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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

June Bugs: The Deadly Mantis (1957)

Story by William Alland; Screenplay by Martin Berkeley
Directed by Nathan Juran

Craig Stevens:  Col. Joe Parker
William Hopper:  Dr. Nedrick Jackson
Alix Talton:  Marge Blaine

When I first started this blog two years ago, I wanted to use it to take a look at Cold War cinema; movies from 1951-1991 that reflected life and social concerns in America and abroad through the lens of the struggle between Washington and Moscow. There's a lot you can pick up on if you take a close look at a culture's artistic output, and a pretty good case can be made for mass media serving as a sort of oral culture for the United States. By looking at the stories that used to be told, one can derive knowledge about what that culture was dreaming of, and what it was afraid of. And there's always things like the jaw-dropping sexism of 1950s action movies to amuse a 21st-century viewer if the movie itself isn't doing so hot.

The Deadly Mantis is exactly the kind of movie I was thinking about when I was thinking of Checkpoint Telstar, and it took me more than two years to get to it because I only post one review a week (other than during October, when I hurt my feelings by posting half a year's output in a single month). And this one never really drifted up my review queue because it's not all that good. Yes, there's a totally boss monster puppet but the rest of the movie is rather uninspired and uninvolving.

So let's get to it. First up:  a zoom shot onto a map of the world (Universal didn't even spring for a globe for the opening sequence). The cameraman drifts all over Hell's creation before settling on the Antarctic Circle and a tiny little speck of an island, which explodes with all the fury of some stock volcano footage. Paul Frees implies that the volcano going kaboom near the South Pole causes a cataclysm in the North Pole, with glaciers falling apart and icebergs calving in another budget-conscious sequence. One of those drifting icebergs has a gigantic praying mantis in it. But before we can get to any monster stuff, there's plenty of stock footage and narration to plow through.

So I hope you like stock footage of radar installations and maps with dotted lines on them, because that's what you get at this point. The creation of the DEW Line (the Distant Early Warning radar screen north of Canada) is shown in what feels like real time--the boats arrive and unload their cargo and then soldiers build one of the bases that will have radar stuff in it. Eventually, Red Eagle One (the command center of the DEW Line) is built and all the kids whose parents dropped them off late to the matinee have their popcorn and Junior Mints--they can take their seats now, knowing that they've missed nothing of importance to the story.

About seven minutes (!) in to the narration / stock footage orgy, a pair of Expendable Meat radar operators in a DEW Line shack get killed when something kicks in their front window and lots of styrofoam snow billows in. A surveillance flight spots the wrecked building and tries to radio it; there's no answer. Red Eagle command tries to call in as well and there's still no contact. Base commander Colonel Parkman flies off in the stock footage of a ski-plane himself to check the situation and he finds a completely wrecked outpost shack. According to Parkman, the damage looks like something smashed the roof of the outpost, but that isn't what happened in the scene with the two doomed men. Check out Craig Stevens in this scene, incidentally--he's got the least safe gun handling since the detective in Plan 9 From Outer Space used his to scratch his head.

The colonel and his pilot find a scrape in the snow and ice that doesn't match up with any kind of aircraft they know about, and while contaminating the scene by shoving snow all over the place they discover some kind of claw marks in the ice. So it's time to go back to Red Eagle One and talk about how they don't know anything about what happened. One of the radar operators there sees a weird blip that sometimes is there and sometimes isn't (which doesn't make a lot of sense; I know nothing about how radar actually works in the real world but Movie Radar has that sweep arm that reveals a blip every time it goes around in a full circle, and that is exactly what's going on here). The base scrambles stock footage of two jets to investigate (flying over pine forests rather than the desolation of Antarctica at first). The two jets become four jets in another shot, and the jets are recalled back to base when they don't see anything in the air.

Some time later, there's a mosquito buzz kind of noise that's audible over the engine noise of an Air Force C-47 transport plane in flight. The pilot wakes up his copilot to listen to it, and it seems pretty risky to me to have the other plane flying guy napping on the job. They get swatted out of the air by whatever was making the noise (SPOILER:  It is a deadly mantis) and more stock footage jets are sent out to investigate. Colonel Parkman sets out to place himself at unconscionable risk by investigating a completely unknown and unknowable phenomenon that is killing Air Force officers at will. Also, when he leaves the base there's a shot of a sign asking HAVE YOU CHECKED YOUR ANTI - FREEZE? that will make the viewer paranoid about whether or not they need to do that, even though I'm writing this during the first week of June in Michigan. It's humid, and it's in the eighties. Probably the anti-freeze is okay. But I still want to check it.

At the crashed plane, there's more of those gouge marks in the snow and ice, and a tattered hat but no bodies to be found. I'm sure the movie wants us to think the mantis ate them, but if you're falling 3000 feet or so out of the sky to land on a continent made of ice and rock, you might well get bounced out of your airplane when you hit the ground. Importantly for the story, Parkman and his pilot find a chunk of chitin that tapers to a point "as sharp as a needle" in the wreckage and haul it back to the base to have everyone stare at it on a table and not really know anything about it.

Oh, shit, there's more stock footage and narration. This time it's about CONAD, the Continental Air Defense Command (which should properly be "CADC", but that probably sounds like you're choking on your C-Rations when you say it). The narrator's impressed as hell with CONAD, saying it "could mean the difference between life and death for millions of Americans". That's kinda heavy for a dumb monster movie, isn't it? There's that cultural content I was talking about during the introduction paragraphs. The narrator lets us know precisely how much time the phone system needs to get in touch with the Pentagon or Canada. Hooray for that. One of the hotlines rings and General Ford answers it himself (one assumes that in the case of a nuclear attack, the officers in charge of issuing orders don't want to deal with adjutants or secretaries because that would take precious time away from their response plans, and all life on Earth might be incinerated several minutes behind schedule).

We only went to that phone line room to eat up some of the film's running time; Ford takes a call and leaves for the Pentagon immediately in order to ask a room full of eggheads what exactly the big pointy thing is that was recovered from an Arctic plane crash. The head Pointdexter says the only thing they know about the claw is that it came from a living creature of some time. General Ford wants to know what kind of living creature the claw broke off from, and seems to expect that it might have been from something native to the region (but really big--kinda like the giant walrus monster from Gorath that got cut out of the film for being too silly). The room full of nerds recommends a Dr. Nedrick Jackson; either Nedrick's the top man in his field for working on this or they all don't like him and just want to give him a headache.

Over in Nedrick's lab, he's working on the model of a Neopet skeleton or something that "one of the kids in my junior science group put together". I kind of miss the idea of an America so terrified of Soviet technological superiority that they let the nerdy kids do this sort of thing. He's joined by Marge Blaine, a news magazine editor who's working on a feature that shows life's progress from a squid she identifies as a jellyfish to a Ceratosaurus to a caveman. There were probably some transitional steps left out in the interest of time. Before Dr. Jackson can tell Blaine the difference between a squid and a jellyfish the Pentagon calls him up to take a look at the toenail clipping that the Air Force brought back from the wrecked DEW Line station. He's a terrible scientist, because he says that there are no animals that lack a bony skeleton (and then lists insects and worms as examples of things that don't have bony skeletons). I imagine even some of the kids in the audience in 1957 knew that beetles and jellyfish (or squid) were animals that didn't have bony skeletons.

Some rambling deductions lead Jackson to believe that the toenail clipping was torn off of a gigantic insect, but he didn't read the title card at the start of the movie so he doesn't know it's a Deadly Mantis. There's some blather about having fluid from the claw analyzed to see if it's blood without red corpuscles in it (which would, according to the film, mean the fragment is definitely from some kind of ten-story-tall bug. Back at the lab, the Washington Observer has broken the story behind the Air Force deaths (none of which could be attributed to not checking the anti-freeze). Marge Blaine immediately concludes that Nedrick has been asked to help with whatever it is. Jackson says he wasn't asked to keep the discovery a secret, so he sketches the fragment and explains that it's a piece broken off from a gargantuan insect of some kind. Blaine says the sketch reminds her of a leg spur from a grasshopper. Jackson says grasshoppers don't eat meat, and that whatever predatory leg-spurred insect it is, it's one that has apparently eaten five Air Force officers.

The phone rings--the wound fluid has been tested, and has no red blood cells in it. Hypothesis confirmed:  It's a huge bug! A Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism of some kind, if you will. (Although this one isn't terrestrial; it can fly). Jackson goes on for a while about some frozen mammoths found (and eaten) in Siberia; he thinks the mammoths might have still been alive in suspended animation and could potentially have been revived if the people who found them hadn't been so hungry. He then says that for lack of a better theory, they should assume that the claw fragment found in the Arctic should be shrunk down via imagination and viewed as part of an existing insect species; when they get a match for that they'll know what they're dealing with. Both of the people who listen to this aren't buying it, but Jackson is almost certain that it's a praying mantis, which he tries to sell as the deadliest killer in the insect kingdom.

Just for a change of pace, there's a big wad of stock footage that follows this scene (and thank goodness--the narrative was starting to pick up some speed!). A bunch of Inuit get into their kayaks and paddle away from shore, and then one dude in an insert shot gets attacked by the Deadly Mantis, who shows up in the flesh for the first time. It's a really boss monster puppet.

At a press conference, General Ford tells the assembled press that he knows he can count on them to avoid whipping up panic by printing wild speculation and rumors. Since it's 1957 and also a movie, they don't. Dr. Jackson finds out that Blaine is coming along to the Arctic with him as a photographer (her arrival at Red Eagle One leads to the Odious Comic Relief stammering with amazement that a lady person of the girl variety has arrived at the base). The mantis gives a brief appearance as the investigators fly overhead and Jackson gets busy measuring marks in the snow and thinking about stuff. Back at the base there's a shot of all the airmen gawking at Miss Blaine like utter goobers while she takes a tour.

Meanwhile, the mantis advances on Red Eagle One while the Universal Fifties Monster Brass Score announces that it's up to no good. None of the protagonists notice that the monster is mere feet away from the window while Jackson theorizes about just how big the mantis is going to wind up being. Jackson's got a hypothesis that the gigantic mantis' prey would have been about the size of a human being back in its home epoch, and that it's hardwired to attack and eat anything about that size. He also points out that several people have laid eyes on it when Margaret Blaine wants to know why nobody's seen it. It's just that everyone who saw it so far was killed and eaten.

The mantis attacks at this point, possibly to shut Jackson up, and Colonel Parkman mobilizes all the airmen, telling them to attack the mantis either from the ground or the air. A couple of guys with a machine gun and a flamethrower drive the kaiju off (and it turns out the "flying mantis" puppet is exactly as dumb looking as the ground-attack model is impressive). Parkman keeps patrols flying continuously until the monster can be located again; until then, they're under Condition Red Because A Giant Monster Attacked Us Out Of Nowhere protocols. They're looking in the wrong spot, though; the mantis has flown down into Canada and attacked a fishing boat.

The Royal Canadian Air Force makes a stunningly polite call to Red Eagle One to notify them of a scope blip that might have been a weather baloon or possibly a gigantic flying mantis; Parkman rather belatedly looks at a glass sheet with a map drawn on it (nothing says Cold War to me like a big glass operations map where people write on it with grease pencils) and notices that the mantis attacks started really far north and have been heading steadily southward. The working theory is that the mantis will head steadily south in search of tropical foliage and heat, which is where it lived originally before getting frozen in a gigantic ice brick next to Steve Rogers.

The trio of protagonists make their way to Washington, D.C. where they make a media appeal to the civilian world to keep watching the skies via the Ground Observer Corps. Instead of looking for Soviet bombers they'll be checking for one huge insect (and hopefully not getting eaten if they do see it). The media announcement goes on for a while, with intercut shots of people listening to the radio or watching TV as Jackson and Parkman explain how they're going to watch for the mantis. And then there's some more stock footage of ships and people looking up. I swear, every time this narrative threatens to pick up the pace the movie drags it to a screeching halt.

A flight of stock-footage fighters engages the mantis in an inconclusive fight (there's still about twenty-five minutes to go, so they can't kill it yet) and the team of Jackson and Blaine starts reading disaster stories off a news ticker (sort of like the 1957 model of Fark) trying to figure out where the mantis is and, even better, trying to predict where it might be going. If they can anticipate its movements, they can offer up a better military response.

A train derailment in Laurel, Maryland turns out to have been a mantis attack, but Parkman and Blaine miss the telltale bug footprint in the fog (?); shortly thereafter in the same fog bank, the mantis wipes out a passenger bus (this is the "Attack of the Fifty Foot Chicken Wing!" scene in It Came From Hollywood). A plot-convenient news report mentions the bus crash and says it was the seventh accident in a very short time and a similarly convenient man at the scene of the bus crash says that something must have lifted the bus off the ground and smashed it; he also says that there aren't any bodies at the scene of the wreck. Parkman and Blaine, both of whom know all the characteristics of a Deadly Mantis attack, hear all of this and utterly fail to react. They are stupid and the movie is stupid for setting them up like this. The screenwriter was undoubtedly under a serious time crunch to get this one written, but it's unconscionable to make your leads look so dense.

Thankfully, the mantis is spotted over the nation's capital so we get to watch some more stock footage of anti-aircraft weapons getting aimed at stuff. The mantis climbs up on the Washington Monument, undoubtedly remembering other political monuments that it used to climb on back in its native time back on Pangaea. Various methods are used to track the monster, including a guy marking little circles on a big glass map with a grease pencil (yesss!). The plan is to scare the mantis out to sea, which might well be bad for shipping and sea life but will mean fewer bus crashes and eaten pilots.

The mantis has dropped below the height where radar can track it, so it's up to stock footage of people looking around to find it. And spot it they do, which leads to more grease pencil notations on big glass maps (although the fifth time this happens, the charm is gone). Various Air Force combat craft engage the mantis (although the effects shots with the bug model in it don't match the number of rockets fired by the stock-footage planes at all). The kaiju manages to shoulder-check one of the planes before settling down in New York City to lick its wounds in the Lincoln Tunnel. The military seals the tunnels off with soaking-wet tarps and pumps smoke in to confuse the mantis while it's in there.

Jackson is positive that the rocket attack hurt the mantis badly enough that it will die; it's hiding in the tunnel in order to have a safe place to expire. But it's big and strong enough that if it punches through the tunnel walls in its death throes there will be massive flooding in Manhattan. And that real estate is simply too valuable to risk. Colonel Parkman and a squadron of men dress up as a Devo cover band and go into the tunnel with chemical weapons in order to kill the shit out of the mantis before it can breach the walls. It turns out that a bunch of men walking slowly through a big cloud of smoke can slow a movie down just as much as a SCUBA scene can.

The mantis, which does look quite a bit worse for wear, is wrecking up the place in the tunnel (but for the time being it's confining its attentions to the cars that were left inside when the owners either fled or got eaten). The Air Force men very, very slowly make their way towards the monster--which charges them with equal lethargy. They chuck the chem bombs at the Deadly Mantis and it succumbs to the fumes after chasing them a bit (none of the nameless cannon fodder airmen get killed by the mantis, which is a flagrant breach of American monster flick protocols during the last desperate struggle). At great length, the mantis finally bites the dust, though not before threatening to kill Miss Blaine as she lines up a photo for the next month's museum magazine. The shot of Parkman and Jackson grinning at each other impishly makes me think they knew it was going to twitch at her, which marks them as utter douchebags. Way to go, movie, making me move from bland apathy to intense dislike during the literal last minute. Despite having no chemistry with each other for the previous seventy-seven minutes, Parkman and Blaine clinch at the end and the credits roll (including a thank you to the Ground Observer Corps).

Man, I have got to buy more insect movies if I'm going to participate in the June Bugs event next year. So far I've had an army ant movie without any army ants till the last eleven minutes and the slowest-moving giant monster film I think I've ever seen. When the highlight of the film is someone marking on a big command center map with a grease pencil and your cast gets ignored in favor of a sign about checking antifreeze your movie has serious, serious problems from top to bottom. It's not really surprising to me that when this one came out on DVD it was in the second five-pack of Universal science fiction movies from the 1950s. The Monolith Monsters might not be an Oscar contender but it moves briskly and has a totally sweet menace. This one comes up short on both counts and seemed to be at least 35% stock footage by volume to boot. Avoid unless you're a Universal monster completist. And even then you might want to bring a paperback.


This is one of Checkpoint Telstar's entries in this year's June Bugs roundtable. The other June Bugs films are:

SkeeterCaved In:  Prehistoric Terror, and Millennium Bug from Cinemasochist Apocalypse;

Them! and Bug from Micro-Brewed Reviews;

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus and Rebirth of Mothra at Terrible Claw Reviews.


  1. I think of this movie as "The Giant Claw without the insanely goofy monster." And since the only thing worth watching in The Giant Claw is the insanely goofy monster, that's not a good thing.

    1. I think the "humans doing stuff" scenes in The Giant Claw are actually a bit better than the ones in The Deadly Mantis, now that you gave me a chance to contemplate that on the Tree of Woe.