Columbia Pictures should give us all hope that we can rise above our station in life. This little Poverty Row studio, which made a name for itself producing comedy shorts in the 30s (including The Three Stooges’ most famous works) had, by the mid-50s, replaced RKO as a member of the Big Studios Club. With everything from Superman cartoons to Marlon Brando Oscar winners in their catalog, its seems only natural Columbia would try to field a giant monster movie for 1955.
You have to give them credit for going about it the right way – hiring two of Them!‘s writers and a man (now) more famous than either of ’em – the stop-motion animator behind The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Ray Harryhausen. If this film’s remembered for anything, it’s remembered for Harryhausen’s effects. This is the mid-point between his career-defining turn in Beast and the next year’s State of the Art showcase, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. But Art doesn’t come cheap, so I shouldn’t be surprised all of Harryhausen’s contribution’s are crammed into the film’s last 15 minutes. I was. Unpleasantly so. But I shouldn’t have been.
It Came from Beneath the Sea fired its first warning shot right off, beginning with a Bad Movie Double Down: droning narration played over military stock footage. It’s 1955, after all, one year after the successful launch of the U.S. Navy’s first nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus. This is meant to make the move Relevant to a distracted audience who may not give a crap about anything outside their pathetic little lives. It ends up pointing towards a theme that might’ve ameliorated the many failings of this film, had anyone cared to play that theme out. As Our Humble Narrator says,
Some giant monster movies you watch once and never think about again. Then there are the monster movies you pass down to your children. My parents passed Them! down to me around the time they passed down The Thing from Another World and War of the Worlds, praising it as an original masterpiece of daikaiju movie making…which is funny, since Them! started out as a good way for Warner Brothers to cash in on that other original masterpiece of daikaiju movie making, 1953’sBeast from 20,000 Fathoms. Not a rip-off exactly…more like a thematic reprise, packaging the same complex of societal fears into a new model for a new year. Works for the car companies.
3D was all the rage at the time as theaters continued to hemorrhage audiences to a new and uncomfortably profitable home-entertainment medium. Warners originally concieved Them! as a widescreen 3D monster mash in Sylvia Plath-annoying technicolor, set in the already colorful deserts of California (standing in for the just as colorful deserts of New Mexico). A mechanical failure somewhere inside the 3D camera’s bowels nixed that plan and the movie’s budget with one very fortunate accident. Frankly, I can’t imagine Them! as anything other than a black and white picture with 1.37 : 1 aspect ratio.
The DVD releases has since lovingly restored its original red and blue, drop-shadowed title card. That, and a few shots designed to wag something (like a giant ant’s antenna) in the audience’s face, are the only remaining signs of Them!-That-Might’ve-Been. Read enough reviews of Them!-That-Is and you’ll come across a lot of praise for this film’s “documentary feeling.” I doubt it’d garner such accolades if it were in color…then again, maybe so…it would still hold your hand and lead you in, careful to take itself seriously. This movie is a granite idol, meeting your snickers with a stone face. It’s an almost perfect monster movie.