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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
One of the central characters in this movie knows what's going on, but waits until the evidence speaks for itself before revealing the answer. He does this because he knows that just coming right out and saying the answer will sound insane, and no one will believe him. I know how he feels.
If I just tell you, "This is a 50's black and white sci-fi flick about giant ants", you'll almost certainly dismiss it out of hand and scan to the bottom of the review to see how many negative shriek girls I gave it. But my rating will surprise you, because this is a good movie.
THEM was written by Russell S. Hughes and Ted Sherdeman and directed by Gordon Douglas (ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY, SKULLDUGGERY ). The story opens with something happening, the way movies are supposed to (Show, don't tell!). A state police car is driving down a dirt road in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Above, a search plane circles. They quickly locate a 6 year old girl (Sandy Descher), dressed in her pajamas, wandering alone. The girl is mute and clearly in shock. Right away you're drawn in.
A little down the road the two state cops find a trailer that's been torn to pieces. The occupants, presumably the rest of the little girl's family, are missing. Sergeant Ben Petersen (James Whitmore: PLANET OF THE APES, THE RELIC) radios for help and soon more troopers and paramedics show up. An ambulance takes the little girl away, but before it does a strange, high-pitched noise can be heard coming from somewhere out in the desert. The near catatonic girl reacts to the sound, sitting up from the ambulance gurney, but everyone else is distracted by the sound and fails to notice.
Later that night Petersen and his partner Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake: STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP) find an isolated general store torn apart just like the trailer. The proprietor is dead and the only thing taken is sugar. Blackburn stays to guard the scene while Petersen goes off to check another lead. Left alone, Blackburn quickly joins the missing.
It turns out the little girl's father was a vacationing FBI agent, so the local FBI office sends Agent Robert Graham (James Arness: THE THING From Another World , INVADERS FROM MARS) to join the investigation. A plaster cast of an unusual footprint is sent to the department of agriculture for identification and two scientists quickly arrive: the father / daughter team of Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and Dr. Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon: HOME BEFORE DARK). The senior Dr. Medford is the gentleman I referred to at the beginning. He clearly is pretty sure about what's happening, but refuses to say until he can gather more proof.
All this happens very fast. The movie spends the minimum on exposition and gets to the good parts fast. The scientists ask to see the site in the desert where the foot print was found. It's here that we encounter our first giant ant, and here that the movie earns a bit more of my respect. The ant is huge and fearsome, but not invulnerable. Eventually, after taking a machine gun clip's worth of bullets (including some well placed shots directed at the antennae) the creature is killed. Monsters should be tough and scary, but not impervious to harm. I hate "gimmick" monster movies where the creature has one kryptonite-like weakness, usually some kind of magic sword or crystal or something, because then there's no tension in any encounter with the monster unless you have the magic sword. The outcome is a foregone conclusion, which is boring.
Of course, this single ant was not THE monster. The monster is a whole colony of these creatures, with newborn queens about to take flight and spread their species around the world.
In the 50's people were still pretty freaked out about the whole concept of nuclear weapons. Most had no understanding of radiation, beyond the fact that it was invisible and would kill you, a description that might as easily apply to evil spirits. So people were ready to believe that radiation could create monsters. In fact this movie takes place near the site of the first atomic explosion (at Alamogordo, New Mexico), nine years later. Radiation can create mutations, but such mutations are usually fatal, most often in the womb. Giant monsters? No. But that's not the subject of this
That's just one example - and only the beginnings of her problems, or the problems of ants made 250 times bigger than normal.
The movie slows down a bit toward the end, getting kind of exposition heavy, but the characters are still fascinating and likable (even though FBI Agent Graham is a bit of a fascist). And Pat, the daughter scientist, is a strong, in charge female character, showing great courage in the creepy trip into the ant hill and ordering the men around with great authority. There is no tacked on romantic subplot. She's just a competent professional, a rare portrayal of a female character even today, much less in a 50's monster movie.
All of the above, plus an ending that includes a heroic sacrifice and a brief appearance by a very young Leonard Nimoy (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS , STAR TREK: First Contact), earns this movie 4 shriek girls.
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