Old horror films are not to everyone's taste; they can be a bit too much of the time, containing sexism and racism that is very uncomfortable to see with our more modern and politically correct sensibilities. They aren't perhaps as scary as modern horror fans expect. Indeed they appear to be virtually family friendly, with PG and U ratings in recent releases. What they are, however, are time capsules, capturing the age perfectly by providing a visual representation of a society’s fears. They are also progenitors of the horror genre, usually being the first to try something new with unique monsters, camera or editing techniques, and therefore providing historical importance. That's where Them! comes in; this classic from 1954 sparked off the subgenre of radioactive creatures within the American horror genre, with its ground-breaking and award-winning special effects. Warner Brothers has released a Premium Collection that includes a Blu-Ray, a DVD and a Digital HD Download through Ultraviolet for those like me who love to watch what spooked our ancestors.
Them! very simply is about giant nuclear ants. In the New Mexico desert, the sight of nuclear weapons tests back in 1945, strange murders and other bizarre occurrences begin to take place. It turns out that the nuclear experiments aggravated the growth of a species of ant leading them to be over 9 feet long. It then becomes a race against time to stop the spread of the giant insects, before the entire United States becomes infested with swarms of massive invertebrates.
Unlike other films Them! and movies of its ilk make it hard to talk about the quality of the filmmaking. Them! because of lower budgets like most of its B-Movie contemporaries, is not as well produced as the A-pictures. That is not to say that the film is bad, it is just that acting, cinematography and story aren't the primary focus of the movie. However some of the performances are quite good, James Whitemore for example (many of you may recognise the name, as Whitemore would later play Brooks Hatlen in The Shawshank Redemption) does an excellent job with the slightly schlocky material. Most of the other actors though fall pray to their own strange acting choices, like Edmund Gwenn as Dr Henry Mendfod, or the predominant acting style of the day like James Arness as FBI Agent Robert Graham.
However as previously stated the the main reason to watch Them! isn't the acting or the story but for the monsters attacking cities, and my god! it is glorious. While it is easy to say that Them!'s effects have not held up in the 60 years since its release, I would argue that this is part of its appeal, though I must admit I do have some very strange tastes. There is an earnestness to the film within its intricate puppetry and ear-splitting sound design that is lacking in other horror movies. The movement may be limited, and the ants look a bit silly in bright light, but they are actually there, actually causing the terror.
It seems a bit of a disservice to denigrate Them! to the creaky movie shelf when in fact it is so much more than that. Made during the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, Them! acts not only as a warning and exploration about the dangers of nuclear weapons on the surface but also demonstrates that a more subconscious fear was swarming to the surface. The ants in them could be read as a fear of communist infiltration already in the United States that would destabilise the way of life though secret cells spread across the country, much like the way the ants set up colonies under major metropolitan areas. Whatever the ants mean it demonstrates that Them! is more than a cheap monster movie, but an important historical document, not only of the birth of nuclear creature features but as an examination of the fears of an entire country during a fascinating and critical point in modern history. Them! the Premium Edition is an important thing to pick up if you are a film historian or just a fan of slightly goofy Sci-FI.
Warner Brothers have presented the film in High Definition 16x9 with and 1.85:1 aspect ratio and a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, which does wonders for both sound and vision.
While the menu on the Blu-Ray disk is a little simple, it is easy to navigate and operate. However, the DVD menu is set up like the poster for a 1950's horror film; while it is just as easy to understand as the Blu-Ray menu this visual design makes it a little more interesting.
This collection has both DVD and Blu-Ray disks both of which have been produced to a fine standard. Indeed, black and white film lends itself to high definition, the sharp chiaroscuro particularly leads to a beautiful image that draws the viewer into the movie. Similarly, the sound is great; the high definition audio allows the viewer to fully hear the ominous music and calls of the giant ants.
There is definitely a bonus in watching the lovingly crafted large insect effects in high definition, and while it can look a bit dated, the slight roughness and low-tech aesthetic in the film add to its charms.
What is slightly disappointing is that in this Premium Collection edition of the film the only extras available are a trailer and a brief montage of silent footage of the ant special effects, as well as four high-quality postcards. I personally would have liked to have seen a documentary about the film, maybe commentary from cast and crew or film experts if the former two are unavailable. While the lack of extras, may be a question of access to materials, there are other collections of films that were made around the same time with more detailed extras, and it is a mild annoyance that they are not seen here.
However despite this Them! Premium Collection provides enough of a fix for those who have a particular interest in classic horror and science-fiction from the age of the red scare and nuclear paranoia.