Monster movies of the Golden Age era of Hollywood do, to some degree, fascinate me. Not as much as the Shoah Godzilla films or the Universal Pictures, but I have a real soft spot for giant bugs and alien creatures wreaking havoc on unassuming, bewildered townsfolk who know better than to believe ridiculous stories of huge ants eating and breeding their way to total domination of the world. With the typical nuclear tests breeding a menacing, hungry group of super mutant ants, Gordon Douglas’ directing efforts in Them! present an interesting premise, some incredible special effects that define the genre, but not fully following through on the more interesting or unique moments.
Led by the ever-enjoyable James Whitmore, we follow Sgt. Ben Peterson and a makeshift team of heroes try and purge the American south-west of horrifying monsters. Its plot is ridiculous, but has a surprising amount of conviction and dedication from its cast, who bite back the tears of hilarity as they face off against terrifying, ant monsters. Them! Has more than a handful of surprises up its sleeve, many of which detailing some rather rich backstory, linking it in with the ever-appealing Cold War era of monster movie-making. Its themes aren’t all that consistent, though, and that Cold War-era angle is dropped rather briefly to pave the way for some good, old-fashioned ant murdering.
With a first half-hour that depends greatly on marvellous set design and tense environments, it’s a shame that Them! fails to keep that consistency up. The villains of the piece are dealt with rather prematurely, finding out their weakness and showcasing it within the first forty-five minutes of the film. Thanks to some amazing camera tricks and magnification, the monsters of the piece move with fluidity, but also have the charms of the 50s monster flick, with that layer of late-night movie magic proudly displayed throughout in such vivid detail. The contemporary jabs at this era of film, the tropes and charms, all of it can be found in this one, which feels like a consistent barrage of cliché and lovingly crafted, commonplace characteristics of the time.
It’s brought together rather well, and for the most part, the film is fun. Never quite dragging us through all the designated messaging as wholeheartedly as I was expecting, Them! is a film of lost charm. Most of the scenes throughout present everything you’d expect from a monster movie, but lacking the relative dedication necessary to bring it to a fitting or engaging conclusion. The more the film goes on, the more it’s drained of its claustrophobic, country opening and its initially brilliant charms.