Saturday, May 17, 2008

Santa Claus Conquers the Giant Ants

You've probably heard the stories about the crazy rasberry ants that have been making life difficult for people in the Houston metropolitan area. Hollywood made a few movies about insects starting in the early 1950s when low-budget science fiction movies became popular. One such movie about ants is Them!

The movie starts out in the desert of New Mexico, where a family's trailer has been destroyed, with only a little girl having survived, but in a state of shock. There's an odd print left at the scene of the crime, and an impression of it is made and sent to Washington for analysis. The response comes in the form of two scientists, who will reveal all. In an unintentionally funny moment, the scientists explain what happened by by waving a beaker of formic acid under the girl's nose, at which point she comes out of shock, screaming "Them! Them!" Formic acid, as the name implies, is produced by ants; in this case, giant ants that have been mutated as a result of the atomic testing done in New Mexico in 1945. It's imperative that they find the colony, and destroy it, before the queen ants escape to start new colonies!

I mentioned Santa Claus in the title of this post because the main scientist, Dr. Harold Medford, is played by Edmund Gwenn, who is probably best known for his Oscar-winning role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. He and his daughter, fellow entomologist Pat (played by Joan Weldon, who retired young from acting), are the only ones who know what they're looking for, and consequently have to lead the police and the US Army in finding and destroying the ants. As it turns out, that search isn't just going to lead them through the New Mexico desert, but to Los Angeles as well. Two of the queens escaped, and one is determined to have made it to Los Angeles. So, our heroes go to the sewers of Los Angeles to find the new nest and, with any luck, destroy it before any more queens hatch.

The cast is surprisingly good; in addition to Gwenn and Weldon, veteran B-actor James Whitmore (still alive and working at 87) plays the policeman who first investigates the killings in New Mexico. James Arness plays the FBI agent who brings the Medfords into the case. Most fun is a brief appearance by future TV Davy Crockett, Fess Parker, as a man put in an insane asylum after he saw one of the queen ants in flight and reported an ant-shaped UFO! (Funnier, Arness tells the doctor in charge of the asylum to keep the man locked up until he says so, despite knowing the man is fully sane.)

Them! rises above the typical sci-fi fare of the 1950s, with the one major exception that insects can't get above a certain size (much smaller than these ants) without getting crushed by their exoskeletons. But that bit of bad science aside, the story is actually enjoyable, and not nearly as contrived as most of the other sci-fi movies of the era. The effects, of course, aren't the greatest, but back in the 1950s, they didn't have the technology available to us today. Look at the effects in the original Star Wars from 1977 and compare those to the effects of today. Them! is available on DVD, too, if you want a fun little fright.

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