Looooook at that poster. "Those giant ants have human eyes! This 1954 giant insect movie is very goofy!"
This 1954 giant insect movie is one of the ur-horror movies. And it is nowhere, nowhere near as goofy as that poster suggests. I'm not ashamed to say that most of my "science hero" writing is directly influenced by this flick. I think you can break discussion of this movie down into basically two points:
First, you can argue that while the horror movies of the 50's established many of the horror and monster movie tropes we now use, most were so campy they lacked the, ah, emotional resonance to impress on us how effective these tropes could be. Them! had an impact that echoes fifty years down the cinematic timestream. The opening of, say, The Giant Gila Monster or Beginning of the End use techniques we're familiar with: The Mysterious Attack, the Unsolved Disappearance -- they segue differently into the Oblivious Authority Figure and the Dogged Investigation. Those movies open like action movies.
Them! opens like a horror movie. In a genuinely creepy sequence, two cops discover a ravaged general store out on the Arizona highway. A hundred miles from nowhere, deep in the night ... The only survivor is a mute, terrified little girl. Strange sounds echo out from the darkness ...
There is a moment, watching this, when you realize "Holy shit, the opening of this 1954 horror movie is the template for Aliens." Anyone who doesn't see the hand of Them! (or at least the tropes established by Them!) in Jaws is just not paying attention.
The final action sequence is a full-on soldiers vs. monsters flamethrower battle in the tunnels beneath Los Angeles. This sequence would still be a viable set piece pitch for a summer tentpole flick in 2010.
Second, this film is the template for the science hero movies of the 60's and 70's. There's a nice solid investigative path here, and you see scientists using Very Big Brains to figure out what the hell's going on. Director Gordon Douglas teases out the giant ant reveal (yes, I typed that with a straight face), relying on a nicely creepy sound design and some very sophisticated shot choices. The first time the phrase "Them!" is said -- or rather, screamed -- is one of my favorite moments in cinema. The characters have to earn the reveal by figuring things out in enough detail to arrive at the monster's nature, rather than just having one smash through the roof of the lab.
Now, one hand you have The Thing, where the scientist is enabling the monster -- "Hi, I'm a dude in a white lab coat, and my job is to be the Metaphor of Science's Reckless Pursuit of the Unknown" -- and two-fisted army dudes need to put the monster to a right kicking. This is the model most people associate with these movies, and to a great degree the model we returned to in the 80's. But in Them!, you have the Army enabling the scientists.* There's a great little X-Files-y moment where the leads lay out how they're assembling a data map, correlating weird sightings and deaths -- and simultaneously covering up the presence of the monsters by discrediting those very same reports. Very Cryptonomicon.
It's always interesting to skim the Netflix comments (hey, somebody else saw the Aliens relationship!). I'm struck by how many times people comment on a movie like this "Hey, it's grerat to pop in a movie that's just fun and you don't have to think." Them! is just so goddam well-made, it's not mindless at all -- it's just effortless.
Them! streaming instantly on Netflix is your weekend recommendation. In the Comments, let's hear your favorite old-school horror or sci-fi movie. Let's say ... pre 1970's.
* The two-fisted hero/science guy team-up wound up morphing into the disaster movies of the 70's, then re-entering the sci-fi universe in the 90's with Independence Day. There's another interesting story at the root of that cinematic relationship ...