by Steve Habrat
The same year that Toho Co.’s Godzilla stomped all over Japanese cinemas, American drive-ins were attacked by the giant irradiated ants of Them! Released in the summer of 1954, Them! sounds like an absolutely absurd sci-fi chiller that would have been right at home on the pages of an EC Comic book . Who would be scared by a bunch of giant ants mutated by invisible clouds of drifting atomic radiation? It turns out that many drive-in audience members were shaken up by Them!, and many critics and genre aficionados have taken notice of the affection audiences have for this creature feature. Regarded as the first “giant bug” movie, Them! is another product of the Atomic Age—a well-spoken B-movie that shivers and shakes at atomic bombs, mushroom clouds, and drifting radiation that was quietly wrecking havoc on nature. Directed by Gordon Douglas, Them! takes its subject very seriously, and the film slowly gains intensity through a disciplined pace, chilling set pieces that never fail to impress, rock-solid performances from a hugely talented cast, and a slew of beasts that are sure to scare the pants off of first time viewers.
Them! begins in the New Mexico desert, with two police officers, Ben (played by James Whitmore) and Ed (played by Chris Drake), stumbling upon a little girl wandering around in a state of shock. As Ben and Ed try to find the little girl’s home, they discover a wrecked trailer and a destroyed general store. While exploring the general store, Ed is suddenly attacked and killed by a towering unknown assailant. Ed’s death proves even more suspicious after the coroner discovers large amounts of formic acid in his system. With more disappearances being reported and a strange animal print found in the sand, the FBI dispatches agent Robert Graham (played by James Arness), renowned scientist Dr. Harold Medford (played by Edmund Gwenn), and his lovely daughter, Dr. Pat Medford (played by Joan Weldon), to investigate. While the trio explores the windy plains of the desert, they begin hearing eerie high-pitched calls from an unknown location. Their investigation really takes a turn when they come face-to-face with a giant ant that proceeds to attack Pat. The military soon tracks down the ants’ nest and launches an attack to wipe out whatever is inside, but Harold discovers evidence that suggests two queen ants have escaped the attack. Desperate to keep the giant ants a secret and away from heavily populated areas, the military races to track down and destroy what is left of the ants. However, the military’s worst fears are slowly confirmed as reports of ant sightings start popping up around San Francisco.
Like all great creature features, Them! isn’t in any particular hurry to show off its mutated monsters. It starts off slow, allowing the unsettling isolation of the New Mexico desert to set in before Douglas starts exploring the mysterious ruins of a trailer and a general store. As winds howl and the police scratch their scalps in confusion, that high-pitched screeching noise kicks in and pushes the suspense to the brink. About a half-hour in, Douglas sends his team in to get to the bottom of what occurred out in the desert, and it is here that he allows us our first glimpse of one those mutated ants. Of course this first glimpse is only a tease, the beast slowly and silently working it’s way over a hill before emitting its grim song and charging at its lunch. It’s a fantastic sequence that offers a jolt of terror that takes the viewer by storm. While our first glimpse of the ants reveals a severely dated monster, the way that Douglas reveals the creature and the ominous build-up that preceded the encounter maximizes the monster’s impact. If you were left unimpressed by this first encounter, wait until our protagonists find the nest, which offers another startling look at these mutated monstrosities. As helicopters circle above, an ant emerges from a massive hole still gnawing on one victim’s rib cage. After sucking the meat clean, the bones drop into a heaping pile of skulls, tattered clothing, and more. As the ant wanders away from the festering pile of death, Pat gravely observes that they have found all the individuals that have been reported missing over the past weeks. Now THAT is creepy.
After the attack on the nest and the discovery of the escaped queens, Them! reverts back to being a character-driven picture. Douglas allows the terror to trickle in as reports are made of demolished trains, ravaged freighters, and creepy reports of ant-shaped UFOs swooping in and attacking small planes. Along the way, Douglas elevates some of the tension by executing some wonderful moments of comedy, specifically from Gwenn’s Dr. Harold Medford, who can’t seem to figure out how to properly use a helicopter radio. And there is also the drunk-tank sequence, where a belligerent drunk named Jensen bargains that he will share information about the ants if he is made “a sergeant in charge of the booze.” Of course, Douglas is offering us a breather before his final burst of horror and action. The climax gets rolling as authorities issue martial law throughout the streets of San Francisco, warning citizens to take shelter in the comfort of their homes. With the ants nestled deep under the city, and reports of two small boys having suddenly disappeared, the pressure is on to send troops down into the shadows of the city’s storm drains. It is at this show-stopping climax that Douglas really lets his ants do some damage. As flamethrowers roar, machine-guns snarl, and ants screech, Them! lets loose a searing fury of violence that concludes with a warning that mankind has entered a terrifying new world—an unknown world that may crawl with horrors we never could have predicted.
Further adding to the strength of Them! are the spirited performances, specifically from Whitmore, Arness, Gwenn, and Weldon. Arness is a man of authority as Graham, an FBI agent swiftly trying to track down the ants before they invade the streets of San Francisco. Whitmore gets to play action hero as Ben, a flame-thrower packing, machine-gun toting cop who mows the ants down with teeth gritted. Gwenn steals nearly every scene he is in as the bumbling-but-wise Dr. Harold Medford, the levelheaded scientist who fumbles and sighs at helicopter radios and crooked goggles. Weldon finds a pleasant middle ground as Pat, Harold’s brilliant daughter who proves to be a strong-voiced ally in the race to stop the ants. She is naturally thrust into several scenes that require her to be the damsel-in-distress, but when the chips are down, she bravely treks through those threatening storm drains right along with the male protagonists. Overall, a far throw from some of the other chintzy sci-fi guilty pleasures of the era, Them! remains an ingenious and wildly frightening look at man’s radioactive entrance into the Atomic Age. It creeps and crawls with fidgeting paranoia and crackling action, and it’s guided by assured direction and straight-faced performances. Them! fully deserves its place as a Cold War classic.
Feature: Attack of the Communists! Seven Notable Science Fiction Films from the Cold War and The Atomic Age!
by Steve Habrat
During the Communism scare in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Communist party was viewed by the general public as being an unseen or outside evil that could strike and corrupt you at any second. The science fiction films that were made during the time of the Communist scare were heavy on promoting this idea. The outside evils that are found in these films are mostly found in the alien force that is threatening our world. I think that these films are a great window into the era and actually comment on the way that our government portrayed the Communist party and how we should react if we are to come in contact with them. The nation was perceiving them as monsters or aliens that could arrive at any moment and try to destroy our forms of government and destroy us as individuals. The alien attacks in these films could also represent the idea that the Communists would attack and try to start a revolution. These films also play well into the paranoia that was working its way across the country. They play on the fear of the atomic bomb and the idea that a force that we are not familiar with could have a weapon more powerful than anything that we have. These films suggest that we could be attacked at any time and that there would be no warning. Each one of these films presents a different aspect on the atomic bomb scare and the idea of a foreign or outside evil.
The film The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise in 1951, is a very well known film from this era. The film is about two aliens, Klaatu and Gort, that come from another planet to Washington D.C. to send us a warning about our violent ways. Klaatu warns us that if we do not start living peacefully, then we will be destroyed by a race of super robots that were created by Klaatu’s planet. This film is implying the idea of an evil outside force that patrols the galaxy and tries to keep everyone in line. This is alluding to the paranoia of an outside evil attacking with a very powerful weapon that we are not able to control. This also goes along with the ideas that if we ignored this outside evil and kept living a certain way, then we would eventually be met with a revolution that would change the United States.
Throughout The Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien Klaatu is also portrayed as a normal man who walks around with the humans and is not even noticed. This can go along with the thought that Communists can be anyone and anywhere. The film implies that we could be mingling with a very someone very dangerous and we may not even realize it. It is also made very clear to us that the aliens are ahead of us when it comes to science and technology. Klaatu says that if we do not live peacefully, then they will unleash an army of super robots that are capable of destroying whole planets. This plays off the paranoia that was felt about the Soviets working to try to create an atomic bomb.
The second film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel in 1956, is much more outspoken about its themes about the morals of the Communist party. The film focuses on a small town that is being over run by a mysterious alien force that duplicates the people that make up the town. This force, which comes in form of alien pods that change people from unique individuals into mindless machines who show no personality or emotion. Once again, just like Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien duplicates are normal, everyday people that blend in. This plays along with idea that communists could be anywhere, in any town and that they were slowly building a following in the United States. At the end of the film, the main character, Dr. Bennell, has a conversation with Dr. Kauffman, who has been attacked by the body snatchers. During this conversation, Dr. Kauffmann says “Love, desire, ambition, faith-without them, life is so simple, believe me”. This line of dialogue alludes to what the United States public believed that the Communist party stood for. It points out that anyone who considers himself or herself a party member is someone who is trained to have no emotion and live by certain guide lines thought up by an outside force.
The weapon scare idea can be found throughout Invasion of the Body Snatchers although it may not be as obvious. The weapon can be found in the alien pods. These pods can be used as a weapon of mass fear. It is used to change the people from one way of thinking and then completely changing their whole personality. The pods are also used to keep the citizens in line and not to try to retaliate against the forces that are using them.
Them!, which was directed by Gordon Douglas in 1954, plays on the idea of an outside evil in a different way. Instead of aliens from space, the outside evil that threatens the country is giant, mutated ants. These ants slowly start emerging and killing anyone that they come in contact with. Soon two queen ants escape the nest and disappear. The army is racing to try to find these two queen ants before they can start other colonies of ants. Them! makes it very clear that it is tackling the subject of the experimentation of atomic weapons and the dangers that can arise. The film is quick to criticize that development of atomic weapons and the damages that they can have that don’t necessarily consist of destroy cities. The ants could be alluding to all the deformations that happened to some of the people once we dropped the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During this era of paranoia about outside evils and atomic weapons, it was widely known that atomic bombs caused body deformations from radiation. The ants also could be representing the weapons that have come from a foreign place. The army has a hard time trying to find a way that can stop the ants from their wave of destruction.
Them! also touches on the paranoia that Communists can be anywhere and that it is essential to find them and destroy them. This idea shows up in the two queen ants that escape and are trying to start other colonies. It mirrors the thought that Communists are somewhere in our country trying to make their numbers grow and eventually take over the world. This runs with the themes found in The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The propaganda that was presented that the Communist party was growing in numbers in this country and that soon they would take over the world.
Forbidden Planet, directed by Fred M. Wilcox in 1956, is a film that explores outside evils and atomic paranoia in a different way than the other films I have discussed so far. Instead of the fear of attack on our own soil, we are presented with some of our citizens stumbling on a different way of life and how we react to it. The film is set in the future and follows the crew of a United Planets Cruiser who is set out to explore a planet that all life seems to have disappeared from. The crew meets Dr. Morbius, who warns them to leave the planet and to save themselves from some sort of danger. The perception of Communists soon presents itself in Dr. Morbius’ daughter Altaira. In one particular scene, Commander Adams and Altaira kiss and afterward she asks him what the point of kissing is. She tells him that she feels no emotion from the kiss but as the film goes on she slowly starts showing emotion for Commander Adams. It is also clear that Dr. Morbius is very protective of his daughter and has slowly trained her in almost a Communist way of thinking.
Outside evil also shows up in Forbidden Planet, and it comes in form of an invisible monster that attacks without any warning. The monster attacks the crew multiple times and plays into the paranoia of a foreign attack. It soon becomes known that the monster is being created by Dr. Morbius. The crew learns that the planet was made up of an extremely intelligent race that created all different kinds of inventions including a device called plastic educator that allows the user to increase their intelligence. This aspect of the film could be addressing the fact that the Soviets were racing to try to develop new technology. It shows that this is supposed to apply to the race to create an atomic bomb. It all points to the idea that Dr. Morbius may be a dreaded Communist! He only lives to work and push things forward rather than stop to experience other aspects of life.
Invaders From Mars, directed by William Cameron in 1953, is heavy on the themes of outside evils and paranoia of atomic weapons. But there are several small parts to this film that are different than the films I have talked about so far. The film follows a young boy named David, who sees a UFO crash into the field behind his house. He then tells his father, George, who is a scientist and believes that his son actually did see something. George goes out to investigate the field and to see if his son is telling the truth. After George does not return for several hours, his wife calls the police and reports him missing. Soon after his disappearance, George turns back up at the house and he seems very different. He is turned from a kind and loving father into a cold and emotionless person. We soon find out that George has had some sort of chip implanted into the back of his head and this chip is what has altered his personality. It turns out that some aliens have burrowed underground and have set up a base. The aliens once more are the outside evil that threatens our country. After George is brainwashed by the martians, he starts going out and finding other people that can be turned into emotionless machines who go out and do errands for the head martian. There is one particular scene where we see George lead the character Colonel Fielding out to the fields and we see the aliens capture him and turn him into a mindless slave. This goes along with theme that Communists could be anyone and even be a part of our own government and army. This theme also shows up in the character of the police captain, who has also been brainwashed and means to do harm. This theme alludes to the ideas that Communists were recruiting for their party in our own country.
The unusual part of Invaders From Mars is the aliens themselves and even the head martain that controls all the slaves. At the end of the film, we get to see the martians that serve the leader. They are presented to us as mindless slaves who only live to serve their leader. These slaves all look identical with their green suits and faces that look very similar to gas masks. The whole point of the martian attack is to try to sabotage weapon development that is taking place in the town where they landed. This film falls perfectly into propaganda and paranoia felt at the time of the films release. The slave’s uniforms eerily resemble the protective suits and gas masks that were worn by scientists and the suits that were advertised to the public to protect against an atomic bomb attack. The lead martian is also interesting because he could be mirroring the ideas of the people that made up the heads of the Communist party. It seems to say that they only wanted to benefit themselves and were not concerned about any of the general public. There is even one scene where David begs the head martain not to hurt his family or friends. We get to see the leaders reaction to his pleas, which is indifferent and he just disregards the young boy. Just like the other films, particularly Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the film is very vocal that it is attacking the Communist party and wants to explore the views of the Communist party.
The Angry Red Planet, directed by Ib Melchior, is the only film that I screened from the 1960s but still has quite a bit of meaning when it comes to outside evils and the fear of some kind of attack. The Angry Red Planet is about a group of astronauts that were sent to explore Mars but once they reached the planet, strange things start to occur. The themes of outside evils are present but they are presented in a very unusual way. In the other films that I screened, the outside evil was always very blatant, but in The Angry Red Planet the outside evil blends in with the landscape. At one point, the astronauts leave their spaceship to go out and explore the planet. One of the astronauts, Iris, breaks away from the group and happens to find a strange plant. Once she gets close enough, the plant begins to attack her and tries to kill her. This presents the outside evil in a drastically different way than the other films have so far. The idea that the outside evil could be around the corner and that we run the risk of walking straight into the trap of the enemy. This also shows up in the monster Bat-Rat-Spider-Crab monster that at first only appears to be some sort of tree. When the astronauts stumble upon this creature, they hack at one of its legs with a machete, which then awakens the monster and causes it to attack the astronauts. Near the end of the film, one of the astronauts, Thomas, is attacked by a giant ameba but survives. His arm is badly injured and seems to only get worse. When the astronauts return to earth, the doctors who examine the astronaut can’t seem to find a way to fix Thomas’ arm. The doctors trying to find a cure for his arm could be hinting at the hunt that was taking place across America. This could be a direct reference to the government trying to find a way to stop Communism from spreading across the United States.
At the end of The Angry Red Planet, the martians that inhabit Mars send a message to earth with the astronauts. The message goes: “Men of Earth, we of the planet Mars give you this warning. Listen carefully and remember. We have known your planet Earth since the first creature crawled out of the primeval slime of your seas to become man. For millennia, we have followed your progress, for centuries, we have watched you, listened to your radio signals and learned your speech and your culture. And now, you have invaded our home. Technological adults, but spiritual and emotional infants. We kept you here deciding your fate. Had the lower forms of life of our planet destroyed you, we would not have interfered. But you survived. Your civilization has not progressed beyond destruction, war and violence against yourselves and others. Do as you will to your own and to your planet, but remember this warning – Do Not Return To Mars. You will be permitted to leave for this sole purpose – Carry The Warning To Earth. Do Not Come Here. We can and will destroy you, all life on your planet, if you do not heed us. You have seen us, been permitted to glimpse our world. Go now. Warn mankind not to return unbidden”. This message heavily reflects the mentality during this time, playing on the idea that a foreign force is watching and studying us. The claim that they have weapons that could destroy us seems to be a reflection of the fear of atomic weapons that are possessed by a mysterious foreign power. This end warning is very similar to the warning that Klaatu gives at the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still.
It Came From Outer Space, directed by Jack Arnold in 1953, takes the issue of foreign outside evils and weapons scares in a slightly different direction form some of the other films that have been mentioned so far. The film still deals with the same fears that were circulating through the country, but it more attacks the propaganda that was very popular for the time. The film plays on lies and rumors that were getting passed along. The film is set in a small Arizona town and follows a scientist, John, and his girlfriend, Ellen, as they try to examine a strange meteor that falls to earth. They soon learn that the meteor is actually a UFO that has accidentally crashed. The alien’s possess bodies of certain civilians and turn them from normal, everyday people into emotionless machines. John soon learns that the aliens mean no harm and all they request is time to repair their ship in peace. This plays on the idea of an outside evil but it also suggests that sometimes we deem something evil when we actually do not know much about the subject. We go off what we pick up from certain places and lies that could be fed to us through propaganda. At the end of the film, the sheriff of the town decides that he does not trust the martains and sets out to kill them. The sheriff also has a large group of people with him that want to kill the martians. This could be reflecting the hostility that the United States had against the Communist party. The people who want to kill the martians in the film do not quite understand them and by not having all the facts, they label the martians as an outside evil.
While It Came From Outer Space is heavy on the issue of propaganda, it also finds time to address that atomic bomb paranoia. The martains do say that if we are not to leave them alone while they work, they have a weapon that can destroy our planet. This is revealed to us at the end of the film in a speech given by one of the aliens, which is very similar to the messages in The Angry Red Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The film encourages a more peaceful way at looking at certain topics but it leaves a slight sense of unease, as we are still unfamiliar with these visitors.
All these science-fiction films of the 1950’s and 1960’s were obviously made to dazzle the audience. It is hard to believe that these films were also presenting more intelligent information rather than just entertaining you for an hour and a half in typical B-movie fashion. They are perfect reflections of a time when paranoia had the upper hand over a majority of the population and the constant fear that something foreign could cross over and find a way change our way of life. These films could almost be looked at as parodies of all the propaganda films that were being shown. If you look beyond the surface, you will see more than just flashy special effects. You will also find well-stated ideas.