The first true horror movie I ever saw, and the only ’50s B-movie that scared me at all. (What can I say, I would have been… seven? Eight? Another one of those Sci-Fi channel movie marathons celebrating Labor Day or Columbus Day or something.) I liked it enough that I taped a later showing, and watched it until the tape burned out. It may not have much actual horror, but it does have good atmosphere for the first third, and some great action scenes for the last acts. Great fun, at least.
Pretty basic plot. Ants were mutated by atomic bomb testing in the White Sands area of New Mexico. They’re now giant, killer, and lurking the countryside in waves. The local authorities find out because some locals are being killed off; now they’re on the hunt to stop the ants from spreading… which they eventually do, leading to a showdown in the Los Angeles sewer system.
At the end of the day, it’s a giant bugs movie, but it’s the granddaddy of all giant bugs movies. I can’t think of a ’50s B-movie that handled its inane giant bugs plot with more seriousness or atmosphere. It has the benefit of lots of post-War military surplus on-hand, it’s filmed on location, its cast is pretty good, and they have some impressive (for 1954) special effects. It’s corny, but it’s also the best example within its genre.
Come to think of it, there is a close second, but it’s more of a Kaiju film. Rodan has always impressed me for the same style of horror: watch the first parts again, with mine workers and military policemen dicking around in a flooded mineshaft, getting picked off one by one. What makes that even better is that they’re dying not from the titular kaiju, but some Cloverfield-esque parasites; when the rodan show up, shit gets real, but most of the movie is over by the time the miniature buildings get wrecked. Much like Them!, if you turned it on without knowing what it’s about, the lurking horror mystery would be really well done. Alas, when there’s a giant rubber animal on the poster, you already know what you’re getting into.
Why is it scary?
To a greater or lesser extent, it isn’t; we all know it’s giant bugs, and there’s only so much horror you can do with giant ants. That said, the movie has a excellent pacing for the first half hour: we don’t see the bugs, just the devastation of their passing. It’s a solid trick to any horror movie: don’t show the monster until it’s too late. Them! does this with style: little girl with a broken doll, busted-out trailer, ruined store and dead shopkeep. If you weren’t paying attention, the mystery of it all would be stunning. Instead, since we know it’s giant bugs, it’s not so much mysterious as deeply atmospheric.
It’s also set in the most isolated setting ever: the desert. There’s nobody around except for the cops, the bumbling scientist, and his daughter. Those two cops were perfectly isolated for the first act; you could chalk that up to “B-movies had no budget” except the film has dozens and dozens of extras running around L.A. for the final fight scenes. It’s a gradual growth in characters as the magnitude of the threat increases, which I think adds to the film’s charm: strange happenings in the New Mexico desert to army dudes driving jeeps around the L.A. sewers.