Monsters and Matinees: All Bug-Eyed over Big-Bug Movies

All Bug-Eyed over Big-Bug Movies

It could have been the colossal ants. Or the big locusts. Maybe the giant leeches. Most likely it was that house-sized tarantula. I’ll never really know the one film that started my obsession with big-bug movies (“bug” being used loosely), but I know why it happened: I was introduced to them by my dad whose whose unapologetic enjoyment of these films I still carry today. (Giant rabbits? Where?)

Although they necessarily scary by today’s standards, they are fascinating enough to get the imagination going while drawing out a few eewws along the way.

Giant bug movies were a hit as soon as they invaded the big screen in the early 1950s and it’s easy to see why in the context of the time. Fears of nuclear bombs and communism in post-war America were manifested in these attacking hordes of ants, locusts and pretty much any small creature you could blow up 100 times its size and have it destroy a a small town. (Invading aliens similarly mirrored fears at the time, but bugs are more fun.)

Scientist Pat Medford (Joan Weldon) and FBI Agent Robert Graham (James Arness) fight off a giant ant in Them!

Interestingly, it was a dinosaur that led Warner Bros. to later make the film credited with starting the big-bug craze. In 1953, the studio released The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a true classic about a hibernating dinosaur jostled awake by A-bomb testing in the Arctic Circle that terrorized the East Coast of North America. The film’s unexpected box-office success – thanks to stop-motion animation genius Ray Harryhausen and his fictional Rhedosaurus – stirred up interest in other giant creature films.

George Worthing Yates – who would go on to write such B-movie gems as It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and Attack of the Puppet People (1958) – had written a story treatment about giant ants terrorizing the New York City subway system. Warner Bros. bought the original story and a screenplay was written by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes with the setting moved to the more cost-efficient California. (The movie also was planned to be shot in color and 3D but was eventually made in black and white – again for budget reasons – with only the film’s title in color.)

Them! was originally going to be filmed in color and 3D. Both were cut because of budget constraints and this title shot from the opening credits is all that remains in the film.

Not only would Them! be the highest grossing film of 1954 for Warner Bros., it opened the door to big-bug films that were only limited by the imagination. That they had the bonus of the easy-to-follow formula provided by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them! made these films easy to replicate: Start with mysterious deaths and destruction; add a scientist(s) and the military; have fantastic proclamations and explanations (“We may be witnesses to a biblical prophecy come true!”); and show throngs of people running and screaming in terror.

The public was hooked and the shift was felt throughout the industry.

As Bela Lugosi (played by Martin Landau) said in Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood: “Nobody wants vampires anymore. Now all they want is giant bugs.”

The best remains Them!

‘It’s Them alright.’

Them! begins with a mystery.

An adorable little girl is found wandering the desert in her pajamas by highway patrol officers. Clutching her doll, the unresponsive child appears to be in shock. The officers take her to a nearby camping site to find her family, but it’s torn apart and no one is around.

“This wasn’t caved in, it was caved out,” Officer Ben Peterson (played by James Whitmore) proclaims as he examines the wreckage where he notices, oddly enough, that sugar cubes are missing.

Two highway patrol officers, including one played by James Whitmore at right, discover a vacation trailer destroyed in Them!.

A puzzling, high-pitched sound comes from the desert, temporarily waking the little girl who returns to her catatonic state as quickly as the sound subsides without anyone noticing. (“It’s the wind – it’s freakish in these parts,” is an explanation neither officer believes.)

As an atmospheric sandstorm brews creating even more odd sounds, they discover the nearby general store is also destroyed.

“This wasn’t pushed in, it was pulled out,” Ben says examining the missing store wall. Sadly, they discover the body of kindly Gramps Johnson. Once again, sugar is missing but money hasn’t been touched and that leads to the logical conclusion that it’s the work of a homicidal maniac.

“No money stolen, violent wreckage, just sugar taken,” Ben says.

Just sugar taken – nothing strange about that.

Officer Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) is protective of the traumatized little girl (Sandy Descher) he found in the desert in Them!

Brought in to help with the mystery are FBI agent Robert Graham (played by a handsome and blond James Arness) and scientists from the Department of Agriculture Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Pat (Joan Weldon).

When Dr. Medford learns the destructive activities are all taking place near Alamogordo, New Mexico, where in reality the first atom bomb tests took place in 1945, that seems to confirm his suspicions. (Using the example of real A-bomb tests surely would cause unease with moviegoers.) Dr. Medford puts a glass of formic acid – a compound in ant venom – under the catatonic girl’s nose leading to one of the most effective and timeless scenes in 1950s horror as she jumps awake screaming “Them! Them! Them!” – giving the film its title.

It’s one of a surprising number of effective scenes in this taut sci-fi thriller that include a giant ant slowly rising over a scientist’s head; an officer turning lights off one by one, shrouding himself in darkness as the winds and that awful whistling sound return; and the chilling image of an ant throwing a human rib cage down a small dirt mound as it lands among other bones and debris including a gun holster. (“You just found your missing persons.”)

The film’s documentary style also builds tension. There are moments watching it in 2021 that we can imagine we are viewing live cable news.

Dr. Medford also shows a very short and efficiently informative film on ants to educate a meeting of leaders – and moviegoers. (Not all films were successful with this tact: Deadly Mantis would be better off without the long opening explainer that includes a lesson in radar.)

Although they find the ants and destroy their nest, it’s not even close to being over. Two egg cases that belonged to the queens – who can fly – are empty and the rest of the film details the methodical nationwide hunt for them. The final sequences, which include a search for two missing boys, make the most of the atmospheric Los Angeles storm drain system – a perfect place for big ants to hide.

“We haven’t seen the end of them. We’ve only had a close view of the beginning of what may be the end of us,” Dr. Medford says with the same requisite deference to an end of the world scenario seen in other films including one that even has the name The Beginning of the End

It wasn’t a big bug, but the giant octopus in It Came From Beneath the Sea certainly counts when it comes to the giant creature films of 1950s.

Though Warner Bros. started this craze, the studio didn’t keep it going. Luckily, others stepped in, going beyond bugs to include an octopus so big it could wrap itself around the Golden Gate Bridge (It Came from Beneath the Sea) and people who towered over power lines (The Attack of the 50-Ft. Woman, The Amazing Colossal Man).

“When man entered the atomic age, he opened doors to a new world. What we will eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict,” Dr. Medford warns at the end of Them!

Not surprisingly, neither science nor the movie world have closed that door yet. The results of humans destroying nature remain a subgenre of sci-fi and horror films. In the 1970s, environmental concerns were especially prevalent in films that went for quantity of creatures over size as armies of creepy crawlies attacked in films such as Bug (1975), produced by William Castle; Empire of the Ants (1977) based on an H.G. Wells story; Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), and The Swarm (1978).

Yes, that giant tarantula is eye-level with the second story of this house in Tarantula.

Other big-bug films

Here are a few suggestions of other 1950s films to add to your watch list.

Tarantula (1955). Directed by Jack Arnold, this is film of my nightmares. An experiment by a benevolent scientist trying to create a super nutrient to help feed the world goes wrong, causing an arachnid to grow to giant proportions. The tarantula goes solo in this, but he grows large enough to tower over a house and that’s a terrifying site.

Beginning of the End (1957). Bert I. Gordon directs Peter Graves in this melodramatic take on giant grasshoppers overtaking the world. Not quite up there with Them! but still a good time.

Black Scorpion (1957). This time a volcanic eruption in Mexico is to blame for unleashing an army of scorpions that are bigger than men. If you are creeped out by the thought of being crushed to death by giant claws this might not be for you. Willis O’Brien (King Kong) was the special effects supervisor. Richard Denning and Mara Corday co-star.

The title character in The Deadly Mantis rises from the ice after a nuclear explosion.

Deadly Mantis (1957). Another volcanic eruption, another giant creature awakens from a frozen slumber. Recommended viewing if you can ignore the talky opening explanation. (Just give us the bugs, please.) Craig Stevens, William Hopper and Alix Talton help the U.S. Army battle the giant insect.

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959). There’s something strange in the swamp waters leading to a string of mysterious deaths in this film from executive producer Roger Corman.

The Killer Shrews (1959). Once again, research to stop world hunger goes terribly wrong causing an accidental growth spurt in rodents. Action takes place on a remote island where a captain and first mate are stuck by a storm after delivering supplies to a group of researchers.

Key players in Them!

The film had a cast of future all-stars.

After Them!, James Arness put on a cowboy hat for his next role as Sheriff Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, a series that lasted for 20 seasons.

Fess Parker is only in the film for one scene as a pilot put in an insane asylum after seeing flying saucers that looked like ants. The day of shooting, representatives from Disney were on set to check out James Arness to star in Davy Crockett. They were so impressed by Parker, they cast him instead.

That’s a 23-year-old Leonard Nimoy making a cameo in Them! as he monitors suspicious activity including “thefts of sugar” and high-pitched sounds.

Leonard Nimoy has a cameo as an officer who grabs a report off a teletype machine.

William Schallert, who would later star in such popular TV series as The Patty Duke Show, is in an early scene as an ambulance driver.

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Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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