I don’t know what was in the water in 1954 but it sure was potent. It was the year Doris Day had a Secret Love, Bugs Bunny was mixing it up, Alan Freed was coining the term ‘Rock n Roll’, and Jerry Seinfeld, Oprah Winfrey, Cindy Sherman, Jackie Chan, Matt Groening, and Joel Coen were being born. Along with Godzilla, 1954 spawned two of the other greatest monster movies of all time: Creature From the Black Lagoon and Them! This Halloween treat yourself to a little good old-fashioned rubber suit action, shaky science, and giant pincers mayhem- in a time before men had a clue about equal rights.
Them! is a story about giant ants who have a thing for sugar and don’t mind taking out any fool who isn’t packing a flamethrower or has the common sense to shoot off their antennae. The story begins with a catatonic little girl found wandering a desert road shocked into silence by something obviously horrific. The local police find the ransacked remains of a sleeper trailer with little cubes of sweetness scattered everywhere. As the patrolmen puzzle the strange scene we get our first listen to the eerie cry of Them carried on the desert winds. The actual sound they used for the film is of a choir of tree frogs. Tree-frog song in the desert! -better call the experts.
Enter Dr. Medford and her father Dr. Medford. They’ve seen this kind of thing before and have a hunch as to what might be the culprit. Joan Weldon plays the younger Dr. Medford. Her presence provides plenty of opportunity for doctor/patient jokes from the rough around the edges FBI agent who doesn’t speak Myrmecology. After the little girl snaps out of her comatose state by screaming “them, them”, the gang heads to the desert. After poking around the dunes for a few minutes Dr. Medford hears the tree frog song and then is face to face with one of Them! The sheer delight of this film is the old school anamatronic design of the giant ants and the havoc they cause smashing through windows and walls to get at sailors and soldiers to crush in their pincers. Joan belts out a wonderful scream at first sight but then idly sits back and watches the guys unload their firearms into the creature. The handguns seem to have no effect, but luckily the trooper has a machine gun in the car and knows just how to use it.
Turns out all that atomic bomb testing in the desert had a few unforeseen side effects- like giant ants! Them! is a wonderful slice of low budget Hollywood magic. The original production was meant to be in colour and in 3D. Although the budget was cut at the last minute it went on to become one of Warner Brothers biggest money makers of 1954.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon trades the desert for the dense jungle of the Amazon and giant fury anamatronic insects for a rubber suited gill-man. The story begins with the finding of a strange fossilized hand protruding from a rock embankment deep in the jungle. A few minutes later, a very similar all too alive hand slowly creeps out of the river uncomfortably close to camp. While the old scientist goes back to civilization to get his fossil looked at, the creature comes out of the water and makes short work of the two local amazonians who stayed behind.
Soon the Amazon is lousy with scientists heading up the river in search of the body that the hand belonged to. The
shock and horror utter indifference of finding the slain workmen only sets the men’s minds to finding the rest of the fossil. Kay Lawrence played by Julie Adams is along for the ride to offer a helpful towel or meaningful look when called for. After a sweat inducing montage of digging the men come up empty handed. Using science, they figure the bones may have originated in a different location up river. The colourful riverboat captain offers up a possibility know as the ‘Black Lagoon’. After packing up their pressurized spear guns – they’re off.
The underwater scenes of the Lagoon (filmed in Florida) are truly beautiful. The most memorable would have to be Kay’s mirrored swim with the creature. Meanwhile, another two locals get taken out by the creature but the scientists crack on with business as usual. During one of the dives, the creature makes himself known and gets a spear in the ribs for his trouble. He escapes but is never too far away. The great thing about this film is that creature is never out of sight for more than 5 minutes at a time; it may only be a hand or foot but he’s always there. After he escapes their net, the environmentally irresponsible scientists decide to poison the lagoon to stun all the fish including the creature. Their plan works and they capture him. They fashion a Gilligan’s Island style cage to hold him but he quickly escapes severely wounding one of scientists in the process. Things just got real. Unfazed by the four locals, now that one of their own got hurt it’s time to weigh anchor and get the hell out of there. The creature and a strategically placed log have different plans.
If you’re looking for a movie this Halloween you can’t go wrong with these two. Both films offer thrills, science lessons, fun and laughter. What exactly was in the water in 1954? Besides the lovesick fish-man I mean.