By almost unanimous choice, Warner Brothers’ 1954 Them! is considered the best monster movie of the 1950s, and next to King Kong is probably the second-best giant monster film of all-time. After Warner Brothers’ overwhelming financial success of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms a year earlier, it’s not surprising that the studio made this film about giant mutant ants created by atom-bomb tests in the California desert. What is surprising is that after the popularity and critical acclaim of Them!,
Warners only made one other monster film in the decade, 1957’s The Black Scorpion. Perhaps the studio, which had been associated with Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, and Bette Davis, didn’t
want to be too closely identified with what was considered a “B” picture genre.
What set Them! apart from others of its ilk was not its actors, although they were solid, competent workers. Nor was it the Academy Award-nominated special effects, which, while convincing, are not superior to Tarantula’s
and are far less impressive than Harryhausen’s. Even the plot, while fresh in 1954, was fairly straightforward and event-driven, with no character development whatsoever. Although Them! was atmospherically directed by Gordon Douglas, other monster movies like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and The
Giant Behemoth were loaded with atmosphere. And not even the exclamation point at the end of Them!’s title is responsible for the film’s lofty status.
Them! stands out from the crowd because it’s one of the few truly believable giant monster movies. Believability is almost always missing from films of this type, and it has nothing to do with technical aspects (witness the visually-stunning but dramatically preposterous Jurassic Park).
Believability in a monster picture is almost entirely due to the reactions of the human characters. If they behave as you or I would when confronted by similar incredible circumstances, things will generally
The characters in Ted Sherdeman’s screenplay react in a very realistic manner -- TERRIFIED -- just as we would if placed in a similar situation. Them!’s dialogue is never matter-of-fact, and even the male characters continually let us know
they’re as scared as the females, something usually lacking in these he-man heroic films. Throughout the film, nobody takes these eight-foot killer ants for granted, and that's because Sherdeman treated
his villains as if they were a realistic threat. The characters’ fear doesn't dissipate over the duration of the film, a common flaw in horror movies. After all, who could get complacent about
giant man-eating ants, no matter how many times you’ve encountered them?
Also adding to the realism is the fact that the policemen-heroes aren't incredibly
brilliant -- just hard-working guys, and even the scientists only have expertise in their one specific area. And even though Hollywood wants a romance in every story, Sherdeman wisely didn't allow any to
spring up, as hanky-panky would be the furthest thing from your mind if you thought giant carnivorous mutations might be lurking outside your bedroom.
By not introducing the science-fiction element until almost thirty minutes into the picture, the
realistic actions of the characters make the film seem like a standard murder mystery, so that when we first see the ants, we're actually surprised that the culprit is of a fantastic nature. This realistic
setting makes the sci-fi element that much more credible, as the giant ants remain a constant after they’re introduced. They don’t turn radioactive, grow bigger, become indestructible, or shoot
atomic fire from their mandibles -- they just remain really big ants. Contrast this with The Deadly Mantis, who somehow manages to outlive a few rocket shots to his body.
Adding to the realism was Bronislau Kaper’s memorable music score, which did not use gimmicks
such as the Theremin or electric violin to add a fantasy touch to the soundtrack. Them! also features one of the most memorable monster sound effects in cinematic history (a combination of trilling frogs and high-pitched parrot cries). The film remains frightening long after most monster movies have faded from our memories, and it still shines as brightly today as it did over forty-five years ago.
To learn about Them!’s one-of-a-kind music score by Bronislau Kaper, click HERE.