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Archive for August 27th, 2016

them2

by Sam Juliano

Throughout history, compassionate minds have pondered the dark and disturbing question: what is society to do with those members who are a threat to society, those malcontents and misfits whose behavior undermines and destroys the foundations of civilization? Different ages have found different answers. Misfits have been burned, branded and banished. Today, on this planet Earth, the criminal is incarcerated in humane institutions…..or he is executed. Other planets use other methods. This is the story of how the perfectionist rulers of the planet Zanti attempted to solve the problem of the Zanti misfits.        The Outer Limits, “The Zanti Misfits”

The 1963-4 science fiction television series The Outer Limits ran for a scant season and a half, producing forty-nine episodes until ABC cancelled it after was pitted against the Jackie Gleason Show.  The show’s moody textured look, eerieness and indebtedness to German Expressionism set it apart from its era’s other major anthology work, The Twilight Zone, which for all its narrative brilliance was shot conventionally.   Of course The Outer Limits was a one-hour program as opposed to the other which ran a half hour for all of its five seasons save for the fourth.  While such science fiction luminaries like Gene Roddenbery have admitted that the influences The Outer Limits exerted on Star Trek is incalcuable it can’t be argued that retrospectively The Outer Limits owes some of its own ideas to 1950’s sci-fi cinema.  Indeed the most celebrated episode in the run of the show is “The Zanti Misfits” which features ant-like, rat-sized aliens who exhibit human faces.  Representatives of this alien world by interplanetary communication ask that Earth provide a penal colony for its criminals.  Set in a California desert the show winds down with the complete obliteration of the creatures and expected reprisals, but Earth officials are quickly thanked for doing something that their own non-violent race cannot.  In the closing narration an alien spokesperson refers to Earthings as “practiced executioners.”

This theme of the total annihilation of a hostile force, also set in an arid southwestern terrain, and showcasing menacing ant-like invaders is the subject of Them!, a 1954 landmark film that is uniformly regarded as the first of the run of the “Big Bug” features that spooled out over the decade.  While “The Zanti Misfits” is patterned after Them!, the 1954 work was an encore of sorts to the The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms, in that both share a single cautionary theme against the use of nuclear weapons.  We’ve seen a more didactic use of the theme employed in films like 1959’s On the Beach, which focused on the after effects of a nuclear war, but the science fiction umbrella allows for a far less preachy approaach and one predicated on entertainment in good vs. evil mode.  Warner Brothers studio head Jack Warner, aiming to capitalize on the spectacular finantial success of Beast –made for $200,00, and grossing 5 million- doubled the budget, lengthened the running time and even gave serious consideration to color, 3-D and widescreen, though these embellishments never materialized due to their incapatability with the F/X process. Warner attempted to make Them! like Beast in scene-by-scene manner , employing the documentary style rather than embracing the monster effects of a horror film, and he even encored Cecil Kellaway’s ironic scientist from the earlier film with the affable thespian Edmund Gwenn, who is as patient here as he was when he portrayed jolly old St. Nick, but in the end with markedly less compassion. (more…)

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