Them! and Tarantula!
Them: Due to atomic testing, giant ants cause havok on the human race.
Tarantula: Scientist trying to solve hunger due to over population creates giant Tarantula that terrorizes a small Arizona town.
One of my main joys in childhood was staying up late on Saturday Nights and watching Creature Features (in my area, that was hosted by Bob Wilkins). It always felt special, every week. Staying up past bedtime to watch something scary, lights off and ready to hide under a blanket if need be. This was 1970s and before Cable or “On-Demand” television, so the choices of what we watched were limited to what was on a handful of channels. This is where I was first introduced to Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolfman, and where I found my love for old 1950s black and white horror films. Especially ones dealing with giant creatures, my favorites being “Them!” and “Tarantula”.
In the 1950s, with the testing and use of atomic weapons still on the mind of the public, science fiction movies began showing what the fallout of such use could bring. “Them!” was one of the first “Nuclear Monster” films and the first of the “Big Bug” movies.
In New Mexico, two state police officers find a little girl wandering around the desert in a new catatonic state of shock. They trace her back to a destroyed vacation trailer, owned by an FBI agent and his family who were on vacation. The rest of the family is nowhere to be found. The two officers also find the general store destroyed like the trailer and later that night, one of the officers is killed off screen with the only clue to what happen a high-pitched pulsing sound.
Because one of their own is missing, the FBI sends Special Agent Robert Graham to New Mexico to investigate. Graham finds a strange footprint near the trailer and sends it to Washington. The Department of Agriculture sends myrmecologists Dr. Harold Medford and his daughter, Dr. Pat Medford, to assist in the investigation.
Dr. Harold Medford exposes the little girl, now at the hospital but still in a catatonic state, to formic acid fumes, which rips her from her catatonia into a state of panic from “Them!”. Dr. Medford’s suspicions seem to be validated, but he still will not say what he suspects.
Back at the trailer camp site, while looking for more clues, we hear that same high-pitched pulsing noise. And for the first time, we see what is making it. A giant ant tries to attack Dr. Pat Medford, but the ant is killed before any harm becomes her.
These giant ants are the result of nuclear testing in the area. The rest of the movie takes us on a search for the two missing queen ants that have already escaped the nest before they can create new colonies. One is found and destroyed. But the second takes us to Los Angeles, where two boys and a father have gone missing.
“Them!” is a wonderfully crafted science fiction horror film. Unlike many of it’s contemporary, they did not use super imposed images of real ants, but decided on animatronics and puppets, which was done surprisingly well for the 1950s. The script is tight and cohesive, and the acting isn’t as corny as you may find in some other films. Also, some of the stars went on to play leading rolls on TV series. The sound effect of the ants communicating, to this day remains a classic iconic sound.
Tarantula! Came out a year later in 1955. The plot of this movie is slightly more complex. A deformed man, Erik Jacobs, while stumbling across an Arizona desert, dies of a rare disease that causes severe physical deformities. Dr. Hastings, the small-town doctor, is perplexed since he knew Jacobs and had seen him recently, and the disease he died from usually takes years to reach that level. Jacobs was a lab assistant to scientist, Dr. Deemer (Mad Doctor if you will). Deemer convinces the sheriff that no autopsy is needed, and that Jacobs had been sick for a while, but didn’t let anyone know. Dr. Hastings is not convinced.
Meanwhile, Dr. Deemer, back in his lab, is experimenting with a formula that could help cure the worlds food shortage as the population increases exponentially. The super nutrient, which uses a radioactive material has been injected into several lab animals. A fight between another lab assistant, who was deformed, like Jacobs, when injected with the super nutrient and Deemer causes a fire and breaks the glass cage holding the tarantula (which at the time has a body about the size of a dog, plus the legs) which escapes into the desert. Paul Lund, the deformed assistant injects the doctor with the formula just before dying himself. Deemer awakes and puts out the fire and then buries the body of Lund deep in the desert.
“Steve” a beautiful new lab assistant climbs off the bus and trying to find a ride out to Deemer’s lab, accepts a ride from Dr. Hastings. The two hit it off right away. At the lab, Deemer explains that an equipment malfunction caused the fire and that Paul Lund had left his employ some time before. Steve remains at the lab to help the doctor finish his experiments.
As time goes by, strange occurrences are happening in the area. Cattle killed and picked clean of meat, a horse rancher is killed, a truck is flipped over and the occupants just bones and two hobos are chased and killed in the same fashion. At the scenes, a pool of a strange thick liquid. Dr. Hastings is called in by the Sheriff to try to help solve what is leaving behind this carnage. Collects a sample of the liquid and takes it to the university in Phoenix to have it analyzed. It comes back as Tarantula venom.
Hastings finds Dr. Deemer near death, deformed like the other lab assistants. Deemer comes clean and tells them the truth. Later that night, the Tarantula destroys the lab and kills Dr. Deemer. Steve escapes with Hastings as the Air Force, called in by the Sheriff, flys in to save the day.
“Tarantula!” uses a radioactive isotope as the catalyst for the mutation, it differs from most other 1950s big-bug features where it is caused by the peaceful research of a well-intentioned scientist, rather than by nuclear weapons. The production used low lighting and atmospheric shots of the desert to give the movie its mysterious spooky vibe and the slow crawl of the Tarantula pulls on most people’s fear of spiders.
Most scenes were shots using real animals which were super imposed into the film. This effect was done quite well for a movie of its time. Shooting miniatures was done for close-ups and the final death scene of the Tarantula.
I saw this movie first when I was around 5 or 6. I loved it then, and it remains one of my all-time favorite movies. The special effects hold up well and the overall atmosphere of the film is wonderfully creepy. The “Mad Scientist” is not really that mad which adds a level of complexity not seen in most of its contemporaries. And the solution the doctor is trying to fix, is a real-life issue even more so today than when the script was written. The characters are still a bit clichéd and the acting a bit over dramatic at times.
Them! vs Tarantula!
Tarantula – Size of a barn Them – Size of a car Winner – Tarantula
Tarantula – Flips over a truck and destroys a mansion Them – rips open an RV and the whole side of a building. Winner – Tarantula
Tarantula – Slow Creep Them – quick attacks and some of them have wings. Winner: Them
Tarantula – 1 Them- 100s
In a battle, although the Tarantula is much larger and stronger, the sheer speed and number of the ants would eventually overpower it, and the Ants would win!
The 1950s saw an influx of giant mutated creatures due to the nuclear scares. These include The Beginning of the End (Giant Grasshoppers), The Deadly Mantis, The Black Scorpion, From Hell it Came (Giant non-flying fat wasps) etc. Them! and Tarantula, in my mind, best used the special effects of the time and stood out in both script and story. Each time I watch them, they bring out the small kid hiding under his covers on Saturday night.
Them! vs Tarantula!
Writing - 7/107/10
Storyline - 9/109/10
Acting - 6/106/10
Music - 10/1010/10
Production - 8/108/10
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