Summer of Impositions II: [Caleb] Why Are There Ants in Here?: On House at the End of the Street (2012) & Them! (1954)

I met McKenna in the fall of 2017, when her husband came to teach at a friend’s church in Birmingham, Alabama. It didn’t take long for my friends and me to hit it off with the Rishmawy’s, but I was particularly glad to discover that McKenna was a fellow schlocky horror movie fan. We started waxing eloquent about the theological significance of horror movies (especially the low-budget ones) much to the chagrin of everyone else in the group. But it was a friendship forged in the fires of adversity (people thinking we were weirdos).

So it brings me no pleasure to report to you how absolutely cruel McKenna has been to me in her Summer Imposition picks. It’s not because she picked Them! (1954), the fun, but lesser Gojira, if you will. And it’s not because she picked The House at the End of the Street (2012), a terribly boring movie. No—the real cruelty is in imposing on me the challenge of bringing these wildly disparate films into a fruitful dialogue with one another. With friends like these, as they say…

I started with the movie I knew I’d like the least: The House at the End of the Street (2012). Once I finally figured out that this movie was not The Last House on the Left (1972), The Last House on the Left (2009), House (1977), House (1986), The Haunted House of Horror (1969), Horror House (2012), or literally any other house-adjacent movie, I realized I was doomed to watch Jennifer Lawrence’s worst film of 2012 (and this is coming from someone who is bored to tears bythe entirety of The Hunger Games franchise [and still is exhausted from watching Silver Linings Playbook 8 years ago]). What can I say about this awkwardly-titled, psychological thriller that hasn’t already been said? Maybe things like…how this movie spent 9 years in development hell only to release this as the final product! Or that someone actually wrote a novelization of it—one of the least exciting stories I’ve ever been forced to sit through! Or even that the social media campaign for this movie had the audacity to use the acronym “HATESmovie” for their Facebook page! You’re right, Facebook! I did HATES this movie.

House at the End of the Street (hereafter, HATES) is thin from start to finish. Jennifer Lawrence plays Elissa, whose two biggest character flaws are 1) her weakness for brooding guys who she can turn into an emotional fixer-upper project and 2) that she wants to participate in a local Battle of the Bands (Embarrassing!) Her mom, Sarah (Elizabeth Shue), an ER doctor, decided to move her halfway across the country from their native Chicago to start a new life after a messy divorce with Elissa’s deadbeat dad. That kind of life change can be expensive though. So fortunately for them, they moved down the street from a house that is bringing down all surrounding property values by being the place where a couple, the Jacobsons, got their skulls caved in with a hammer by their crazed teenage daughter, Carrie Anne. There were plans to bulldoze the house, but the only surviving family member, Ryan (Max Thieriot) their college-aged son, lives within—keeping to himself and also being despised by the locals for some reason? If my whole family ever gets tragically murdered by someone else, I hope my neighbors wouldn’t go out of their way to bully me for it. But hey, this is the HATES movie, after all!

Elissa gets invited to a “fundraiser” by a classmate / neighbor, Tyler (Nolan Gerard Funk), but soon discovers that it’s a party where he and the rest of his spoiled, rich buddies get drunk and charge his dad’s credit card thousands of dollars instead of collect donations from the community. (Gotta fluff that résumé, baby!) Eventually, Tyler drunkenly forces himself onto Elissa, but she’s able to break away and start the 10-mile trek home on foot.

Enter, Ryan Jacobson, the quiet, brooding, debatably guy-lined(?) neighbor from “the end of the street.” (By the way, the house referenced in the title is really the house behind their own, but I guess that title is even more boring than the one we have). Ryan seems deep and tortured—think Edward Cullen, but with even less warmth, somehow. And Elissa, for whatever reason, just digs guys like this—so she lets him drive her home. He turns out to be the kind of weirdo that likes to take girls to his “favorite tree” and say things like, “Everything has a secret. Everything.” Elissa’s reply is equally mind-numbing: “People don’t notice secrets all around them, even though they’re just waiting to be found.” All this cryptic and creepy chumminess over the next few days doesn’t sit well with Elissa’s mother, Sarah, who confronts her after an awkward family dinner with Ryan: “Sometimes people can’t be fixed!” (This holds true for every semblance of a character in this movie, too.)

After a intercut scene of Elissa and Sarah complaining about each other to their colleagues, I sensed some kind of theme developing: maybe something about the secret sins of the parents are visited on the children; maybe something about we end up repeating the same hidden mistakes of our past over and over again. Truthfully, I don’t know. But I’m not sure the filmmakers did either.

Eventually we discover that the girl locked in Ryan’s basement (Oh, did I forget to mention that? Well, Ryan has a girl locked in his basement—LOL YIKES) is not actually his lost sister, Carrie Anne. It’s a random blonde girl who he forces to wear blue contacts, a child’s nightgown, and pretend to be Carrie Anne—the kind of behavior you’d expect from a skeevy, little jerk like Ryan. And we figure this out when “Carrie Anne” gets out, he chases her down, and then accidentally snaps her neck only to replace her the next day with the waitress at the diner who was kind to him—again, the kind of behavior you’d expect from a scary, emo 20-something like Ryan.

Elissa discovers his horrible little secret once she prematurely leaves Battle of the Bands (Again, embarrassing!) after she sees him get thrashed by Tyler and some other bullies—who, by the end of the movie, were unknowingly justified in kicking the crap out of this guy! Now Ryan is torn: will he keep this erstwhile “Carrie Anne” or will he turn Elissa into Carrie Anne 3.0 (or maybe 4.0)? He decides to make Elissa both his unrequited love and his lost sister—yet again, the kind of behavior we expect from a gross, little incel like Ryan.

But when Elissa can’t be reached by her mom, she sends a local cop to check on Ryan, Officer Bill Weaver (Gil Bellows, my favorite part of this slog). In an extended cut of the movie, Bill is far more sinisterly entwined with the Jacobson family, but in the theatrical release, he’s just the only guy in town that feels sorry for Ryan. Bad idea. Ryan stabs him when he starts to piece together that Elissa has been kidnapped. Then Sarah shows up to find Elissa, only also to get stabbed by Ryan. But a little bit of that Hunger Games spark shows up as Elissa fights her way out of Ryan’s sub-basement, finds Bill’s gun, and blasts her way through the un-scariest jump scare of all time.

Sarah survives her attack, and the penultimate scene of the movie reveals that Elissa and Sarah are moving yet again. The film ends showing us an institutionalized Ryan (somehow surviving Elissa shooting him 3-4 times in the chest at point blank range) as he flashes back to how the real Carrie Anne’s actually died when they were kids, and how he was abused into taking on her identity—his mother insisting that he be called “Carrie Anne” now too. And then…the movie has the audacity to just end. So he was abused into being “Carrie Anne,” but then a fake “”Carrie Anne”” killed his parents and escaped, and then he kept capturing “””Carrie Anne’s””” so that he wouldn’t have to be “”””Carrie Anne?””” Ugh…

That was hard enough to get through, so thanks, McKenna! Now I have to sully the good name of Them! (1954) by comparing it to HATES, which I reiterate—are two utterly incomparable experiences. Here goes…

1954 was the year of extraordinary parallel thinking as both Them! and the original Gojira were released within months of each other. As far as I can tell, the inspiration for both movies was sparked by 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, itself an adaption of Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story, “The Fog Horn.” But what The Beast added to the mix was explicitly socio-political and environmental concerns around nuclear weapons. And while the re-named Godzilla has proven to be one of the most successful franchises of all time (echoing a rather understandable preoccupied fear of atomic destruction), Them! has all but been forgotten, except by B-movie lovers. And although some of Them!’s features are wildly outdated, especially its glaring disdain of women as experts (McKenna, what are you doing?!), it definitely reflects the fears of its time: the breakdown of communities, the changing roles of women, and of course, the “New World” of “the Atomic Age.”

The film opens on the arid landscape of the New Mexico desert as a police plane and car work in tandem responding to disconcerting reports. They discover a little girl walking through the wilderness in a borderline catatonic state. Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and his partner try to return her to her family, “vacationing” in a nearby and now-destroyed trailer, but everyone is gone, including her FBI agent father. The plot thickens as they find the nearby grocer’s business torn to shreds and robbed only of its sugary products. Ben and his partner split up to continue their investigation, only for his partner to be attacked and killed by…something (spoiler: it was THEM!).

When the autopsy report comes back, large amounts of “formic acid” have been found in the deceased trooper’s system. All of this compounded strangeness leads the local police department to contact another FBI agent, Robert Graham (James Arness), as well as two leading myrmecologists (something I misspelled 20 times in my note -taking), Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Dr. Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon), both from the esteemed Department of Agriculture. All the evidence points to an ant infestation, but the cannot figure out how ants have caused this massive destruction. Dr. Medford uses formic acid fumes to rouse the catatonic girl to get more information, but upon awakening, all she can get out is shriek of terror: “THEM!”

As the team of four (Ben, Robert, and the Drs.) venture out to the sites in question, they discover massive footprints that seem to belong to giant ants?! Their hypothesis is correct as they see a giant, eight-foot-tall forager crest a nearby hill. Pistol and submachine guns ring out until it’s antennae are destroyed, and it collapses. This band of government employees realizes their worst nightmares are coming true: the atomic testing of the US military in the region a decade back has caused a small household pest to become the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced. Shortly after, they find the colossal ant mound belonging to this scout and gas it. They descend into the belly of this mega-bug hell with flamethrowers in tow. These scenes hold up remarkably well. The practical effects of the giant ant bodies mixed with the pyrotechnics of angry flamethrowers make for rather memorable sci-fi schlock. They conquer the hill, but find several queens have escaped. According to the senior Medford, if they don’t find their nests and eliminate them (THEM!), the world will be overrun and everyone will be extinct in a year or less. Medford utters this oracle with a spooky and pseudo-biblical utterance: “And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation, and the Beasts shall reign over the earth.”

“The Atomic Age” is equated with the biblical End of the Age. Kooky, futurist readings of John’s Apocalypse aside, these type of films share an enduring (and prescient) understanding that humanity’s collective power and ingenuity always, always, always leads to unbridled chaos and rampant destruction of life.

So the flamethrower scene is the most visually compelling sequence of the movie, but the subsequent top secret Washing debriefing is by far the most philosophically compelling one. Dr. Medford is baffled that the elite of Washington scoff and dismiss even photographic proof of the problem (Man, things have not changed in the slightest in 70 years…), but goes on to present why they should all be terrified. The household variety of ants are some of the most complex and well organized social hierarchies on the planet. He rather memorably concludes that “Ants are the only animals, other than man, that make war. [They campaign. They enslave.] Their savagery make man look feeble by comparison.” (As a side note, I wonder if how Gojira and Them! portray nuclear threats correspond with their perception of the other’s culture. For instance, Gojira is a singular, titanic beast—very world superpower-y feeling, not unlike America in the mid-20th century; while Them! is about a collectivist society; a threat that is terrifying because of how well the society is organized and undeterred by individual desire—think kamikazes in WWII. I digress…)

Regardless, the problem is obvious. The actions of the US to defend itself have unleashed a diaspora of political and environmental threats. The climax takes the audience into the 700 miles of unmonitored tunnel systems of Los Angeles, one of America’s great cities, where the final queen has nested. The message is clear: the threat could be anywhere, and we have no way to know until, perhaps, it’s too late. But the film concludes in an optimistic, if unsettled way. The remaining mega-ants are found and destroyed, and we’ve enjoyed some laughs along the way—an almost Abott-and-Costello-like bit about radio lingo between airplanes, so many Wilhelm screams you lose count (by the way, this was maybe the 6th film in all of cinema history to use that oft-repeated sample!), and even some fun pre-fame cameos from people like Leonard Nimoy. But that light-heartedness fades as Robert, the FBI Agent, wonders aloud what other nuclear threats they may have unleashed by accident. Dr. Medford has the final admonition of the script: “When man entered the Atomic Age, he opened into a door to a New World. What we eventually find in that New World, nobody can predict.”

A rather sophisticated ending to an over-the-top creature feature, and almost totally unrelatable to the bloody HATES movie. I suppose if there are any connections to be made in these films, it’s the age-old warnings of generational sins haunting our descendants. Whether it’s our personal desires for dangerous people that seep into the hearts of our children, leading them to destruction, or it’s our society desires for dominance that place our children in harm’s way, I guess the overall theme is that “what’s done in the dark will be brought to the light.” There is no hiding from the sins of the past—“the blood of our brothers cry out to God from the ground” (cf. Genesis 4). 

Perhaps now, more than ever in our lifetimes, as we live through a pandemic and massive societal upheaval along the lines of class and race, it’s wise to remind ourselves of how our every action—good or ill—has dire consequences. And perhaps until true justice is carried out, there can be no peace from the threat of violence and vengeance. Let the reader understand, and may God have mercy on our souls! 

How was that, McKenna?

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