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Film / Them!

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"Exoskeleton armored, exoskeleton might
Exoskeleton horror, exoskeleton bite
Beware of Them!"
The Misfits, "Them"

A classic Sci-Fi Horror movie from 1954, directed by Gordon Douglas and starring James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, and James Arness.

A little girl is found wandering in the New Mexican desert, the only survivor of an unknown calamity that befell her vacationing family. When roused from her catatonia, she can only scream "Theeeeem!" Official investigation finally leads to the discovery that the culprits are Cadillac-sized ants, mutated by atomic radiation. The race is then on to locate and destroy the ants' nest before new queens hatch out and fly across the world.

Made a ton of money for Warner Bros., and so helped establish many of the giant-monster-running-amok cliches for American cinema. Sadly, the vast majority of its imitators lacked the budget and the writing and acting talent on display here.

A Remake of the film has been announced to be in the works, helmed by Michael Giacchino in his feature directorial debut.

Not to be confused with the 2006 French horror film, the 1960s Blues Rock band fronted by Van Morrison, or THEM (2021).

The Film Features examples of:

  • Absent-Minded Professor: Edmund Gwenn's character, Dr. Harold Melford, is a mild example.
  • Absurdly-Spacious Sewer: The Los Angeles storm drains are the setting for the climax.
  • Action Girl: Dr. Pat Medford. She goes into the New Mexico nest along with the men, overriding their objections.
  • Admiring the Abomination: Dr. Medford is fascinated by the giant ants, yet he isn't at all blind to the danger and is adamant they must be destroyed before they threaten mankind.
  • All Your Base Are Belong to Us: Well, ship out in the middle of the ocean with the ants, but the humans get to pull it off too with their nests.
  • Ant Assault: A colony of ants is mutated by atomic radiation and grows to the size of cars. When their queens start to fly off and start new colonies, there is a desperate rush to destroy them before they can spread nationwide.
  • Armor-Piercing Question:
    City official: Now Dr. Medford, since time is of the utmost importance, I recommend we pour gasoline into those drains and light it. That'll burn out anything that's in there and we still be able to control the fires. There will be little or no property damage above the street. Any ants that get through, the troops can take care of them.
    Graham: You can't do that, not yet. Not till we find out for sure if those two kids are in there.
    City official: You think there's a chance they're still alive? Are we supposed to jeopardize the lives of all the people of this city for the sake of two children who in all probability are already dead?
    Graham: Why don't you ask their mother that question, mister.
    Peterson: Yeah, she's standing right over there.
    City official: Yeah, I see what you mean.
  • Anyone Can Die: Peterson, the first important character we meet, dies near the end. Very rare in 1950s cinema. It’s made worse by the fact that he's arguably one of the most likable characters, firmly established as a Friend to All Children (he even saves two boys from the ants before getting killed), and he feels incredibly guilty when Blackburn dies. The fact that the arguably most moral and warm hearted character could be brutally killed off in this universe is the first sign the movie is not going to have a hopeful, optimistic ending...
  • Artistic License – Engineering: The protagonists use radio communication in the third act, which takes place in the storm drains of Los Angeles. Radios do not work underground, especially in reinforced concrete tunnels.
  • Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: More like 10 foot, but that's still much, much larger than regular ants.
  • Big Creepy-Crawlies: Giant radioactive ants! Which don't care about the old rules of nature!
  • Bug War: The Trope Maker! The antagonists are giant ants and the plots focus on stopping them from spreading around the world.
  • Consummate Professional: Dr. Medford the Elder even addresses his own daughter as "doctor" when he's on the clock.
  • Covers Always Lie: The movie poster: The scantily clad woman in the ant's mandibles? The quotes? Not in the movie.
  • Curiosity Killed the Cast: The fate of Blackburn.
  • Down L.A. Drain: Where the giant ants ended up.
  • Emergency Authority: Martial law is declared in LA when evidence strongly points to a new nest below the city. A 6PM curfew is imposed, with military police patrolling the city.
  • The End... Or Is It?: The ants are all wiped out, but Dr. Medford Sr. issues a grim warning; the atomic genie is out the bottle.
  • Fatal Family Photo: Averted. Peterson asks one of the investigators at the trailer attack scene how his kids are doing, and the man replies he and his wife have another one on the way. Instead of being another of the ants’ victims, the investigator doesn’t appear again and presumably survives,
  • Fire-Breathing Weapon: Flamethrowers are used when characters go into ant nests.
  • Foreshadowing: Sergeant Peterson's love of children. Also, the ants swarming over spilled sugar in the store.
  • Friend to All Children: Peterson. It's pretty obvious from his actions and body language that children in any kind of distress really upset him.
  • Gender-Concealing Writing: The characters expect "Dr. Pat Medford" to be a Patrick, not a Patricia.
  • Genre Shift: Starts out as a low-key podunk police investigation, ends with flamethrower assaults in the Los Angeles sewer.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The high pitched sound the ants make.
  • Heroic BSoD: That little girl.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Peterson.
  • Hollywood Apocrypha: Dr. Medford Sr. quotes some as the scope of the problem appears...
    "And there shall be destruction and darkness come over creation
    "And the Beasts shall reign over the earth."
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Ben: "If I can still raise an arm when I get out of here, I'll show you how well saturated I can get!" Robert quickly agrees, and even Dr. Medford Sr. thinks it sounds like a good idea, though he regretfully concludes he's too old for it.
  • Immune to Bullets: Unless you aim at the antennae, effectively blinding the ants. They're not completely immune, but quite resistant, and it's better to Kill It with Fire (or gas).
  • Improbable Infant Survival: Though this is still a pretty grim dark movie, mostly played straight, but averted for one subtle instance offscreen before the start of the film; see Fridge tab...
  • Informed Ability: The ants are certainly dangerous, but Dr. Medford's prediction that they could drive humanity to extinction seems unfounded. Even ignoring their inability to cross the oceans without some monumentally unobservant boat or plane crews (see below), pistol-caliber rounds are shown killing them. In an all-out war there'd certainly be heavy human casualties, but with the advantages of explosives, air support, and superior numbers, we'd kill them far faster than they could spawn, and eventually locate their queens.
  • It's All My Fault: Peterson leaves Blackburn in charge of securing the latest crime scene and waiting for back-up, which gives way to Curiosity Killed the Cast. Afterwards, Peterson blames himself, despite the police captain assuring him that he behaved appropriately.
  • It's Personal: Peterson takes the death of his partner at the jaws of the ants very personally.
  • Kill It with Fire: This film had flamethrower-toting heroes stalking monsters through dark tunnels decades before Alien.
  • The Main Characters Do Everything: Exactly why is Peterson, a New Mexico State Trooper, still hanging around assisting the FBI and the Army long after the story has left New Mexico in the dust? (Actually, given the security concerns, it makes sense to restrict the personnel involved to those who need to know. Peterson already knows, so it's better to keep him around. Plus, he's an experienced police officer, and obviously a combat vet, both useful qualities.)
  • Male Gaze: Our first glimpse of Pat combines this with Feet-First Introduction, Leg Focus, and Skirts and Ladders. As she exits from the bottom of a plane, her skirt gets caught on a ladder, putting her legs on display for a few seconds. A crewman offers assistance, but she demurs.
  • The Men in Black: The pilot who witnesses the flying ants can't get anyone to believe him, and the doctor tells the protagonists he's going to let him go as he thinks he's faking insanity to excuse crashing his aircraft. Instead the protagonists order the doctor to commit the pilot until the government tells him otherwise. Ah, those were the days; none of this memory-wiping flashy stuff...
  • Monster Delay: Much of the beginning of the film shows only the aftermath of the ants' attacks. We see only the damage they have caused and a few bodies, one of which is filled with acid and chewed to bits. This helped build up their menace prior to them turning up on screen.
  • Noisy Nature: The ants display good lung-power, constantly chittering and shrieking vaguely cicada-like noises. No, it's not biologically accurate. But damn if it isn't creepy...
  • No Kill like Overkill: The body of Gramps Johnson, owner of the local general store and one of the first victims of the ants, is so horribly mangled that the coroner can't determine the exact cause of death. Him getting pumped full of formic acid as well seems like the ants were just being mean...
  • Nuclear Mutant: The ants are enormous because of, yes, radiation-induced mutations. They appear in New Mexico because that's the site of the first atomic bomb test at Alamogordo.
  • Police Procedural: The movie has the straightforward quasi-documentary style of contemporaneous Police Procedurals like Dragnet.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Every layer of government behaves as rationally as it can, under the circumstances. This becomes an Invoked Trope when the authorities go public; before beginning their announcement, they introduce a tableful of generals and scientists to support the statement that's about to be made, so the public will believe it.
  • Screaming Woman: Used effectively (i.e. with restraint) for once. Pat Metford screams the first time she (and the audience) catch sight of a giant killer ant at close quarters, but is calm and professional the rest of the movie. And of course there's the catatonic girl who suddenly breaks into a Title Drop when she smells a vial of formic acid.
  • Shown Their Work: To inform some military officials about what they are up against, Dr. Harold Melford provides a presentation about ants via footage of real-life ants with him narrating details about ant biology. All of the facts he states about them are entirely true and the details about ant biology in the film is on point to what was known at the time.
    • The exception of the ants communicating via sound instead of pheromones is forgivable as the latter was poorly known at the time, and the assumption was that ants used infrasonic calls humans couldn't typically hear. Not unless you drastically scaled them up.
  • Splash of Color: The entire movie is grayscale with the exception of the title at the start. The movie was supposed to be shot in color until a last minute change.
  • Sound-Only Death: Blackburn hears the sound of the ants outside the wrecked store he's stationed guarding at. As it's growing dark due to both a duststorm and night approaching, he turns off the light in the store and moves towards the hole while drawing his pistol. He steps outside and out of frame, and the audience is treated to the sound of the ants' calls intensifying, several gunshots, and finally Blackburn's screams.
  • Square-Cube Law: Obviously ignored, but let's face it — you couldn't have the movie if you didn't.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Impressively averted, considering the era it was made in.
    • The military gasses the nest of giant killer ants, and the next stage is for someone to go down into the nest and confirm they're all dead. This is universally recognized as a very bad idea, yet Dr. Pat Medford argues firmly and convincingly that she has to go down into the nest as her father is too old and she can't give the two male leads "a crash course in insect pathology".
    • Later in the movie, when they search the drains under Los Angeles, Pat is in one of the lead jeeps looking for the new nest.
  • Stock Scream: Several uses of the Wilhelm Scream. (Although this was long before it became an example of this trope.)
  • That Came Out Wrong: A pilot (played by Fess Parker) who's been locked up in an asylum for his claim of seeing giant flying ants defends his sanity:
    Pilot: "You think I'd make up something like that? A fella'd have to crazy to make up something like that! I mean..."
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: The fate of Gramps Johnson, who dies five times over: his neck and back broken, his skull fractured, his chest crushed, and his body saturated with enough formic acid to kill twenty men - all of which add to the mystery at the time, since they don't know what "stung to death by a giant ant" looks like yet.
  • Title Drop: When the little girl is snapped out of her Heroic BSoD, she SHOUTS it...
    "THEM! THEM!"
  • Too Dumb to Live: No one noticed a bunch of giant ants nesting on a ship? This is at least lampshaded when a character asks the same question.
  • Walkie-Talkie Gag, Over: The film includes a variant on this gag when the elder Melford tries to talk some other characters over an official radio channel.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Invoked, but subverted. Peterson suggests when reporting to the police chief that a homicidal maniac is responsible, citing the extreme property damage and lack of anything stolen other than sugar. The chief promptly points out that they'd have been notified if a loony killer had escaped from any mental asylum in the area, and also that both Gramps Jonson and Ed Blackburn were armed more than sufficiently to kill a human assailant.
    Chief: So, unless your maniac was armored like a battleship, there's no maniac in this case.
  • You Have to Believe Me!: The elder Melford appears to be trying to avoid this situation. It's clear he immediately has a good idea what's going on, but he insists on not telling the others until irrefutable proof is found. Only Pat knows what he's thinking, and she pointedly refuses to explain to Graham when asked.