You have to feel for the makers of 1950s giant monster science fiction films who arrived late to the party. By 1957, not only was the market for this sort of thing starting to dry up, but more significantly, all the best animals had already been used. Lizards, ants, spiders and just about everything else that immediately creep people out had been made huge – even locusts (or more accurately, grasshoppers) had being giganticated (new word copyright me) the same year. What was left at this point were very much the barrel scrapings. In this case, it’s the Praying Mantis, which the film makes a decent stab at presenting as nature’s most ferocious and brutal predator, restrained only by size, and well done to everyone in the cast as they keep a straight face and look suitably horrified at the mere idea of a regular sized mantis, let alone a 200 foot one.
But such a stoic approach is at the heart of this film, which never tries to be more than it is, and yet also seems to be either blissfully unaware of or shamefully unconcerned about audience familiarity with such fare. After all, here we have a film that is called The Deadly Mantis, and features said giant beastie on the poster (talk about spoilers!), but then spends half the running time pretending that the cause of the havoc being wreaked on military outposts is some great mystery and treats the final revelation as though it is a tremendous shock. You have to admire that audacity.
The story is the usual fare – there’s novelty that it is an exploding volcano rather than an atomic test that unleashes the giant mantis from its ice prison, and the fact that the action mostly takes place in Northern Canadian military bases instead of small towns or big cities is original, but beyond that you could probably guess at the way proceedings develop. After a military base is left devastated and its crew vanished, a single clue – a giant claw – leads the military to call in palaeontologist Dr Ned Jackson (William Hopper), who rather slowly reaches the conclusion that is belongs to a hitherto unknown prehistoric species of giant praying mantis – and that the specimen came from a living creature!
As with all such films, the giant monster seems to be unusually shy for the first half of the film, allowing time for the characters to be developed, in this case Jackson, photographer and token love interest Marge Blaine (Alix Talton), military hunk Col Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) and General Ford (Donald Randolph), who is the mature voice of reason between the military and the scientists. We also get some rather clunky and – by modern standards – hilariously sexist humour, as Marge becomes the object of attention when she tags along to the woman-starved arctic military base. It might seem ungallant to suggest that a bunch of soldiers all left agog at her stunning beauty is a bigger stretch of credulity than the actual giant mantis, but there you go… I’ve said it.
Once the plot development is out of the way, the mantis becomes rather more confident, peeping through windows (this is an inadvertently hilarious scene, where a room full of people somehow fail to see the giant monster lurking at the window) and heading for Washington, where the military await with all the weapons they can think of – mostly chemical bombs.
Possibly because praying mantis’s are hard to train, the creature is here represented by puppets, and is better than you might expect. Certainly, Mrs Reprobate was moved to remark how ‘good’ the effects were more than once, although admittedly, she was delirious with a cold at the time. But they are certainly better than you would expect, and a more cynical critic might suggest that the giant monster has more realism than the human characters, who are all entirely one-dimensional.
Nathan Juran would spend the next few years directing giant monster movies – a career move that was probably unexpected when he was winning Oscars as art director for How Green Was My Valley – and most of them are better than this, but as a first stab, the film is actually a lot of fun. All the criticisms made above are fond ones – as a big fan of 1950s giant monster films, I feel I have the right to mock the genre’s conventions and clichés, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy the movies. And there are elements of this film that make it more fun than many an entry into the genre – the ridiculously earnest opening narration that makes it sound more like a US military propaganda film that a bug movie, the admirably straight-faced approach by the whole cast and the superior monster ensure that this rises above the films of Bert I Gordon, for instance, and it it’s not first class science fiction, it’s certainly up in the higher echelons of the second tier. A shame then that it is let down by a rather weak ending in which the mantis is despatched all too quickly.
Rushed ending aside, The Deadly Mantis is a lot of fun if you like this sort of thing. Well worth adding to your giant bug collection.