The October Horrorshow Giant Monstershow returns to the land of giant insects with today’s flick. From 1957, The Deadly Mantis is an early directorial effort from Nathan Juran, who had an Oscar-winning career as an art director before becoming a director. It was written by Martin Berkeley, who also had a screenwriting credit for the execrable Tarantula.
A long expository voiceover, using maps and stock footage, explains the strategic position of United States air defenses during the Cold War. I’m not joking. The opening of this movie looks and feels like a film from the Pentagon. We are told in some detail about the placement of early warning radar stations in the Arctic. Thus, the stage is set. A volcanic eruption elsewhere on the planet has ramifications in the Arctic, causing massive icebergs to shift and break. A menace from prehistory, a praying mantis of enormous size, is exposed by the fracturing of the ice. Of course, this deeply frozen creature is not dead, but merely in a state of suspended animation. When it wakes, it begins to hunt for food. And wouldn’t you know, it turns out that all those military folks monitoring the skies above the permafrost make for good eating.
The radar stations are commanded by Colonel Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) from a small airbase in the Arctic. After one of the stations goes off the air, it is discovered to have been destroyed by forces unknown. Not long after, a military cargo plane is snatched out of the air by a mysterious radar contact, and crashes. What looks like a giant claw is found in the wreckage. The air force and the Pentagon don’t know what to make of this strange thing, so they call in the help of a paleontologist, Dr. Ned Jackson (William Hopper) and a museum photographer, Marge Blaine (Alix Tilton). The two of them travel to Colonel Stevens’s base just in time for another bout of exposition.
The idea of this film — gigantic bug terrorizes populace — seems to present itself easily. The filmmakers must not have thought so, however, because if more than a minute or so goes by without the mantis making its presence felt, a viewer will get another explanation of the monster and its behavior. There isn’t enough that an audience can know about this impossible, fictional threat. It’s wonderful to feel so informed, but the amount of runtime padding is ridiculous.
When everyone is done talking about the gigantic killer insect that’s out there, they do try and do something about it. And things don’t go so well. It’s kind of funny that the film spends so much time touting how we’re being kept safe by the military, but then this bug just rips and runs all up and down the eastern seaboard. They’re supposed to be protecting us from the Soviets, and they can’t shoot down a bug the size of the Goodyear Blimp. Pathetic.
The special effects are as bad as one would expect from this type of film. The mantis looks awful when it’s in flight, but the puppet they used for scenes on the ground is kind of cool. It’s just a lumbering piece of papier-mâché and tin foil, but there’s something endearing about it. It’s no more or less believable than the ants in Them!, for instance.
If one is going to seek out this film, that points to being already familiar with monster flicks. No one starts with The Deadly Mantis. So, let me put the film this way: There is nothing in this movie that is new. There is nothing that is unique. Every scene and every character has an analogue in better monster films of the era. It’s not competent enough to be memorable, and not the type of shitty enough that’s worth a laugh. It’s just a bad relic. Alien: Resurrection is a better movie than The Deadly Mantis.
One final note. I wrote above that this movie isn’t shitty enough to be worth a laugh, but there is a great moment of shitty filmmaking in it. The monster attacks an Inuit village at one point, and the filmmakers lifted footage of the natives from the 1933 film S.O.S. Eisberg. The Inuit performers are precious. They look absolutely thrilled to be in a movie. They probably were, but they also had no clue that they would be making a second appearance in this dog.