Halloween Every Day (for a Month)
By Andrew Neil Cole
Day 5: Them! (1954).
There exists, among horror fans and historians, a need to illuminate the ways in which the socioeconomic and political factors of a specific era have influenced the genre. This comes from an inherent need within those who love horror to legitimize the genre, make it appear more relevant and weighty to those who snootily dismiss the very idea that something meant to be scary can also be germane to a larger societal discussion. Unfortunately, this need to assign intrinsic cultural value to horror cinema often leads to some wild hypothesizing. For example, I agree that the zombies in Night of the Living Dead are more indelibly terrifying because they represent revolution in a time of social discord; however, I do not agree that the killer rabbits in Night of the Lepus (1972) are somehow scarier because, according to some, they symbolize the American people’s fear of government power run amuck in the wake of the Attica prison riot and the Kent State shootings. I mean, think about it: If you were trying to create a lasting, powerful metaphor for the government using violence against its own people to suppress individual thought and impose its own evil agenda, would you choose killer rabbits? I doubt it. Some horror films are just silly—or even stupid—and that’s the way it should be.
The one era that has had arguably the most obvious impact on the horror genre began when the end of World War II gave birth to the Cold War and all of its attendant hostilities and paranoia. Fear of atomic obliteration signified the inevitable dawn of mutant, giant monsters in the movies. In my opinion, the best of these atomic-age nightmares is Them!, the giant mutant atomic ant movie from 1954. As silly as this movie may seem at first blush (the exclamation point in the title certainly doesn’t instill in the viewer a sense of gravitas), the potential dangers of atomic energy are actually unpacked with great care, and the actors bring real life and much-needed urgency to characters that could have easily become genre clichés. James Whitmore is the local cop who first realizes the danger. Edmund Gwenn is the scientist called upon to solve the problem before the ants spread uncontrollably and kill us all! James Arness is the dashing, heroic G-man (a not-so-subtle reminder that the government employs its share of good guys). And Joan Weldon plays a scientist, who, while strikingly beautiful, is no screaming damsel in distress or wilting flower. No, she willingly plunges headfirst into the path of encroaching danger; moreover, she’s actually respected for her intellect, which is pretty rare for a female character in a horror film of this era. Of course, the ants look ridiculous—with their rubbery thoraxes and crooked mandibles in a state of constant shimmy—but, to be honest, even if this production had had access to the most amazing, groundbreaking, state-of-the-art special effects, we’re still talking about giant ants here. How cool could they possibly look?
Perhaps Them!’s crowning achievement is that it succeeds as a worthy and watchable giant-ant horror film despite the lack of believable giant ants—the rest of the movie is just that good. And, in the spirit of complete honesty, I have to admit to kind of loving the ants, no matter how cheesy.