Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Early Influences: THEM!

Them! was one of the first monster movies I ever saw. Needless to say, I loved it... and not just because it featured an army of giant ants invading New Mexico. I remember thinking James Whitmore was the coolest cat ever as the star of the show. And, hey, he did look pretty frosty as a New Mexico State Patrolman in a black shirt -- and he acted cool, too. Whitmore's Sergeant Ben Peterson was a guy who took care of business. Trouble reared its head and he jumped in the middle of it instead of asking questions or waiting for someone else to take the lead. Yep. Whitmore was the guy who rescued the little mute girl in the desert and got her to safety after her family was wiped out. He grabbed a Thompson submachine gun and ventilated the first giant ant that showed up onscreen. And later on he climbed down into a king-sized ant hill and went to work with a flame thrower, toasting the giant queen mama's eggs long before the space Marines from Aliens (or Sigourney Weaver) ever dreamed of their first big bug hunt.

I've got to admit -- all that shot my Heroics Meter into the red when I was a kid... and I'm not ashamed to admit it still does today. I was probably seven or eight when I saw Them! for the first time. When the giant ants finally cornered Whitmore in the L. A. storm drains, I cried like a baby. I remember my mother saying: "Norman! We're not going to let you watch these horror pictures if they upset you so much!"

I watched Them! again a couple nights ago, and I've got to admit I puddled up a little when ol' JW bought the farm. The older I get, the easier it is for that to happen -- hey, I bawl like a baby at the end of Gladiator, too. But mostly, I was struck by how strongly Them! influenced me. It really seems like a template for a Norm Partridge story, starting off in the New Mexican desert with a couple of cops investigating a pair of strange murders. Them! is heavy on the shadows in the first twenty minutes, and it could easily have morphed into a noir film if those ants hadn't shown up... which of course isn't surprising when you realize that this was Warner Brothers' take on a monster movie. The studio definitely tossed in a few buckets of darkness left over from those old Bogart and Cagney pictures along with the giant ants.

People talk about crime/horror mash-ups these days like the idea is something new. I've been interviewed by young guys who think hardboiled horror is something I invented until I have a chance to clue them to writers like Robert Bloch, plus some of Bloch's contemporaries who wrote for radio shows like Suspense and Inner Sanctum. And now I can add to that list the gentlemen who cooked up Them! for Warner Brothers, plus serve up the movie itself as another example of what I'm talking about.

All in all, I'm not quite sure how Them! would play for modern audiences -- it's definitely quaint when it comes to special effects (though I love those king-sized puppet monsters) and certain bits of characterization date it -- but those opening twenty minutes are still a stone cold wonder for me. The kickoff of Them! is a fine balance of crime and horror that works perfectly; the matter-of-fact police investigation suspends audience disbelief as it unfolds, so that when that first giant ant comes creeping over the hill we instantly buy into its reality. That's a wonderful bit of misdirection, and a trick I've pulled a time or two in my own fiction. Or to put it another way: If anyone ever put some money behind a story like "Road Dogs" or "The Big Man" and came up with a slice of black & white goodness like Them!, I'd definitely be one happy camper.