All of those giant bug movies from the 50s tend to run together in my mind, so I have to tip my hat to my wife. She never wants to watch them when I find one, but she jumped right on Them!, because “it’s good”. (She proceeded to mimic the sound of the giant ants.)
What makes Them! better than the others (Tarantula, The Black Scorpion, The Deadly Mantis, Earth vs. The Spider)? It takes itself seriously, but not too much. The budget is decent, if not extravagant. Everyone gave their best effort. The serious angle comes from the movie being more like a detective story than a monster movie (some have even labeled it film noir). Director Gordon Douglas was a journeyman whose career went all the way back to Our Gang shorts, one of which won an Oscar. He made movies in every genre, many of them low-budget affairs. He even directed an Elvis movie (Follow That Dream, a reasonably decent effort). Douglas was efficient, and in Them! made a solid movie that didn’t draw attention to it’s low budget. That budget kept being reduced ... it was going to be in 3-D, then it wasn’t, it was going to be in color, then it wasn’t. But it remained a Warner Brothers production, even if it wasn’t quite an A-picture.
One area that impressed me was the absence of stock footage. There are perhaps fewer scenes of the military building up its arsenal ... mostly just Army vehicles driving around. But stock footage in these cheap movies is always distracting, and Them! avoids that problem.
As for effort, well, it’s hard to say. I wasn’t on the set. But the cast is decent. Edmund Gwenn, who plays the scientist who knows everything, apparently was suffering from extreme arthritis, but he never missed a take when the cameras rolled. The male leads were the personification of solid: James Whitmore and James Arness. Even Joan Weldon, in the stock thankless role of the scientist’s daughter, is good. She commands her own authority as a scientist, and is believable in the role.
As for the special effects, which won Them! an Oscar nomination (it lost to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), they are, like the movie as a whole, sufficient without being great. The giant ants are almost always seen in shade or darkness, which removes much of the obvious artifice. The sound my wife remembered so well came from recordings of tree frogs.
Those of us who grew up watching these movies on TV when we were kids recall very well the beginning of the movie, where a little girl, in shock, wanders alone in the desert. She doesn’t speak until the movie is well underway, and in doing so, she gives us the title: “THEM!” she screams. It’s an effective bit of restraint, which is how I’d describe the movie. It has its giant bugs, but it uses restraint effectively. Rating a movie like this is a bit difficult ... no one is saying Them! is as good as, say, On the Waterfront, which won a lot of Oscars that same year. But compared to the giant bug movies, Them! is a colossus. And it’s a must-see for fans of Starship Troopers. 8/10.