Them! (1954)

I’ve told this story before, but here it is again: once upon a time, I decided that I’d love to show my older son Them! without telling him anything about it. I figured I’d get around to it one of these days, and waited so long that one day around 2005, he came back from the school library with a book about science fiction’s greatest monsters and yelled “Dad! Do you know this movie Them!? It sounds amazing!” That was a silly lesson in not putting off your plans. Culture has a way of spoiling surprises from the past.

I don’t know why I wanted him to see it without knowing what monsters the atomic bomb had brought up in New Mexico that hot summer of 1954. Surely every single person who has ever seen this movie did so knowing what it’s about. I just wondered whether the movie would be as effective if a viewer didn’t know. And I think now that the answer is yes.

I spotted a used Blu-ray of this movie a couple of days ago, snatched it up, and didn’t let our son see what I’d bought. I didn’t tell him the name of it until supper. And I got to watch him as he curled up with two blankets during the stunningly effective opening twenty or so minutes, as two New Mexico state cops come across two scenes of destruction and death in the desert. The only survivor is a small child in shock and unable to speak. Maybe it’s easy for a jaded moviegoer to dismiss all this character interplay as in the way of the special effects, but it’s so amazingly well-made. I pointed out to my wife that this film was made by Warner Brothers, and not American International or some Z-grade production company. Them! is what every monster movie of its day just wished it could be.

I wouldn’t swear that Warners didn’t spare any expense. It wears its remarkably large budget on its sleeve, but there’s still a dearth of speaking parts – I like James Whitmore and James Arness as much as the next guy, but this script honestly left the need to keep their characters involved after about fifty minutes – and they took as few people on location in the desert as was necessary. Spotted the Warner backlot just once. But otherwise, they went to town on this. There’s a lot of desert footage using two aircraft and a team of excellent actors who really sell the mystery and the horror of what’s happening, far better than everybody who appeared in the parade of B-movie imitators who followed in Them!s tracks.

And did it work? The kid was spooked out of his skull. The presence of all that formic acid in one victim’s body didn’t give it away. And when the camera finally reveals what the heck is going on, he jumped and shouted with a “Whoa!” He enjoyed everything, the frights, the explosions, the jeeps, the flamethrowers, and agreed that this is a great film. If you’ve got kids of your own, definitely show them this classic, but try to keep it under wraps before they go checking out books about monster movies.

Image credit: The Endless Swarm

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