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THEM!

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: James Whitmore, James Arness, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon
Director: Gordon Douglas
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Behind-the-scenes footage, cast filmographies, gallery, trailer
Length: 92 minutes
Release Date: August 6, 2002

"Man as the dominant species of life on Earth will probably be extinct within a year!"

Film ***

On July 16, 1945, a dangerous test conducted deep within the arid deserts of White Sands, New Mexico heralded the start of the Atomic Age.  "Trinity" was the name of this test, the first-ever detonation of a plutonium bomb.  Observing the destructive might of the Trinity experiment on that fateful day, J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, is said to have remarked, "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

And so, for better or for worse, the dictated path of human existence was irreversibly changed.  Would Trinity signal the start of the end for the human race?  The monster thriller Them! (1954) postulates one such theoretical outcome of the White Sands experiment.

Them!, like many giant monster movies of the 1950's, reflected the great social anxiety over the power of the Bomb.  In particular, these films played upon public hysteria over the unknown effects of nuclear radioactivity.  One such concern was that of mass mutations, and what better way to exploit this fear in the cinema than to forecast the dreaded arrival of enormous radioactive beasts?  So was born the likes of giant Gila monsters, giant spiders, giant insects, and certainly that most famous of all nuclear beasts, Gojira (or as Americans know him, Godzilla).

Them! opens in New Mexico when a police patrol with Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) picks up a young girl wandering about the vast expanse of desert alone and in shock.  Her family's destroyed camper is soon located nearby but of the family's whereabouts, no one knows.  The girl is apparently the only survivor of a gruesome tragedy, but she refuses to divulge any further information than to shriek occasionally in terror, "Them!  Them!  Them!"

Clues to the identities of her family's assailants surface in the form of a giant antenna and an unusual footprint in the camper's vicinity.  When a cop is later killed at this crime scene, the ensuing autopsy reveals an extraordinarily high level of formic acid in his corpse.  The mystery thickens!  What sort of monster uses formic acid to kill?  Was it a bug-eyed alien...or simply a bug, albeit a ridiculously big one?

Sgt. Ben Peterson's investigation soon draws the attention of government special agent Robert Graham (James Arness).  The G-man is able to tap into the vast resources of the United States government, enlisting the expert counsel of one Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn).  Naturally, the brilliant scientist, arriving in New Mexico, is accompanied by a lovely young female assistant who just happens to be his daughter Patricia (Joan Weldon).  These four must somehow solve the mystery at hand quickly, as what had started out as a regional homicide case soon explodes into a top secret nationwide hunt.  By the end of the film, even the city of Los Angeles will become besieged as a fiery finale erupts between army soldiers and the monsters themselves.

Seen today, Them! still retains a great deal of its original suspense and drama.  While the true identity of the monsters is revealed relatively early in the film, Them! establishes much of its dramatic tension not from the still-impressive special effects but rather from the desperate race-against-time of Man versus Monster.  The creatures must all be destroyed before they spread and endanger humanity's densely-populated cities, engulfing the world in an epic battle whose only conclusion can be the utter extinction of the human race.

Them! hardly endorses a hard science view of the real consequences of long-term radiation exposure, but it certainly remains enjoyable from start to finish.  Unlike most creature features which are basically insulting to one's intelligence, Them! maintains its dignity and internal story logic while simultaneously offering deliciously tense stand-offs and screamingly fun "boo" moments.  It joins such 50's horror classics as The Thing or Invasion of the Body Snatchers as films which have stood the test of time.  Visual effects technology may have advanced over the years, but Them! proves that a good and gripping story will always overcome any out-dated special effects.

Video **

Them! is presented in black & white, save for an unexpected splash of bright red during the opening credits.  Originally, the film was intended to be made entirely in color and in 3-D, too.

The image quality is mildly grainy with only minor debris marks or scratches, nothing that should detract from viewing.  For an older film, the picture quality is generally excellent, with solid black & white definition and contrast levels.

Audio **

This is a monophonic film.  Even so, it is surprisingly aggressive due to the vast number of gunshots, shrieks, and monster noises throughout the film.  Audio quality is quite acceptable, given the film's age.

Features *

I really dig the "screaming tabloids"-style cover artwork.  It's 50's-era sensationalism at its most enjoyable!  There are few extras on this disc, but they are all presented in a similar style.  A small article highlights some of the better entries in the giant monster genre, such as Mothra or the various Godzilla films.  Also included are a short cast and crew credits page, a vintage trailer, and an art gallery of twenty-five entries, including production stills and promotional artwork.  Lastly, three minutes of various outtakes reveal the design and operation of the monsters of Them!.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Fess Parker, the future Davy Crockett, has a small role in the film as a pilot deemed crazy and unreliable following his eyewitness encounter with the monsters.

Summary:

Them! is a darn good vintage creature feature that remains highly effective today thanks to solid pacing, tense drama, and impressive special effects.

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