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James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn and James Arness take on giant ants in the first entry of the nuclear mutation subgenre. Inspired by the success of its The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Warner Bros. decided to switch from prehistoric monsters to giant insects, launching a craze that would eventually pit humanity against grasshoppers, wasps, praying mantises and more spiders than you can shake a stick at. Future Gunsmoke star, Arness plays an FBI agent who joins forces with a state trooper (Whitmore) and entomologist (Gwenn) to investigate strange deaths near a nuclear testing site. Along the way they question a pilot (Fess Parker, in the film that won him the role of television’s Davy Crockett) who saw a giant flying “thing” and various other people who report unusual activity. The film is surprisingly suspenseful, with the ants’ appearances heralded by a high-pitched chirp that’s a masterpiece of sound editing. The creatures themselves were scary enough to merit an Oscar nomination for Best Special Effects. They might have been more terrifying had Warner Bros. stuck with the original plans to film in color and 3D (some shots appear framed for that process). Although the opening title was printed in bright red, budget concerns dictated a black-and-white film. (d. Gordon Douglas, 94m, Digital)

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