured a place not only in science fiction and horror history, but in the history of film itself. That brings us to the just and honorable conclusion to the third entry on the countdown. Only two more days left to go, and that means the submitted lists are getting Bigger and Badder as well. Today, it’s none other than the Deadly Doll, Emily Intravia.

Bugg Rating


What can I say about Emily that I haven’t already said before? She’s got one of the most interesting tastes in film that I could imagine, and it completely runs the gambit. I never know exactly what she might like, and I sure and heck never know what I’ll end up watching in out movie swap. From her Deadly Doll’s House to her work on Gleekast to her new podsperience, The Feminine Critique with Ms, Christine Makepeace of http://thefemininecritique.tumblr.com/  Emily keeps you guessing, and I always appreciate that. So I bestow the award on her of “Most Creative Picks” as she counts down her favorite giant beasties in a way I think few out there would, and that’s a good thing. Take it away, Emily! 

This was NOT easy for me! "Big monsters." PFF!

13. Infestation
A goofy, gooey low budget blast from a few years back, Infestation follows an unlikely band of survivors in the wake of a quiet, but global takeover by intergalactic spider and cockroach thingies. The great Ray Wise stops by with a supporting role as a bomb shelter
enthusiast, but it’s the giant spider and cockroach thingies that ultimately make this underseen, begging-for-a-sequel gem something truly fun and special.

12. Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People
Although the titular villainous fungi do eventually make a bizarre and awesome appearance, this 1963 Japanese cult classic is a surprisingly slow burn trip into a darker side of humanity. When a group of wealthy friends get shipwrecked on an abandoned island, starvation leads to madness leads to in-fighting which leads to eating mushrooms that turn you into, well, a mushroom person. They're much taller than the average man, far more colorful, textured, and more than anything, intensely more awesome. Because in case I didn’t mention it, they are mushroom people.

11. Tremors
One of the few genre classics to come out of the '90s, Tremors is joyous for its sunny desert setting, random pole vaulting, and adorable bromance between a feather-topped Kevin Bacon and an always welcome Fred Ward. Also, it's got giant worms. REALLY giant worms. Couple that with a twanging Bacon, educated love interest, and gun-toting Reba McEntire and what's not to like?

10. Q the Winged Serpent
Michael Moriarty is a tall man, but this Larry Cohen classic earns its spot here for its titular stop animation monster. Like a cheery Godzilla film set in New York, Q has fun with itself from beginning to end. Also, Michael Moriarty scats. That’s just a bonus.

9. The Lair of the White Worm
Before he was tossing his floppy hair all about or stammering over declarations of love to Hollywood leading ladies, Hugh Grant made a wonderfully dry turn in the late and great Ken Russell's The Lair of the White Worm. Think Tremors by way of The Devils, then toss in about 38% more phallus shaped objects and 100% more giant worms.

8. The Spy Who Loved Me
It would have been dangerously easy for me to compile this list purely based on actors over 6 feet tall. As someone who lied on her driver's license to be 5'2, anyone over the national average is a towering giant to me. I resisted the urge, but when a villainous henchman stands at 7’2, I think an exception can be made. Richard Kiel's silently sadistic gold-fanged killer Jaws is something truly special. Can YOU survive a shark attack with just your teeth? Didn’t think so (and if you can, you are awesome).

7. Empire of the Ants
A giant ant is somewhat akin to saying jumbo shrimp, especially in this cheesy '70s gem that can never quite decide how big it wants its mutated insects to be. Occasionally, the frisky workers stand over our bell bottom wearing victims like miniature houses, though scenes that follow come closer to matching the height of, well, miniature poodles.
It’s a minor quibble that’s easily forgiven when a film about killer ants’ tagline is “It’s no picnic!”

6. Gnaw: Food of the Gods 2
Sure, Bert I. Gordon's giant chickens and forced perspective from his original are charming, but this in-name-only sequel sees its giant rats and raises  the stakes with 80s fashion, freakishly giant children, montages, synchronized swimming, and much more adorable giant rats.

5. Starship Troopers
Perhaps one of cinema's most misunderstood films, Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers has thankfully emerged from its mediocre box office and critical theatrical performance to now finally be accepted as a far-smarter-than-you-thought satire. Yes, the analogies of a
militaristic society are felt, but you know what else this movie has? Big arachnids. And huge cockroach things that shoot fiery plasma into space from their butts. And a gooey brain bug that sucks out Tori Spelling's ex-boyfriend's brain. Seriously folks, just try to tell me Starship Troopers isn't one of the best films of all time. I dare you (unless you have gold teeth that can bite through shark teeth, at which point: whatever you say goes dude).

4. Killer Klowns From Outer Space
I know the keeper of this lair isn't a fan, but come on! 7' tall alien clowns that drink your blood via crazy straw through a cotton candy wrapping? As if the above-average-height worker clowns aren't monstrous enough, we end the film with a 3-story tall punk rock
sharp-toothed but vulnerable nosed giant.

3. Them!
Rightfully dubbed by most to be the best of the United State's 1950s era monster output, Them! is a shockingly creepy and refreshingly progressive little movie that far exceeds its popcorn quality. A haunting opening introduces us to a catatonic recent orphan who can
only speak to scream the title, which of course refers to a new breed of nuclear wrought gigantic ants. Throw in a modern female scientist and the always welcome James Whitmore and you have one good Big Insect Movie.

2. Maximum Overdrive
Though I do not condone drug addiction, sometimes, a director being higher than a Malaysian skyscraper during filming can benefit the final project in ways that make rehab something to be delayed. That's the case in Stephen King's sole directorial effort, Maximum Overdrive. Between glorious overacting, a kickass AC/DC soundtrack and death by soda machine, Maximum Overdrive is a hoot. Best of all, its mascot and
main villain is an oversized 18-wheeler delivery truck complete with a green goblin face glowing wickedly as it runs over our human roadkill. Did I mention this creepy clown of a hood ornament is supposed to represent a toy company?

1. Riki Oh: The Story of Riki
One of Hong Kong's most excellent exports includes a giant. Also strangulation via intestines. And face punch-ins, extreme haircuts, dummy violence, and just about everything else that is wonderful in this world.

See, what did I tell you, an unforgettable list from an unforgettable lady. Only two days and two films remain, but which will it be. Well, I promise a pair of heavy hitters was get into the final day and the day of Halloween. So keep your web cruiser's dialed into The LBL, and we'll have a monster of a Halloween! 

3 comments:

  1. This is weird...two movies in a row, both movies I have the posters on my wall...you're freaking me out, man!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Emily, Them! is in fact so good.

    Kangas, I am freaking you out. I'm also behind you right now.

    ReplyDelete

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