Mrs. Supermarket returned at midnight on Sunday. I had already informed her the previous Thursday that we would be watching the Breaking Bad finale no matter what, even though we knew that there was no way she would be home before twelve if she was going to avoid the weekly parking lot that is the five freeway from San Diego. Not risking spoilers on the official Best Show on Television is worth going to work half-dead. After her arrival, she puttered around the apartment for a few minutes before wandering into the kitchen for something to drink.
That’s when I heard it. An agonized shriek: “UGH! ANTS!” She was in the kitchen for at least twenty minutes killing the ten or so ants that were marching across the countertop, losing precious sleep with each obsessive swipe of the paper towel. None of this surprised me in the least. See… she hates ants. If our kitchen were infested with, say, child molesters, I don’t think her reaction would be as disgusted. Although I would have a great deal more explaining to do.
So as I was trying to decide what to feature this week in Now Fear This month (over in my tiny corner of the Satellite Show, anyway), paging through the Netflix Instant menus, I happened across Them!, my favorite atomic horror film of all time and one that shares a special dread for ants with my tiny bride. (They’re crawling on you right now, sweetie. Can you feel it?) Them! is a legitimate classic in certain circles, and thus shouldn’t fit my arbitrary Now Fear This criteria that the movie be overlooked. However, a lot of horror fans seem to think that everything before Alien is campy bullshit. Granted, the modern horror film wasn’t invented until 1968, but earlier films laid the groundwork for the horror genre as it stands today, and some of them hold up as more than curiosities.
Them! opens with two policemen finding a little girl wearing a bathrobe and pajamas wandering alone in the desert in a state of shock. Investigating further, they find an abandoned trailer that has been pulled apart like ribs at a smokehouse. This is when the film starts feeling awfully familiar, where an eerie crime dovetails into a probe that unearths the supernatural like anal polyps on the colon of murder. It’s like a black and white X-Files, down to the incongruous clues: money left in the open, but all the sugar’s gone. A mysterious footprint that no zoologist can identify. A gun twisted into modern art. A corpse filled with enough formic acid to kill twenty men. The culprits turn out to be giant ants born from the radioactive womb of the New Mexico desert.
As it turns out, the a-bomb pretty well traumatized a whole generation of Americans and we were the ones who dropped the fucking thing. Atomic horror as a genre is about the fear that once out, the genie can’t be stuffed back in that bottle. Like an Old Testament God on mescaline, radiation will wipe us out for our hubris, preferably using the most bizarre means possible. Taking the humblest of creatures and turning it into ten feet of armored acid-spitting nightmare is a pretty good start.
The elephant in the room for any classic creature feature is the creature itself: how does it hold up? Sadly, not great. At the time, the ants had to have been a triumph of engineering, and the truth is, they’re still pretty good all things considered. Unfortunately, a modern audience will never mistake them for living insects. The limitations in movement rob them of the scary quickness that mark today’s CGI, but the puppets do have a weight that computers cannot duplicate. A combination of practical effects and fascism also gives Them! a verisimilitude that modern films will never attain: the flamethrowers used on the ants are actual working flamethrowers used by actual working veterans. This is completely true. James Whitmore, the star of Them! (and immediately identifiable as Brooks, the elderly librarian in The Shawshank Redemption), served in the Marine Corps during the Second World War.
Whitmore delivers a solid performance as one of the cops who finds the first evidence of the ants. As things rapidly spiral above his pay grade, Whitmore keeps true to a blue-collar tough guy act that helps ground what otherwise might be ridiculous. Also, he was a fucking marine, so the tough guy thing really isn’t much of an act. The rest of the cast consists of the standard atomic horror tropes: the square-jawed g-man, the elderly man of science and his brainy sexy daughter. Part of the joys of one of these films is the familiarity, as though you’re watching a sequel but without all that boring backstory to sift through.
This is not to say that the film only works as a campy time capsule. It still has a number of chilling moments, bolstered by the stark desert that serves as the primary locale. The ants communicate with a weird trilling sound, which the film uses to herald their presence, something that also allows the ant puppets to remain hidden for large swaths of time. When my mother showed this to me many years ago, she mentioned being traumatized by the scene in which the elderly man of science attempts to awaken the catatonic little girl from the opening by having her smell a beaker of formic acid. The little girl, suddenly in the grips of terror, can only scream the film’s title over and over again. The scene has idiosyncratic power because it places the girl center of frame and has her scream directly into the camera. Cheesy? Sure. Effective? Yes.
It’s a far cry from my usual favorites, but Them! is a fun and surprisingly influential relic. At a lean ninety-odd minutes, it doesn’t suffer the dragging pace that can sink other black and white films. And it’s the best movie you’ll ever see about giant ants.