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Bonus Reviews: Them! (1954) and King of Thorn (2009)
Horror Bulletin Bonus for Week 187
For this week’s bonus films, we’ve got a couple of really different films. To begin, we have the very first giant insect movie that launched an entire genre, "Them!" From 1954. We'll also look at a sci-fi/horror anime from 2009, the "King of Thorn."
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Directed by Gordon Douglas
Written by Ted Serdeman, Russell S. Hughes, George Worthing Yates
Stars James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness
Run Time: 1 Hour, 34 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgment Zone
It’s longer than you’d expect, but it’s always moving forward and really well made. The acting and direction are very good. The creature effects get the job done. It’s a classic that should be seen.
The New Mexico State Police fly their plane over the desert. The pilot calls into Sgt. Ben Peterson’s squad car– yes, he’s spotted the missing little girl. She’s just out walking through the desert in a robe with a stuffed animal; she doesn’t respond at all when Ben calls her. On their way back, they get a call to stop at a trailer, but the place is all smashed up. There’s blood on the ground and money, so it wasn’t a robbery. They find a weird footprint and sugar cubes scattered around.
After the ambulance and forensic guys show up, Ben and Ed, the two cops, head to the general store, which is also a disaster. This time, however, they find a body. They find a bunch of sugar spilled on the floor, and it’s crawling with ants. Ben goes back to the station while Ed waits for the investigators to arrive. He hears a strange noise and draws his gun; it doesn’t save him.
The police think that maybe it was a homicidal maniac, but the hospital would have notified them. The little girl’s father worked for the FBI, so they get called in to help with the investigation. Robert Graham is the FBI man assigned to find out what happened.
Graham calls in Doctor Medford and his daughter Pat from the Department of Agriculture to help with identifying the footprints they found. Medford asks about the original atomic bomb explosion; nine years ago in the very same vicinity. The little girl has hysterical catatonia. Medford wakes her up with the smell of formic acid, and she screams “Them! Them!” over and over. They go out to the desert to investigate the area around the wrecked trailer. They all hear the squeaking sound now. One of “Them” sneaks up behind Pat, and they all see it. It’s a giant ant!
Ben and Graham unload their guns on the thing. They eventually shoot the antennas. It dies. Now, they have proof. It was probably mutated by the atomic bomb. They get a helicopter to circle around and look for the nest. They find it, along with a bunch of bones. Medford explains to the general that it’d be best to attack the nest in the middle of the afternoon when they’re all inside. Then they’ll drop cyanide inside and kill all the ants down there.
After the cyanide, Ben and Graham go down into the caves. Pat insists on going along as well. They find dead ants and keep going. They aren’t all dead, but they don’t like the flamethrower. They find the queen’s chamber and a bunch of eggs; they’re all dead. Some of the eggs look like they may have already hatched new queens– with wings.
Medford gathers generals and politicians and shows them a film about ants; we get a lecture about ants and their habits. Medford warns that if they don’t stop these new queens from reproducing, mankind may be extinct by next year.
A pilot reports seeing UFOs that looked like flying ants. One of the queens lands on a ship at sea and hatches eggs there. After the ants get everyone on board, the ship is sunk by the navy. One queen down. Where did the other go?
Time passes as they look for signs. Graham and Ben check out a huge sugar robbery in Los Angeles. A body is found, and the man’s wife mentions that the man took his kids to various places around town. They talk to an old drunk who says he sees ants at night in the dry river, but that was five months ago. They find a footprint just outside one of the tunnels on the L.A. spillway. There are 700 miles of those storm drains under the city.
The city is put under martial law, and a curfew is instituted. They announce the existence of the ants. The government wants to pour fuel into the sewers and ignite it, but Graham says there may be children lost inside. Plus it might blow up the city. The army drives Jeeps through the huge tunnels in search of giant ants.
Ben crawls through a side tunnel and finds the two lost boys, who are surrounded. Ben uses his flamethrower on the two ants and gets the boys out. An ant grabs Ben and crushes him; the army arrives and kills all the ants. There’s lots of explosions and the tunnel collapses.
Graham gets his machine gun and goes hunting. They find newly-hatched queens, but this time, the queens are still there. With a quick blast of the flame thrower, the problem is solved.
Graham asks that if the first atomic bomb caused all this, what about all the more recent bomb tests? Medford says “No one can predict…”
This was the first of the giant insect films that were so popular during the 1950s. The acting is good, and everyone takes their roles seriously. Believe it or not, the nature documentary narrated by Medford actually adds a lot to the savagery of the ants here.
Ben is just a regular cop, and we see that he’s not the chief of police. Still, he’s brought into all the high-level government planning meetings and then flies to L.A. to continue the investigation.
It’s got super-early appearances by Leonard Nimoy, Richard Deacon, and Dick York, but if you blink, you’ll miss them. The ants are obviously big puppets, but they don’t look too bad for the time period. It’s pretty long for a movie of this type, but there’s no filler and no slow parts. A true classic!
King of Thorn (2009)
Directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama
Written by Kazuyoshi Katayama,Hiroshi Yamaguchi
Stars Kana Hanazawa, Kohsei Hirota, Misaki Kuno
Run Time: 1 Hour, 44 Minutes
We’re in New York City, and a woman falls from the sky. She shatters upon impact, like she was made of stone. It’s December 12, 2012, so the “near future” for this 2009 film. We’re told that the WHO has named the recent infectious disease “Medusa” (ACIS). It’s a global pandemic. The doctors don’t know the cause or the cure. The incubation period takes 30 to 60 days, but then there’s only twelve hours until you become literally petrified and die. There are battles and fighting over refugees and borders. The stock market crashes.
The Russian “Venus Gate” company says they have a plan to conquer Medusa; it’s called “Cold Sleep.” The Americans think that maybe the Russians created Medusa and released it, knowing they had the solution. They have a huge cryonics facility. The owner, Mr. Vega, may be a member of a Doomsday Cult. Venus Gate can only accommodate 160 people, so it’s pretty small.
We jump to October of 2015, and Kasumi and Shizuku are two twin Japanese girls that are on a bus on the way to a Scottish castle, along with a standard assortment of other characters on a few buses. There’s even a man in handcuffs. The castle houses the cold sleep facility. Credits roll.
A helicopter lands as the buses empty of passengers, and Senator Pecchino gets off. Mr. Vega runs the orientation, where he introduces ALICE, an AI that runs the whole system, and can run the show for up to a hundred years. Alice knows everything about the people who will be cryo-sleeping, even down to the DNA; Alice can also stimulate dreams while in cryosleep. Shizuku compares the whole thing to “Sleeping Beauty,” but Kasumi doesn’t like it. Only Kasumi has been accepted into the program, not her sister. The 160 selected people are processed and led into the cryo sleep area.
Kasumi wakes up to find that a huge thorny plant has grown throughout the whole Venus Gate base. All the cryo pods open up at once. There are strange carnivorous birds in the place as well, and very quickly, there aren’t 160 people anymore. Then a bunch fall down an elevator shaft and are eaten by the thing at the bottom.
Seven people get out alive. There is fighting and arguing. The criminal shows them how to bandage their wounded feet. The senator refuses to shut up and attracts a monster who eats him– well, his head anyway. The little boy says everything is just like in his video game. One of the monsters suddenly turns to stone and dies. The disease must have mutated too. How much time has passed? The nurse, Katherine, patches up the policeman and the engineer after the monster battle. The nurse yells at the kid about continually talking about the video game.
They all figure out that the engineer knows more than he’s been letting on. He’s some kind of religious nut that knows the station inside and out. He takes Kasumi as hostage and leaves the others. The engineer remembers Kasumi from before…
There’s reason to believe they were only in cryo sleep for 48 hours. Also, Kasumi’s sister Shizuku may have been involved in whatever happened.
Kasumi finds a room filled with samples of creatures in status. She soon sees that the criminal and the engineer are working together. The engineer used to be project lead on the cryo system. He gives Kasumi a memory card with evidence of something terrible just before being eaten by a creature. There’s another monster fight, and the memory chip is destroyed.
Turns out the criminal is really Marco, a British SAS agent in disguise to find out who was really behind Medusa. His mission was to capture Vega, who has been exposed to Medusa more than anyone else without being infected. Suddenly, Mr. Vega stumbles into the room.
Vega explains that eight years ago, a mysterious disease fell from outer space. There was also a cryptid that came along for the ride. The Russians killed the creature. It came from a girl’s imagination. They called it “an alternative.” It was an imaginary friend turned into reality. Medusa spreads through the universe, spurring evolution along. Right after they activated the cryo units, a girl came to Vega, and her mind was so powerful that it took Alice offline and spread something terrifying. Kasumi thinks the special girl might be her sister. There’s an earthquake, and it looks like Vega is killed.
Marco figures out that Tim, the little boy, has all the answers because Alice reprogrammed him to be their guide. They finally make it outside and see that the whole castle is overgrown with vines and thorns. Kasumi watches a video that shows her that Shizumi is the girl who caused all the problems. She goes back inside the castle.
Marco, Katherine, and Tim get in the helicopter and take off. The castle starts transforming into a giant dragon like thing, the “King of Thorn.” The copter soon crashes. Marco encounters Laura, his sister, but he knows that it’s really Alice playing mind games with him. She says that Medusa only affects people with certain mental traumas; they all have certain issues. Marco shoots himself in the neck to disable the microchip that Alice is using.
Kasumi wakes up. How much of all this is a dream? Shizuku warns her to leave right away, but Kasumi isn’t going to leave her. Shizoku warns that she’s only a reflection of Kasumi’s mind. Kasumi finally reaches Shizumi’s body and remembers that Shizoku killed herself years before. Or maybe Shizoku killed Kasumi outside the castle.
Turns out Kasumi is actually dead, and the character we’ve been following is a figment of Shizoku’s imagination set free by Alice and Medusa. Medusa let Shizoku wish her back to life. Marco, who isn’t dead, grabs Kasumi and the two run out of the collapsing castle/monster. Marco then dies, because he’s the only one left, and the plot doesn’t need him anymore. Tim, who also isn’t dead, finally shows up, and he and Kasumi go off in search of people.
Why did they take a guy out of prison to save him in cryo sleep, secret agent or not? Who thought that was a good idea? Why accept a girl with obvious schizophrenia? You'd think even a quickly-thrown-together survival ark would have a better screening process than this. The “Sleeping Beauty” story should have ended after everyone woke up, but it didn’t. The fairy tale parallels the action of the whole story, and may even be the cause of it.
It’s definitely action-packed, and there’s a lot of stuff to explain, which makes it pretty exposition-heavy. There’s actually a little bit too much going on, and it’s a bit hard to follow at times. Towards the end, when things start getting a lot more “mental” it’s close to incomprehensible at points, but it does all come together in the end.
I’m still not quite sure why the uninfected survivors suddenly turned to stone as soon as the plot stopped needing them. The whole cryo thing only took two days, so presumably the Medusa is still out there killing everyone. I guess we’re supposed to be OK with that now.
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