Them!: Sandy Descher shows the face of terror.
Since outdoor activities seem to pose little threat, why not throw a picnic? I’ll bring the ants.
The opening scene packs a horrifying wallop not generally associated with monster movies from the ‘50s. An aerial shot follows a pigtailed youngster (Sandy Descher), a doll with half its plastic skull ripped away clutched in her arm, as she drudges aimlessly across a huge expanse of desert. The jittery camera adds distress, not gimmickry, while her zombified gaze induces anything but audience sentiment. Hers is the face of terror, the look a child might have after witnessing her parents savagely done in by a colony of giant radioactive ants. Many movies feature a moment in which a character is called upon to speak the film’s title. This one’s a doozy. Descher, the spitting image of a young Natalie Wood, is being interrogated by the miraculous Edmund Gwynn, a myrmecologist who passes a beaker of formic acid — the same ant venom that claimed her parents — beneath her nose. With a blink, her catatonic gaze is replaced by a look of contorted dread as she calls out her parent’s killers by name. Director Gordon Douglas — schooled with the likes of Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy — brings an unexpected comic touch to an otherwise harrowing sci-fi classic that places it far ahead of its contemporaries.
The Naked Jungle (1954)
It starts with a long stretch of routine romance before the social insects enter and begin chewing at the scenery. Christopher Leiningen (a more somber than usual Charlton Heston) was 19 years old in 1901 when he first broke ground on his vast cocoa plantation. After 15 years of hard work by a crew of natives who much admire the owner, his South American jungleland is at last ready for a woman’s finishing touch. Inexperienced in the ways of women, the uncultured landowner (he buys books by the pound) recruits help from his much-mentioned, but never seen, brother to cut a mail-order filly from the herd to act as “Leiningen’s woman.”
Joanna Leiningen’s (Eleanor Parker) beauty is only exceeded by her deep understanding of the male animal and she has every intention of fulfilling her marital obligations. Much to Christopher’s chagrin, this is not Joanna’s first time at the altar. Hubby #1’s death from drink a year earlier paves the way for a few moments of unbridled hilarity. Long before James Caan’s “second-hand don’t appeal to me” rant in Howard Hawks’ Red Line 7000, Heston, “too proud to take another man’s leavings,” can be heard comparing his bride by proxy to a piano that’s never been played. Christopher’s analogous dictum, “Keep it dusted and see that the termites don’t get at it,” applies to both Steinway and his little woman. That is, until Joanna counters with, “A good piano’s better when it’s played.”
This was the second teaming of director Byron Haskin and producer, purveyor of Puppetoons, and visual effects guru George Pal. Pal not only put the “special” in SFX, rousing audience eyeballs with his state-of-the-art ‘50s visual effects in the Haskin-helmed The War of the Worlds, he also collaborated with the Paramount sound department to create the unmistakable aural extravagance of the film’s spaceship and its emerald green skeleton beam. (According to Wikipedia, the latter was “created by striking a high tension cable with a hammer.”) But mimicking the sounds of a spaceship seemes relatively simple compared to duplicating the footsteps of billions of ants. The sound, according to IMDB, “was created by swirling a straw in a glass of water with crushed ice, which was then amplified.”
The 20 minute march of the soldier-ants, during which Christopher is called upon to save civilization as he knows it, is worth all the preceding clumsy character clashes. Critics found much of the carnage too much to bear, but audiences thought otherwise, making it one of Paramount’s top-grossers for 1954.