The Deadly Mantis (1957)
"This was the day that engulfed the world in terror!"
A volcanic eruption in the South Seas causes polar icebergs to shift, releasing a giant prehistoric praying mantis from its centuries-old icy confines. It slowly begins to work its way south from the North Pole towards New York, killing and destroying everything in its path.
A dose of 50s sci-fi rubbish, The Deadly Mantis is your traditional giant bug flick in which all manner of wooden actors get flustered when a flying fiend terrorizes America. Making a minor change of plot by not having the monster created by an atomic blast, the film shares many characteristics with the earlier Them!, a much better take on the 50s giant monster genre, but is nevertheless mired in a cliché-ridden formula which had become far too well established by 1957, with all manner of giant spiders, scorpions, grasshoppers and giant antimatter space buzzards simply tagging in and tagging out of what is essentially the same script. Directed by Nathan Juran, the man responsible for my favourite film, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Deadly Mantis is a sluggish (and I use that term mildly) but surprisingly competent entry into the giant monster movie cycle of the decade.
The Deadly Mantis takes an eternity to get going, opting to act as some form of pro-defence propaganda reel of America's post-war capabilities. Much emphasis is placed upon the copious use of military stock footage, no doubt giving the running time a helping push in the right direction - around the first ten minutes of the film is stock footage lifted from elsewhere. Seriousness is the aim of the game in these 50s sci-fi flicks and The Deadly Mantis is no exception. Military characters bark out orders. Villagers flee in panic. Scientists argue like it's the end of mankind. Even the guy doing the voiceover explaining the invention of radar at the beginning does so in a deadpan manner. I suppose there wouldn't be any narrative if the characters all just stood and laughed at the creature. But at least they'd be doing something worthwhile instead of going through the motions. The Deadly Mantis' reliance on genre stereotypes is lazy filmmaking at its best and most convenient - by the end of the 50s, this short-lived giant monster fad had bombed out and so studios were looking to make them on the cheap with as little upwards investment as possible.
The script is the copy and paste job of epic proportions, borrowing plenty from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them! and any number of other earlier 50s classics. Only by now, the cookie cutter characters were so one-note that it didn't take much to bring them to life. Here, the human characters are dull and bland, and there's your generic forced romance between the male and female lead actors. Only at a few points during the film do they ever suggest anything worthwhile of a romance yet seem to pander to type by the end of the film by sharing a moment of intimacy after the creature has been slain purely because they have to. At least William Hopper, in the scientist role, seems to be enjoying himself. 1957 wasn't Hopper's year as he not only had to deal with this giant preying mantis but a space alien from Venus in Juran's 20 Million Miles to Earth, an infinitely more rewarding experience which actually invested time into making the film exciting.
The mantis makes its first cameo appearance at around the thirty-three minute mark. The creature looks no better or worse than you'd expect from a 50s science fiction flick. It's not stop motion but a giant puppet which menaces a lot of cheap-looking miniature sets. The mantis looks creepy enough and has enough spark about it to actually look terrifying in a few scenes but the limitations of the puppet mean that it's never going to be doing anything too taxing (or exciting for that matter). Nathan Juran's best shots of the creature are when it emerges from the fog-drenched tunnel right at the finale, giving it a far more menacing appearance than it deserves. Unfortunately for the majority of the film, the creature is nowhere to be seen and rarely do you see it doing any damage. Whenever it attacks someone or something, the film conveniently fades out to another scene, only hinting at what happened to the bus, the sailors on the boat or any number of other victims. Unlike some of the other giant monster movies such as Them! which actually showed something exciting during monster attacks, The Deadly Mantis' set pieces are so pointless and unsatisfying that it becomes predictably dull. Hint after hint that something good will happen on-screen is dropped and time after time are those expectations dashed. It shouldn't take up until a well-staged finale for the main characters to finally interact with the main threat of a film like this. But here they are, wrapping things up quickly and without fuss.
The Deadly Mantis is one of the last of the 50s sci-fi flicks with giant monsters on the loose and it shows. Devoid of anything fresh, featuring a tired storyline, an over-use of stock footage and peppered with lifeless characters, it's no surprise to see this drop off the radar whilst true classics likes Them! and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms continue to reign supreme in the memory.
The Deadly Mantis
Director(s): Nathan Juran
Writer(s): Martin Berkeley (screenplay), William Alland (story)
Actor(s): Craig Stevens, William Hopper, Alix Talton, Donald Randolph, Florenz Ames, Paul Smith, Paul Campbell, Pat Conway
Duration: 79 mins