‘Them!’: Warner Bros.’ Sci-Fi Classic Was the First and Best of the ’50s ‘Big Bug’ Movies

scene from the black-and-white 1954 sci-fi movie
Courtesy Everett Collection
An ant coming to really ruin Joan Weldon and James Arness' picnic in Them! (1954)

(Originally posted April 15, 2023; updated Sept. 18, 2023)

Them! — Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, at 8pm ET on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) 

Over its 100 years of existence, the iconic Warner Bros. studio has been a pioneer in many types of cinematic storytelling.

On TCM the evening of Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, you will see another way in which Warner Bros. broke ground in movies when the network screens Warner’s 1954 sci-fi/horror classic Them!, the first and best of the “big bug” movies that swarmed theaters during the early post-World War II Atomic Age.

Them! kicks off TCM’s Sept. 18 evening lineup of several “big bug” films. Following Them! will be Tarantula (1955), Mothra (1961), The Wasp Woman (1959), The Black Scorpion (1957) and Cosmic Monsters (1958, aka The Strange World of Planet X). (These films all fall under TCM’s very cute subject header of “I Like Big Bugs and I Cannot Lie”).

Horizontal, squarish U.S. theatrical poster for the 1954 sci-fi monster movie "Them!" Taking up most of the poster's left are black-and-white/ yellow-tinged illustrations of the film's gigantic ants, heading in a swarm toward the right of the poster. The ants are in a city, and the illustration shows one ant clasping a woman in its mandibles while other people flee. One of the fleeing men has a word balloon attached to him, with red letters within that white balloon saying: "Kill one and two take its place!" Running diagonally downward toward the right of the poster, parallel to and just ahead of the ants, is "THEM!" in red lettering. A square in the upper right of the poster shows a black and-white photo of a police officer speaking into a phone, accompanied by the words "This city is under martial law until we annihilate THEM!" Right above this photo, set in white letters against a black background, is the phrase: "No Menace Like It Known to Man or Beast Before!" Above that, and running horizontally across the entire poster's top is this phrase, set in red letters against a black background: "A Horror Horde of Crawl-and-Crush Giants Clawing Out of the Earth's Steaming Depths!"Below the poster's action, running across the bottom in black lettering against a white background is: "THEM!" Starring James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness Presented by Warner Bros. (with Warner Bros.' "WB" logo finishing the line at the far right of the poster)

With a kick-ass poster like this, you know a film HAS to be awesome! (Courtesy Everett Collection)

The early to late 1950s saw the heyday of movies about giant monsters awakened from, and/or mutated by, atomic testing, reflecting the anxiety felt during an era not even a decade removed from the horrific devastation of the A-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These new and little-understood potential weapons of war likely delivered enough chills to people with their real-world capabilities.

But what if, as movie studios led by Warner Bros. began to posit, the fallout from those devices could disrupt the natural order and resurrect monstrosities from eons past, or turn innocent things like ants into gigantic monsters?

A year before Them!, Warner Bros. had already released another outstanding feature that was the first overall “giant atomic monster” of the era: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which found a dinosaur being awakened from its long Arctic slumber by atomic tests and eventually wreaking havoc on New York City.

Warner Bros.’ Beast launched the whole ’50s giant monster movie craze, and even helped inspired Japan’s Toho Studios in its production of 1954’s Gojira, better known to American audiences a few years later as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

After Beast, Warner Bros. went ahead and also created one of the more popular subgenres underneath the “atomic monster” umbrella: the “big bug” creature feature. Insects and spiders are creepy enough to a lot of people in their normal states; what if they were turned into something even more monstrous, and presented in an unnervingly large size?

That’s the sort of premise first explored in Them!, where ants have been transformed into gigantic monsters after years of exposure to radiation left over from A-bomb testing in the New Mexico desert.

And if you think the original poster for Them!, seen above, was full of hype, check out its trailer:

While Them! does live up to that hype, it fortunately is not nearly as melodramatic as those promotional materials.

The movie actually takes its time before revealing the creatures, which is good for a few reasons. For one thing, they are kind of silly-looking, although considering the effects standards of the day they aren’t too bad, and certainly there would be far more ludicrous creations hitting movie screens in these types of films over the ensuing years in cheaper movies with less creative talents (I’m looking at you, The Giant Claw).

Director Gordon Douglas and his filmmaking team take a great approach in not showing the ants right away in order to also ratchet up terrific suspense and an eerie ambiance as police officers (including one played by the film’s star, James Whitmore) on patrol begin getting reports of missing persons, and finding strange footprints accompanying massive damage while they patrol during a sandstorm.

Sounds like the creepy howling of the wind during that sandstorm play an important role in these early scenes, and throughout the movie, help in furthering a tense atmosphere in Them!, and the chilling trills signaling the ants are nearby more than offset how limited the insects’ appearance may be in terms of making them terrifying threats, whether it’s in the early scenes in the desert or the climactic showdown in the Los Angeles sewer system.

black and white scene from the 1954 sci-fi monster movie "Them!" To the right of the picture, star James Whitmore is attempting to climb a ladder out of a sewer. He has slipped down the rungs and is looking back behind him in horror because closing right in and about to grab him in its mandibles is a giant ant, coming from the photo's left.

“I’ll give you such a pinch!” James Whitmore in a bit of trouble in Them! (Courtesy Everett Collection)

The cast of actors is great, and cut above what you normally find in these types of movies. Along with Whitmore, Them! costars Joan Weldon, James Arness and Edmund Gwenn (and also features Fess Parker and Leonard Nimoy in small early roles).

Gwenn plays one of those scientists you always find in a ’50s atomic monster movie, the guy who utters a somber warning about mankind playing God and opening the door to forces beyond his comprehension and control, or some sort of thing. But that, along with other things that quickly became cliches in these pictures, all pretty much started here!

Them! was followed by other similar “big bug” films of various quality. Some came from other studios, like Universal’s Tarantula (1955) and The Deadly Mantis (1957), and Republic Pictures’ Beginning of the End (1957), while Warner itself revisited the genre in a way, in 1957, when it distributed The Black Scorpion.

None can compete, though, with Them! It remains a favorite among creature-feature aficionados, including myself, and that’s why, when it was announced earlier this year that Warner Bros. would be remaking this classic, fans at first might have been hesitant. But learning that Michael Giacchino would be making his feature film directorial debut with the remake put a good number of worries to rest. Anyone who saw how effectively Giacchino helmed the short Marvel film Werewolf By Night for Disney+ can see that he “gets” old-school monster movies like these, and brings a passion for the subject.

So, in terms of the visuals, the remake should be fine. I’m eager to see what Giacchino — until now primarily an excellent film composer — along with whoever his sound technicians for the film will be, does in terms of the sound for the new Them! Because, again, those ant trills in the original still rank as among the most chilling creature sound effects in screen history.

Them! airs Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, at 8pm ET on Turner Classic Movies, followed by a number of other “big bug” movies.