MONOCHROME MANOR Presents:
Review by Steve Van Samson
Down a particularly twisted road, over an old bridge and up, up on the very top of a hill where no one goes, stands a forgotten manse. With a sudden clap of thunder, the nameplate flashes—MONOCHROME MANOR. Standing here, nearly forgotten, is a place out of time. A place where bookshelves move, portraits leer, and, on nights just like this… old black and white movies are screened in the house’s totally plush theater room.
Tonight’s Feature: THEM! (1954)
First, a little history… (lest we be doomed to repeat it)
On the 16th of July 1945, at nearly 5:30 in the morning, the first atomic bomb (Trinity) was successfully tested in the Jornada del Muerto Desert of New Mexico—as World War II entered its final grueling months. And as the world gaped at this new, most terrible of all marvels, it knew there could be no turning back. For, like it or not, the atomic age had begun.
Almost a decade later, something rose from the radioactive ashes left by Trinity’s historic blast. Something which even J. Robert Oppenheimer never saw coming. Science fiction scare pictures, featuring enormous mutated monsters, began creeping and crawling out of the woodwork. But what, pray tell, could cause such startling growth spurts in this gaggle of gargantuans? Why, leftover radiation, caused by too many atomic explosions, of course.
That’s right, shame on us. For much like the dwarves of Moria, we delved too deeply.
These atomic age monster flicks, provided their initial audiences with the best sort of escapism, since the chord they struck was a familiar one, and more importantly, all too real. Something which was already plaguing humanity’s collective conscience. The most famous of the batch is probably GOJIRA (1954), but the terror of Tokyo (who, Americans know better as Godzilla) was just one of many. By the end of the 50s, we had 49 flavors of giant monster, and not all of them are worth your time. One film that is just happened to be Warner Bros. highest grossing picture of 1954. That film was… THEM!
But enough of that…
Our story begins on a remote, dusty road, as two New Mexico state troopers are finishing up their daily patrol. Right before they pack it in, word comes over the radio about some crazy kid, wandering the desert! The lead trooper, Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore, PLANET OF THE APES, 1969, BATTLEGROUND, 1949), finds the kid no problem, but the weirdness only starts there. The strange little girl makes no response to his presence nor to his numerous attempts at getting her attention. Instead, she just continues sleepwalking her way across the desert, clutching a doll that is missing part of its head. We see both concern and confusion bloom on Sgt. Ben’s mug as he tries to get the girl to speak, but even when he picks her up and places her in the squad car, she doesn’t seem to notice he’s there.
Even by the calloused standards of today, the whole thing is eerie and unsettling.
No sooner is everyone back in the car, than the radio buzzes back to life. Another call, this time the report is of a car and trailer about three miles up the road, possibly abandoned. Thinking the mystery girl might belong to the owners of the car, the troopers go on ahead. But instead of finding a family grateful for the safe return of their lost little girl, Sgt. Ben and trooper Ed (Chris Drake) enter a most grisly crime scene. The trailer is in shambles, its walls pried open from the inside out. The officers find a myriad of bizarre clues including freshly strewn sugar cubes and a footprint unlike anything they’ve seen. Sadly, the only traces of the owners are torn shreds of blood stained clothing.
Trooper Ed is quick to call in their findings and requests an ambulance for the little girl.
Soon, the scene is abuzz with police and official types. As the girl is loaded into the ambulance, the attendant (William Schallert in an uncredited role) assures a concerned Sgt. Ben that he will be with her for the entire ride and that she will be comfortable and perfectly safe. That is when we first hear the sound of THEM! Like a wailing, chirping drone, the sound rises non-directionally from the desert, causing the sleeping girl to sit straight up in her bed and stare in blank horror. Clearly this is something she has heard before, but Sgt. Ben has his back to the girl and does not notice the reaction.
The sound, as we will soon learn, is as much a character in the film as anyone. It may not be as iconic as Godzilla’s trademark roar, but it accomplishes the same ends—conditioning the audience, preparing us for the arrival of THEM!
Having had quite enough of the crime scene for one day, Sgt. Ben and trooper Ed decide to pay a visit to the nearby General Store to see if old Gramps Johnson has seen or heard anything out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, when they arrive, the man doesn’t have a lot to say, because Gramps Johnson… is already dead! It doesn’t take a detective to see that the store has been given the same once over as the trailer and Sgt. Ben decides to burn rubber back to town and question their only lead, (that little girl). But just as he pulls away, trooper Ed, who elected to remain at the crime scene until reinforcements arrive, hears a most unusual sound. Like a wailing, chirping drone, it sets him immediately on edge. Drawing his weapon, the man stalks cautiously outside—just, as it turns out, not cautiously enough.
The last we hear of trooper Ed, are his screams.
The next day, we find Sgt. Ben at his wits end. The police, having no idea what to make of the recent crimes and strange evidence, decide to bring in our second leading man, FBI officer Robert Graham (James Arness, GUNSMOKE, 1955-1975, and THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, 1951). From this point out, the movie becomes the Sgt. Ben and Robert show, which is no problem considering the quality of the two actors.
The pair’s first order of business is to head to the airport to receive a pair of doctors—agriculturists in fact, both of whom carry the name of Medford. Actually a father and daughter team, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn from MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, 1947) and his daughter, Dr. Pat (Joan Weldon) have some seriously out there theories about what’s really going on in New Mexico, but they aren’t ready to share. At least, not quite yet. First, they must pay a visit to that little girl we found walking the earth back in scene one.
Fortunately, using the old formic acid in water under the nose routine, Dr. Harold is able to jolt the little girl back to her senses. Unfortunately, she only begins to scream hysterically–one word over and over as horrors from the past replay in her mind. THEM! She shouts, pointing at phantoms, THEM! THEM! THEMMM!!!
It’s all very unsettling. Poor kid.
So who are the THEM? Why gigantic mutant ants, what else? Caused, as Dr. Harold proposes, by the atomic blast of nine years prior, which happened to have occurred in the same general area. After finally meeting one of THEM in the very next scene, we learn a couple things. Chief among which, THEY are incredibly difficult to kill. Nigh-bullet proof, with jaws that can bend carbon steel.
Quickly the film transitions into a full-blown action fest, as our heroes race to locate the monsters’ underground nest, then proceed to storm it like a Normandy beach. With marine-style action and the roar of flame throwers, it’s easy to see the cues James Cameron took when he made ALIENS (1986). And after many bullets and much spent fuel and sweat, the ants are finally all dead. But just when you think it’s back patting time, the movie throws our heroes a curve ball.
Deep within the nest, they discover what Doctor Harold identifies as the birthing chamber. Wherein lie the broken eggs of two new winged queens, who had apparently fled before the attack began. Where they went is anyone’s guess, but it’s up to Sgt. Ben, Arnold and the Doctors Medford to track them down and save the day, and perhaps… the very world.
THEM! was directed by Gordon Douglas (IN LIKE FLINT, 1967) and is an intensely enjoyable romp of a film. By far one of the best 50s era creature features, it excels on just about every level. Scary, suspenseful, eerie, exciting and sometimes funny in really unexpected ways, THEM! 1954 is all these things.
© Copyright 2017 by Steve Van Samson