An icon of the 50s horror cycle

Although Them has the pastiche of 1952’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms – beginning with a series of mysterious, unexplained accidents which baffle science – Warner’s film is capable of avoiding the tropes which would send nuclear age sci-fi into bitter low budget drivel. Them is a New Mexico police procedural/whodunnit, slipping into the clothes of a giant insect thriller.

Carrying the slightest brevity of modern blockbusters in-between wonderful moments of alarmist science, Them proves utterly fantastic in its execution, miles over the genre’s often neutralizing cheapness. The craggy, rock-littered New Mexico deserts; the unsettling stare of a young girl in total shock; howling winds and shadowy, almost noir-ish nighttime interiors; the piercing shrill of gargantuan insects. Blended together, Them becomes an indispensable addition to the ’50s cycle. Few were ever constructed better.

Them even cites the Bible to suggest civilization has lived up to the worst of our potential…

Them breaks America’s spirit. Guns are left broken on the ground; for once they’re not enough. The film shrieks at science for their atomic breakthroughs, generic in modern times if delivered with eerie prominence from Edmund Gwenn’s Dr. Medford and the sizable form of James Arness. World War II’s veterans are fighters, but also alcoholics committed to special hospital wings. Them even cites the Bible to suggest civilization has lived up to the worst of our potential – “We may be witnesses of a Biblical prophecy come true.”

Warner’s ant picture is A-class (pun unintended), stirring and relentless, in addition to being better photographed than anything in America’s “big bugs/monster run amok” clan. The cinematic congestion which would follow sadly left a negative impact. Giant ants turned routine, kitschy. But, Them is their stand-alone king.

Those real stars, full size and imposing ants, are genuine creepers. Supported by rods and wires, the effect is quaint yet believable. Their real world scale means the image is stable without the need for various optical quirks or miniatures. Them carries with it 60 years of age. The combination of suspenseful black and white cinematography and fully realized ants barely dates the piece…

… Except those elements which are notable by the change in social standards. Joan Weldon’s Dr. Patricia Medford is hit with a flurry of sexist barbs before she’s even off the plane in New Mexico. Mental hospitals are “loony bins” and “nut houses.” However, the period is also strangely comforting. Government higher-ups impose martial law on Los Angeles without paranoia, cries of cover-ups, or dishonesty. People listened. Maybe it was naive, but post-WWII, there was reason to be shaken by any reality. Fear was routine. The internet changed everything.

Also out of the ordinary is the lack of full scale attacks. Them’s ambiguously named title creations do not ravage Los Angeles landmarks. They stay underground. It’s what ants do. This allows for an unfamiliar, careful, and even quiet build-up before the all-out, rifles out ant shooting gallery can commence. Limitations of the effects – puppets at this scale would need to destroy actual buildings – force a claustrophobic battle which loses nothing and only helps Them become a solidified classic. [xrr rating=5/5 label=Movie]

For having such large mandibles, they sure did pick those bones clean @ 33:45

Them is an interesting case study in vintage films on Blu-ray. It is both stunning and terribly flawed, a difficult disc to parse considering. While shot in black & white, the opening title card is an attention-grabbing red and blue. Compared to the DVD edition, there is a loss of intensity in the colors; the blues are greatly subdued while the red has little pop.

That will be the case for much of the film which is eager for better dimensionality. Gray scale is clipped. Contrast is not as pronounced. Mostly, Them is set in gray with superb shadows and blacks. Missing is the added punch from the top end. Them feels as if viewed through mild sunglasses.

Then there is concern over the aspect ratio, correct at 1.78:1 or so, but cropped vertically and pulled horizontally. It’s evident immediately from the Warner shield which appears far too portly. Vertical space feels pinched for much of the film with limiting headroom. To continue the pile-on, the grain replication issue evident in each film of the Special Effects Collection Blu-ray set returns. Edges are coarse and grain feels mushy, although Them is the best case scenario of the set. It’s impacted the least, and compared to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ gritty snow, the whipping desert sands of Them present no trouble.

Thankfully, Them is in pristine condition. The print is immaculate. No specks, hairs, dirt, scratches, or gate weave are evident. It’s a top level preservation despite the issues. Clarity is tremendous. Note the third act carries a distinct haze as the main players enter the sewer. Them has always been this way, shot on location inside a drainage pipe. Fidelity takes a drastic drop to no fault of the disc.

What Them lacks in pop it makes up for in resolution. Close-ups string along a series of nicely defined images. Prop ants, even when cloaked by sands, show off details in their construction. There is fine material to take away from the presentation, no matter the faults. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Video]

Mixed low, a bit of an adjustment to the volume is an easy correction. The first reel has some static noticeable in the score. Things are quickly repaired. DTS-HD mono manages a great low-end as cyanide bombs are dropped into the nest, distortion free. Dialog work is precise.

Some pieces of the music feel held back or slip under the action without notice. Them becomes a bit of an audio jumble in spots. It is unlikely to be a reflection of the disc and rather part of the primitive sound capabilities of source. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Audio]

Ants is the lone bonus (outside of a rather long theatrical trailer), a showcase of deleted scenes, effects mistakes, or other takes. There is no explanation or commentary. The material is still interesting to see even at only a few minutes long. [xrr rating=2/5 label=Extras]


Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.

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