A fascinating blip on the American genre film timeline is the almighty Big Bug Film, a subgenre that took root in the skittish post-Hiroshima 1950's. The first film to successfully traverse this territory was the ginormous ant movie, Them! (1954). This Warner Brothers film provided a catharsis for movie-goers terrified by the threat of nuclear attack, and it also gave comforting reassurance that America's scientists, law enforcement, military, and political leaders were able to stop any menace that threatened life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This would establish the blueprint that subsequent big bug films would follow.
The big bug films of the 50's were not the first fright flicks to include the element of nature gone bonkers, nor were they the last. However, the tone of these Red Scare era insect thrillers was unique.
If you're a fan of Starship Troopers (1997) or the Tremors films (as I am - yes, ALL of the Tremors films) you can thank the big bug films of the 50's for providing more than a little inspiration.
For those not familiar with the big bugs of the conservative 50's, here's our quick pick of the top five creepiest, crawliest films, listed in order of awesomeness.
THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957)
Ok, right off the bat we're going to cheat a little. The monster in this movie is a giant mollusk, not a bug, but I won't tell anyone if you don't. In The Monster That Challenged The World, an earthquake unleashes a heap of giant, deadly mollusk monsters from the bottom of the Salton Sea. The Navy transports to a lab on base one of the mollusk eggs, which hatches, setting off an entertaining mollusk vs. man throwdown.
There's plenty of fun, clunky b-movie monster action to enjoy, and the characters are well written, so be prepared to care about them a bit as they battle giant rubber mollusks. The Monster That Challenged The World director Arnold Laven was a successful film and television director for more than three decades, capping off his career by directing episodes of The A-Team in the early/mid 80's.
BEGINNING OF THE END (1957)
This enjoyable giant grasshopper film starring Peter Graves (Airplane!) is directed by Bert I. Gordon, the undisputed champion of the big bug / big animal movies. He directed the giant spider movie, Earth Vs. The Spider (1958), the giant ant movie, Empire Of The Ants (1977), and the giant wasp / giant rat / giant chicken movie, The Food Of The Gods (1976).
In Beginning Of The End, giant grasshoppers accidentally created at a U.S. Department of Agriculture experimental farm are causing widespread destruction - and the beasts have developed a taste for human flesh. The monster locusts seem to be winning a battle against the U.S. military. As the grasshoppers threaten to overtake Chicago, the military prepares to drop an atom bomb on the city to exterminate the green, ravenous enemy. The giant grasshopper effects are amusing (and actually function better than they should), the film maintains a lively pace, and Beginning Of The End manages to provide some mystery and suspense here and there as well.
THE BLACK SCORPION (1957)
Volcanic activity in Mexico sets free giant scorpions who ravage the countryside in The Black Scorpion, starring Richard Denning (Creature From The Black Lagoon). The film features some great stop-motion animation by Willis O'Brien (King Kong). The Black Scorpion started with a low budget, and as production wore on, financial difficulties got worse. At the end, money was so tight, O'Brien and his assistant were working out of a garage. Some effects shots were, for some reason, dropped into the movie without being complete.
Despite its budget woes, the movie has exciting action sequences, there's plenty of mayhem and destruction on display, and the scope of the film is bolstered by the presence of many extras screaming and running from the rampaging scorpions. This is one fun monster movie that will rock you like a hurricane.
This giant spider movie, directed by Jack Arnold (Creature From The Black Lagoon), contains eight-legged monster action aplenty, with some human deformation horrors thrown in for good measure. Atomic science and best intentions result in a tarantula on the grow escaping from a lab. Once free, it continues to enlarge from the size of a house plant to the size of a large house.
The spider in this film is real, not stop-motion, composited in or shot on miniature sets to provide the illusion of its enormous size. The way a tarantula moves in reality is pretty creepy, so the use of one in this movie results in some eerie and fascinating visuals. The scene in which the massive spider advances on a herd of horses is a particularly effective and fun sequence. Oh, and as an added bonus, this film features a young Clint Eastwood playing a jet pilot in the climactic final battle. Jeez, what more could you want in a giant spider movie???
And now the king of the big bug flicks, the one that started it all: Them!, directed by Gordon Douglas. A nest of huge mutant ants is discovered in the desert. The nest is destroyed - but evidence indicates that two queen ants have escaped and are headed west to establish new colonies. Them! is one of the first and the best of the 50's nuclear fear flicks - and this film is so much more than simple drive-in b-movie schlock; this movie fires on many additional cylinders and actually represents some excellent filmmaking.
Within the opening minutes of the movie, suspense is expertly being built. Well written characters take the viewer on a journey of discovery, building the dread as story details are accumulated. The performances are excellent, especially considering this is a giant bug movie. James Whitmore (The Shawshank Redemption) as Sgt. Ben Peterson and James Arness (The Thing From Another World) as FBI Agent Robert Graham are especially riveting. Furthermore, the black and white cinematography is outstanding. The movie was shot by Sid Hickox (The Big Sleep), who maintained an extremely successful career behind the camera from 1916 to 1971.
The only real disappointment in Them! is, well, Them. The title refers to the giant monster ants that are not terribly convincing on screen. However, they must have looked very real and very scary in 1954 because Them! was nominated for an Oscar for Special Effects. I recommend Them! for suspenseful adventure and lots of imaginative story twists. It's not just a good big bug movie, it's a really good movie, period.