Dir: Gordon Douglas
Star: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness

Over 60 years old, yet still one of the best monster movies of all time - at least, for the first half. This is the kind of film they should be remaking, because I can only imagine how potentially terrifying this could be, if the pipe-cleaner and cheesecloth monsters eventually delivered, were replaced with some cutting-edge creations. They would, however, had to do well to capture the tense sense of menace generated during the early going, after New Mexico state trooper Ben Peterson (Whitmore) finds a young girl wandering, traumatized, in the middle of the desert, and her family's trailer destroyed nearby, with unrecognizable prints in the sand. Enter FBI agent Robert Graham (Arness), scientists Professor Medford (Gwenn) and his daughter Dr. Pat Medford (Weldon), the latter eventually revealing the cause is giant ants, mutated by radiation from the recent atomic bomb tests in the desert. While this nest is destroyed, it's not before two new queens escape; they must be located and destroyed, before they can spawn a fresh outbreak. And one appears to have taken up residence in the 700 miles of sewers that run beneath Los Angeles...

The influence is clear, on everything from Aliens to Starship Troopers, but it's equally as much a product of its time - there are times when the way the ants are described, they sound almost... Communist. The Professor says ants "have an instinct and talent for industry, social organization and savagery, that makes man [in other words, 1950's America] look feeble by comparison." And it was also a time when the idea of martial law being declared in Los Angeles, and the resulting military takeover, could be portrayed as a good thing [compare and contrast the "Jade Helm" paranoia nonsense this year]. It has to be admitted, the film's second half is less successful. This is partly down to the ropey nature of the special effects, which work better when they're out of sight, yet it also becomes a bit more plodding and implausible [would even the kinder, gentler government of the fifties risk extermination of the human race to save two missing kids?], even forgetting the whole "inverse square" thing. Still, Douglas demonstrates a sure hand on the helm, and when set beside some of its contemporaries, this has stood the test of time a great deal better.

[September 2015]

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