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Monday, September 22, 2008

The Deadly Mantis

This movie is more in line with the stereotype of low-budget 50s sci-fi. It has a good deal of stock footage, modest special effects for a rampaging monster, mediocre acting and a formulaic plot. Universal, which usually produced above-average sci-fi movies, had a less impressive offering in The Deadly Mantis (DM). Nonetheless, DM is the next in line in the notorious "big bug" sub-genre begun by Them! and the giant ants in 1954.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Seismic activity dislodges a giant praying mantis, frozen in arctic ice since pre-historic times. A mystery builds (though the viewer knows) as to what could have destroyed an arctic radar outpost, crashes a cargo plane and terrorizes an eskimo village. A paleontologist is called in by the Air Force to explain a 5 foot long claw tip found at a wreck site. He eventually identifies it as coming from a gigantic praying mantis which he theorizes was prehistoric -- like the mammoth -- which got quick frozen. The mantis is flying south to find the tropics. Along the way it leaves destruction as it eats people. It arrives in Washington DC. I proves invulnerable to ordinary weapons fire, but flies away to the north east. Before it can reach New York City, a jet fighter collides with it in flight. The pilot bails out. The mantis, hurt, flies down and crawls into the Manhattan Tunnel on the Newark side. The army fills the tunnel with smoke to, perhaps, sedate the monster (like bees) and as visual cover for the team going in. Colonel Parkman leads a team in, wearing full body gas suits. They have small arms and three nerve gas grenades. The find the mantis, still plenty strong. The first grenade doesn't stop it. The second slows it down, and eventually causes it to collapse onto the wrecked cars. It's dead. A closing of it's giant arms towards the female lead provides a last bit of suspense, but it's still dead. Cue trite romantic ending. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Despite it's low budget and almost oppressive documentary overlays, DM is a good example of the classic "big bug" sub-genre. See more in the Notes Section. Another small joy is hearing Paul Frees as the uncredited narrator of the documentary sections. Such a great classic narrator voice.

Cold War Angle
For a change, the big bug is not the result of careless nuclear tests. Instead, the giant mantis is a surrogate for soviet bombers. You'll even hear the General telling the public that the Mantis's flight sounds like a group of bombers. Note how much of the film trumpets America's three lines of radar defenses in the north, all the scrambled jet fighters and in-flight footage. Note too, the lauding of the Civilian Observer Corps with private citizens manning their rooftops to scan the skies for enemy planes. Almost the whole movie is a big pep rally for how ready America is to detect and intercept any hostile bombers coming from over the north pole (i.e. the U.S.S.R.) Whether the film was intended to make Americans feel safe, or to impress the Soviets, it still amounts to a long infomercial on American air defense.

Notes
Fourth Big Bug -- The giant mantis is fourth in the line of the big bug sub-genre. First were the giant ants of Them! ('54). Second was the giant spider in Tarantula ('55). Third were the giant grasshoppers in Beginning of the End ('57). Our giant mantis was definitely more suited to villainy than the grasshoppers. She would be followed by scorpions, another spider, slugs and leeches -- not technically insects, but in the same vein.

Brought to you by... -- Much of DM reads as in infomercial for the Strategic Air Command. They brag for many long minutes of stock footage about the three lines of defensive radar and all the work men and women went through to build it. They're clearly selling the radar defense lines. DM is almost more about how great our radar is, than it is about a giant bug. (see next item too)

Civilian Observation Corps -- Much is made of the COC and even more stock footage was supplied showing the noble citizens scanning the skies from the beaches (very Churchillian), and rooftop balconies. One shot clearly shows WWII aircraft profiles on the wall. This was the origin of the COC. In the years before radar, human eyes and ears were needed to form the defensive sensory network. The COC remained active after WWII, as the Cold War geared up. But, truth be told, human eyes were not as much help with high flying jets. DM may be the last hurrah for the COC. A chance to spot the surrogate commie bomber (the Mantis) and help save the nation.

Model Monster -- The actual monster in DM is reasonably well done for a low budget movie. You'll note that most of the shots of the articulated model are in so close that you can't see the whole thing. Actuators and strings are out of sight. This works well. The articulated head, with it's pointed mouth is kept on camera for only short bursts. This helps too.

Sappy Romance -- As with many sci-fi monster movies, the producers interject a story thread of romance between two main characters. Perhaps the rule in movie-making back then was that audiences demanded some romantic flavor, no matter what the story. "The End of the World: A love story." Predictably, there is a beautiful unattached woman (Ned's photographer) and the brave Colonel Parkman who commanded the arctic radar base, and then gets to command a squadron of Saber Jets to attack the mantis, then gets to lead the gas grenade squad into the tunnel. That guy had obvious pull with the brass. He was everywhere. As usual, the romantic thread got in the way more than anything.

Bottom line? If you're marathoning big-bug movies, you must watch DM. If you'd like to see a Cold War era movie about soviet bomber metaphor played out, you must watch DM. If you're looking for great acting, or good romance, DM is not for you.

1 comment:

John Drake said...

Howdy Film Historians,

How can you not like this movie?

Campy.

Good actors, fair to good acting.

Stock footage galore.

When the professor and the lady photographer show up at the military base, and everyone freezes like they have not seen a woman in ages - typical 1950's.

The Mantis is very believable, to an eight year old.

I have seen it several times, and will probably watch it again.

Load up a dvd, get your giggle hat on and have a good time.

John