The '50s were a tumultuous time for Hollywood: the studio system that had built the film industry was on its last legs, the traditional double feature was going the way of the dinosaur, and the rise of drive-ins, television, and Cold War paranoia were changing audience demands. This was, in many ways, the first real challenge faced by the motion picture industry; with so much shifting and uncertain, how, exactly, were moviemakers supposed to adapt?
With giants bugs and flamethrowers, obviously.
While it may not seem it on the surface, Them!, a 1954 opus about atomic ants terrorizing the southwest, was a watershed moment in film history, and it changed what science fiction could be going forward.
But first, the past: As impossible as it might seem right now, the early years of the motion picture industry were not particularly kind to sci-fi, the successes of Flash Gordon and Superman serials notwithstanding. The genre's luck only began to turn in the early 1950s, with, perhaps fittingly, the mutation of the B-movie.
While the term had previously referred to any second film on a double feature bill, the introduction of longer movie runtimes, coupled with the changing attitudes of moviegoers with more entertainment options, made simply recycling older films an unappealing invitation. Thus began a rash of cheaply made and aggressively marketed "schlock," largely focused on rocket ships and Martians and cat-women from the moon.
In that regard, the existence of Them! should perhaps not be a surprise. Swap out invading aliens for rampaging ants and you've probably got your pitch meeting right there. But there was more to the Big Bug movies than a simple copy-and-paste.
If extraterrestrial adversaries from the Red Planet were a metaphor for Communism, atomic insects were an even less subtle commentary on society's uncertainty and fear of nuclear weapons. Them! even begins in the New Mexico desert, calling out the original Trinity test by name, and ends with a grim reminder of all the other bombs that have been detonated since – and, presciently, all the monsters they might create.
But whereas Godzilla (which came out a few months after Them!) and his giant dinosaur brethren were terrifying, they were still otherworldly. Even It Came from Beneath the Sea, with its rampaging octopus, was more fantastical than not; how many people have actually, really seen a cephalopod up close?
But ants? Or spiders? Or even praying mantises? Moviegoers didn't have to go to a zoo or a museum to become acquainted with those. All they had to do was step into their own backyard.
Them!, like Tarantula, Earth vs. the Spider, and The Deadly Mantis after, knew that true terror came from the familiar twisting into the frightful, from something benign becoming something blood-chilling and bone-breaking. By using everyday nuisances, insects, real things that real people really saw, the Big Bug films were able to truly bring home the fear of what atomic weapons could do, the scope of their potential damage. A fire-breathing dinosaur is a one-off, after all, bad luck. But a mutant ant? That could happen anywhere.
And being afraid was, surely, the goal of the Big Bug sub-genre. While Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other Cold War parables were unsettling, inviting the viewer to think long and hard about their meanings, Them! and its buggy brethren decided not to leave anything to chance. The films recruited famed horror directors to their ranks — Tarantula was directed by Creature from the Black Lagoon's Jack Arnold — and made sure to show the body count. Monster movies were horrifying again.
The opening shot of Them! follows a dead-eyed, practically catatonic young girl carrying a doll with a broken head down an empty dirt road, an image that wouldn't have been out of place in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, still more than a decade away. Later, when the opening to the ants' lair is discovered, the camera lingers on a giant ant holding a human ribcage in its mouth, then pans lower, the hill beneath the beast littered with bones and torn clothing.
Them! was Warner Bros. highest-grossing film in 1954. A few years later, Earth vs. the Spider became one of the first movies aimed specifically at drive-ins and teenagers, helping to create the "target audiences" and demographics that currently rule the film industry. Now, though, Big Bug movies are largely relegated to the realm of dollar bins and Mystery Science Theater 3000.
In the end — and in Beginning of the End, a movie that involved filming grasshoppers crawling over still photographs — the genre, like so many scientists within its reels, fell victim to its own hubris. The budgets got lower, the bugs got weirder, and movies like Vincent Price's The Fly took the idea of combining horror and sci-fi and ran with it.
But, hey, for a brief, shining few years, we had an entire sub-genre of movies that could say, emphatically, that A-bombs were bad, that science was good, and then hire former military men to gleefully set giant ant puppets on fire to prove their point.