Friday, October 23, 2015

THEM!: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1954) Warner Home Video

There is a moment early in Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954) where benevolent Police Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) encounters a shell-shocked child (Sandy Descher) aimlessly wandering about the Alamagordo Desert in a plaid bathrobe, still clutching her doll with its porcelain face shattered. Try as he might, Peterson cannot reach the girl, either through kindness, patience or understanding. A short while later, she is laid on a stretcher and loaded into the back of a waiting ambulance; a queerly exotic sound, vaguely resembling a digitally amplified cricket, echoing from a distance, compels the girl to sit up with zombie-like precision; a look of absolute wide-eyed terror etched into her angelic cheeks. For me, this was the moment that set Them! apart from the run-of-the-mill fanciful fifties tripe devoted to radioactive bugs and/or other cosmic assaults on mankind from unnatural beings, conspiring to expunge us from this universe. Them! is not like these kooky jaunts into the outer stratosphere; not at all, but rather fascinatingly grounded in an ominous sense of verisimilitude, as Peterson is visited by Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his egghead in training; daughter, Pat Medford (Joan Weldon).    

The setup to Them! is as riveting as the famous ‘rosebud’ opener to Citizen Kane (1940); Peterson and his cohort, Trooper Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) stumbling across the horrendously battered remains of an out of the way service station owned by ‘Gramps’ Johnson (Mathew McCue); discovering his bloated corpse, injected with a lethal dose of formic acid, staring back at them amidst its dust-strewn ruins. For the longest time thereafter, director, Gordon Douglas sustains this spine-tingling dread, tinged in paralytic trepidation. Alas, the latter half of Them! commits the cardinal sin of all bad horror movies – showing us the evil we have thus far been made to imagine far better for ourselves – the hairy, multi-legged and nefarious subterraneans, with their puppeteer-ed pincers, somehow never entirely living up to our expectations. And yet, mercifully, even revealing ‘them’ to us in bold B&W is not enough to sink the picture. These earthly invaders, suffering after an extreme dosage of gamma radiation, while hardly as grotesque (depending on one’s point of view, they either take on a clinically robotic or animated Muppet-ish presence) or even as mobile as one might assume radioactive killer ants to be (we have all witnessed the agility of their microscopic ilk racing about our backyards, building their rigidly efficient communities below the earth), are nevertheless serviceable. Do they disappoint? Well – yes. But only marginally, and never enough to make us wish we had never seen ‘them’ at all. That’s something, given our present-day jadedness for expecting uber-realistic CGI special effects. 

Buying into the artifice of Them! really does not take as much effort as one might suspect. Evidently, audiences of their day accepted the illusion wholesale; at a return of $2 million, making Them! Warner Bros.' biggest grossing picture of 1954 – not bad for a modestly budgeted B&W popcorn filler.  Until the latter half of the 20th century, science fiction was considered the red-headed stepchild in Hollywood. While far-fetched stories of creatures from outer space and earth-bound nemeses constantly threatening the human species were undeniably lucrative, cluttering up our Saturday matinee leisure, popular opinion – particularly among the critics – was sci-fi as ‘low’ to ‘no’ brow pop-u-tainment: insatiable B-grade pulp: laughable and ‘fear-mongering’. No self-respecting A-list star would be caught dead in such drivel, unless – of course – his/her career was circling the bowl. Nevertheless, and along the way, movies of merit in this genre were made, steadily legitimizing its credence and cache with the public, even as they endeavored to address the supernatural and unexplained in a timely and intelligent manner. 

Them! undeniably ranks very high among these masterworks: the bit players giving themselves to the hyper-unrealistic machinations in Ted Sherdeman/Russell Hughes’ screenplay and thus, largely convincing us of the improbability.In retrospect Them! is an amalgam of the traditional horror movie and the police/procedural melodrama. It plays into an innate fear: mankind’s helplessness – this time, pitted against a seemingly unstoppable colony of super ants. Them! is also a memorable parable for the prescient menace of the atomic age. From the moment Ben Peterson encounters the shell-shocked ‘Ellison’ girl to the prophetic epitaph put forth by Dr. Medford – about mankind’s naivetĂ© in splitting the atom before fully grasping its ramifications – Them! is doubly sinister; first, as a cautionary/proactive tale relevant to the fifties paranoia regarding a nuclear winter, but also as a sci-fi/horror mashup meets the detective film noir thriller, with a few ‘dark ride’ chills factored in along the way for good measure. 

Terror is perhaps the most difficult of all human responses to trigger - particularly in an artistic vacuum, but especially today, when so much has been done to scare an audience half out of their wits. The long-term effects have, arguably, served the opposite purpose; anesthetizing the audience by exposing us to ever-increasing amounts of graphic content and violence. Yet, Them! continues to hold our attention, perhaps because the actors partaking never wane in their wholeheartedness for this material. Them! is also blessed by Sidney Hickox' cinematography; opening on a bright – though decidedly vacant desert landscape, then digressing to a remote outpost at night during a terrific sandstorm where Ben and Ed discover the ant’s first victim - Gramps.

Them! was originally planned as a big and splashy Warnercolor 3D release. Personally, I can't imagine the movie having worked half as well in color. But there are holdovers from this original concept – chiefly the movie’s unusually lurid main titles – letterhead rapidly advancing toward the audience from the distant horizon in violent shades of blue and red. Thankfully, the decision to shoot the entire movie in B&W gives Them! an almost documentary quality. It also camouflages the less than stellar puppetry  created by J. Leslie Asher. A lot of sins can be masked in B&W. And Them! is a sublime camouflage in all the right places. Hickox knows exactly where to place his camera and how to light a scene for maximum effect. His moody and half-lit final ‘chase’ sequence in the bowels of the Los Angeles’ concrete spillways is faintly reminiscent of Robert Krasker’s work in The Third Man (1949). Director, Douglas staves off the urge to show us his monsters from horn to hoof. Instead, we get flashes and clever cutaways. His big build up to the first reveal is commendable because it still holds our attention some sixty years since the picture's release. Even when we are finally exposed to ‘them’, Douglas and Hickox are very reserved about showing everything, punctuating their cleverness with some quick camera pans and tilts; the ants often made inconspicuous through a haze of granulated sand blown in front of the camera, or by some very diffused lighting with plenty of dark shadows.

It must be pointed out; in and of themselves the ants are not particularly scary – although they can be mildly repulsive. But Them! sets us up for an altogether nerve-jangling man-made apocalypse. As Hitchcock would later do in The Birds (1963), Douglas takes one of the most common and unprepossessing of God’s creatures – ants – and assaults us with a revelation, that our own complacency in dabbling with sciences we barely understand has effectively unleashed and transformed seemingly harmless creatures into carnivorous monsters. The central theme of ‘man against nature’ - or ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ (literally and figuratively) remains a powerful indictment on our contempt for this natural order. But it also keeps the film remarkably balanced and grounded in a sort of ‘it could happen’ reality. The struggle to create a credible monster is something else entirely, and not altogether successfully achieved in many a sci-fi movie, regardless of its' vintage. Mercifully, the ants in Them! are not outrageously idiotic, even as they remain mildly unimpressive; the paralytic chirping/screeches they make, far creepier than their actual arrival on the scene. Nevertheless, Them! clings together with great conviction, working on many levels, even when its technical aspects occasionally falter.

We begin in New Mexico: a police ‘search and rescue’ plane flying overhead, looking for a young girl supposedly spotted wandering alone in the desert. The CB call from the pilot alerts a nearby cruiser of a girl blindly stumbling through the tumbleweed and prickly sagebrush. Trooper, Ed Blackburn and Sgt. Ben Peterson find this catatonic waif. But she is beyond their help, incapable of communicating anything beyond a paralytic stare. Ben is fatherly toward the girl, carrying her to a waiting ambulance before he and Ed head up the road to investigate an ‘abandoned’ mobile trailer. What they come across are remnants brutally torn to shreds and strewn about the ground. The Ellison family – mother, father and two children - have vanished. Ben discovers a curious footprint in the sand. It is unlike anything he has ever seen before. He also finds a few tattered strands of the girl’s bathrobe and the missing piece to her broken porcelain doll’s head inside the trailer’s closet, the only part of the mobile home to have survived the deluge. Calling in a second unit to document the scene, Ben and the entire company are quelled into silence by curious chirping heard over the howling desert winds. The girl, who thus far has remained unresponsive and is laying on a stretcher in the back of a waiting ambulance, becomes visibly terrorized by this innocuous sound; her reaction going unnoticed.

In the meantime, Ben and Ed decide to drive on ahead to a trading outpost run by Gramps Johnson. Perhaps the old recluse will know something about the Ellison family. At the very least, Ben reasons the family must have bought a few supplies for their fateful trip. Regrettably, Ben and Ed arrive too late; they find half the rear wall torn apart in the same manner as the trailer. An even more ill-omen discovery follows: Gramps, bloodied and dead beneath some ruptured floorboards. Treated as a homicide, Ed offers to stay behind and guard the integrity of the crime scene while Ben hurries back to the cruiser to radio for help. It is the last time Ben will see Ed alive. For just moments later, the ominous chirping returns and Ed having forged into the dust storm outside to investigate, is devoured by an unseen attacker.

Ben holds himself responsible for Ed’s death. The ‘Ellison’ girl has yet to talk. In point of fact, she cannot – suspended in a catatonic state. Enter FBI agent, Robert Graham (James Arness) whose powers of observation rule out wild animal attacks and homicidal maniacs from the list of ‘usual suspects’. A plaster cast of the unidentifiable imprint taken near the trailer is sent to Washington for analysis. It garners the interests of entomologists, Dr. Harold and Pat Medford. Robert is somewhat perplexed as to why the bureau should send a pair of scientists from the Department of Agriculture to aid in his investigation. He grows increasingly frustrated by the Medfords’ reluctance to share their findings. Instead, Harold encourages Ben and Robert to take him to the hospital where the Ellison girl is being treated. Offering her a sniff of formic acid, the girl suddenly snaps out of her catatonia, shrieking ‘Them! Them!’

Ben and Robert take the Medfords to the desert. This time, they encounter one of the giant foraging ants firsthand, the creature almost devouring Pat before Ben and Robert get off a few rounds with a submachine gun, effectively killing the beast. At this point, Harold makes his own scientific inklings known; radiation from a nearby atomic testing site has caused common carpenter ants to mutate and grow. There could be hundreds, even thousands of these bizarre mutations hiding somewhere in the desert. After some spirited deliberations, U.S. Air Force General O'Brien (Onslow Stevens) brings in a squadron to locate the nest and exterminate the ant colony with cyanide. Ben, Robert and Pat don gas masks and rock-climb into a cavern where they discover two survivors from the gassing, buried alive in another part of the tunnel. These too are exterminated, this time with flame throwers. However, Pat finds evidence of two queens having hatched, likely escaped to begin new colonies elsewhere. Attempting to quash a general panic, the Medfords, Ben and Robert begin investigating sightings of ‘flying saucers’. Their investigation leads, first to a crushed boxcar in an abandon rail yard where forty tons of sugar has gone missing, then to a mental hospital in Brownsville Texas where crack pilot, Alan Crotty (Fess Parker) has been detained after claiming his small aircraft was forced down by a pair of UFO’s resembling giant ants. One of the queen ants is discovered lurking inside the cargo hold of a nearby freighter; the vessel sunk by a U.S. Navy cruiser.

Meanwhile, an unsuspecting resident, Mr. Lodge (whom we never see) and his two young sons have gone missing after a routine Sunday outing to the park. A tearful Mrs. Lodge (Mary Alan Hokanson) can offer no logical explanation, but Ben and Robert are encouraged by the testimony of a vagabond drunkard, who suggests that from the window of the ‘drunk tank’ he has seen giant ants going in and out of the nearby spillway. In an unprecedented move, Maj. Kibbee (Sean McClory) decides to break the story to the news media. The story goes viral and Los Angeles is placed under martial law. Ben discovers the Lodge boys, Jerry (Richard Bellis) and Mike (Robert Scott Correll) muddy and bruised, but otherwise unharmed, in one of the spillway tunnels still under construction. He manages to get the pair to safety by shoving them through a storm drain. Regrettably, one of the ants exacts its revenge by squeezing Ben to death with its pincers. Robert and the army pursue the remaining ant colony deep inside this concrete labyrinth. A cave-in isolates Robert from the rest of the military. He is cornered, but survives an attack from multiple ants. The Medfords, together with Harold, quarantine the ant colony. The army incinerates the remaining offspring. In the movie’s epitaph, Harold warns mankind of the awesome and mysterious powers of nuclear energy; a gateway into a new and altogether unpredictable world.
Them! is a timely piece of anti-nuclear propaganda. Yet, despite the passage of time, it remains relevant, potent and haunting. With or without its ominous and timely message, regarding the potential for a devastating nuclear winter, Them! is a compelling sci-fi adventure. Not so much ‘camp’ or a cult favorite as it has steadily proven to be a bona fide classic – period – albeit, one with fleeting ‘camp’ elements, Them!’s use of locations, legitimizes its overriding sense of authenticity.  James Whitmore and Edmund Gwenn have great fun with their respective roles. The movie tries, rather unsuccessfully (though not desperately), to interject a whiff of romance between Joan Weldon’s amiable young Miss with a scientific mind, and James Arness’ butch G-man. It doesn’t come off, however, but mercifully is jettisoned midway through our story. Let’s face it: at 94 minutes, there is not a lot of time to commit to any scenario and/or machination that does not directly conform to the tightly woven central narrative.

I’ll confess a bias: I love Them!  Watching it for the first time as a child in the late 1970’s on commercially-interrupted television as part of my ritualized Saturday afternoon ‘creature feature’, the image of little Sandy Descher, tormented, but unable to speak of her dread, became indelibly etched in my brain. What a diminutive powerhouse she was; restrained, in her gestures, but genuine in her ability to convey the epic anxiety from seeing her entire family devoured by ‘them’ without say so much as a word. How she survived the onslaught is, of course, one of the unexplained mysteries in the movie. Personally, I think it’s better we don’t know. Despite its B-budget, Them! remains highly atmospheric. It keeps its hyperkinetic energies roiling. Only a few short years later, its’ ‘high concept’ for pictures featuring giant bugs – either badly superimposed on live action footage of extras fleeing their onslaught – or worse – with marionettes and/or puppets, or even more laughably, men in ill-fitting rubber suits to portray these predators – would transform this era of radioactive sci-fi adventures into grotesque satire and self-parody.  Them! escapes such embarrassment. It makes us think. It also entertains. Most rewarding of all: it still works as more than just a great piece of time-encapsulated American cinema.  How many movies about giant bugs can claim as much?

Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is about as unattractive as the medium gets. I cannot understand this misfire. Comparatively speaking, and using Warner’s own near perfect DVD as the barometer, not only has contrast on this Blu-ray been severely toggled back, creating a murky mid-grade tonality, but the image – reframed in 1.78:1 – has also been horizontally stretched; heads that were naturally round, now appear as squashed pumpkins. Telecine on this presumably B&W transfer, instead leans toward an unnatural greenish tint, the vibrant royal blue recessing the even more overpowering reds in the main title sequence are now tinted a faded aqua-marine. Ugh, and who needs this?!? Almost everything I admired about the DVD has fallen apart in hi-def; the razor-sharpness and a modicum of fine detail, startlingly impressive on the DVD, now replaced by a residual softness. The mono audio, upgraded to DTS, sounds about the same by myears - crisp and exceptionally clean. But honestly, the image is a complete fail. Not only is the 1.78:1 re-framing off – as Them! was shot on a B-budget in open aperture and later masked in projection in theaters supporting this practice – but the overall quality (or lack thereof) is bland and wholly unimpressive. Badly done and NOT recommended. Them! is a crown jewel in the Warner catalog and a sci-fi classic besides! But do yourselves a favor and stick with the full frame DVD. It bests the Blu-ray in virtually all regards, with the very minor exception of screen resolution.

FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

1 comment:

hooch said...

Great review and i totally agree on the transfer, absolutely abysmal!
The dvd is leaps and bounds in picture quality over this dreadful blu-ray.