HERE LIES... THEM!, flushed and crushed Under The Sea in the competition for the 1954 Oscar for Best Special Effects.
It isn't hard to imagine what this movie might look like if it were made today instead of at the pinnacle of the Hollywood nuclear horror era. The ants would probably look stunning. Every little hair would shine, glisten and twitch like the Orlacks in Beasts of the Southern Wild. A team of designers and artists would slave over every detail of their movement for months. They might even be scary. But, like so many of the great horror movies in history, the monster isn't what everyone's worried about.
Still, the special effects team on Them! earned an Oscar nomination for their exceptional craft, only losing to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The ants are the most obvious manifestation of special effects in the film. They were hand-built and operated by hidden crews. If you're lucky enough to have this movie on VHS, you can even catch a glimpse of an open-bodied ant just before the end. The ants are clunky, awkward, and often laughable, but that's not the point. Them! is one of the all-time great examples of a movie monster that frightens the audience through association. The movie is on par with The Fly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and War of the Worlds as a cultural barometer. Even if the filmmakers weren't sitting around a table saying, "You know... this movie should be a metaphor for the national fear complex and nuclear danger," they were aware that the tenor of American society in the mid-50s produced enough material to frighten anyone. All you had to do was mention "nuclear" and hint at large-scale destruction.
But as far as the special effects go, Them! successfully uses many effects in addition to the ants. The movie has solid back-projection in many places, something we can never take for granted. The climactic battle is done with real cinematic panache. In fact, Gordon Douglas' direction is exactly what motivates the success of these effects. He moves quickly at points, but understands that it's scarier to watch the beast creep up on someone rather than play for pure shock value. The film was originally intended to be shot with several 3D sequences and in color.
A last-minute camera malfunction prevented them from doing this, but some scenes are still obviously meant to be done in three dimensions -- the most noticable being a flamethrower blowing straight into the camera.
Not only is Them! great, October-ready fun, it's a genuine, classic film -- one that spins a prevalent social fear into the structure of a Hollywood monster B-movie.