The Deadly Mantis (1957) **
Director: Nathan H. Juran
Runtime: 1h 9m
During the Cold War one of America’s most persistent fears was that the Soviet Union would launch a surprise attack, whipping us out before we could retaliate. The initial fear of an invasion morphed into fears of a surprise missile attack as the technology of the Cold War took shape. In either case the logical route of attack, for both missiles and paratroopers, would be to cross the Arctic Circle and hit America by way of the Canadian border. The solution was a tripartite system of RADAR defenses, named the Pine-Tree Line, the Mid-Canada Line and most important for our purposes the DEW (distant early warning) Line. Commissioned and built during the Eisenhower administration the DEW Line was comprised of 63 linked RADAR installations. The project was a joint venture by the United States Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force and stretched from Alaska to Greenland (it was one of these bases that my own grandfather was almost sent to during the Korean War). The scale and difficulty of this project cannot be understated. Much of the area the line occupies is virtually uninhabitable, and the briefness of the Arctic Summer meant that there was little margin for error. That the line was built and built so rapidly (it only took two years before it was fully operational) is enough to stir some glimmers of patriotism in even the most cynical hearts.
Why do I bother devoting so much time to an explanation of a Cold War military installation? Well, because that is how the Deadly Mantis chooses to spend the first seven minutes of it’s significantly less than feature length run-time. That’s right: today’s horror movie opens with an educational newsreel short that has almost no bearing on the plot aside from establishing the fact that the US military maintains bases in the Arctic Circle. Such an elaborate set up could hardly be defended even if the film was planning on spending its whole run-time in this setting, but the Deadly Mantis does not even do that. More than half the film takes place far south of the DEW Line, indeed the line is only a speed bump on the path of the mantis’ advance. The obvious question then is why is so much screen time given over to retelling the construction of the DEW Line? As far as I can tell there are three possibilities:
- One of the film’s produces had an interest in Bell Telephone Company (who were contracted by the military for much of the construction work on the DEW Line).
- The filmmakers were motivated by pure patriotism, and were genuinely proud of the engineering and logistical achievement.
- The film was in desperate need of some padding.
Of course, these motivations need not be mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible that some combination of interests could have motivated this bafflingly boring introduction. Given the overall “red white and blue” attitude of this film though, I’m inclined to think the 2nd reason I listed was the dominate one.
The story begins in earnest when an outpost of the DEW Line is attacked and destroyed by a creature that filmmakers are going to keep off-camera for a while. Following the initial attack, the same mysterious creature downs a radar plan. In both cases there are no survivors but also, curiously, no bodies. It seems likely that whatever caused the destruction also devoured the men. This combined with a giant talon discovered at the scene of the 2nd attack leads the to believe they are dealing with some kind of hither-to unknown carnivorous creature. The soldiers and scientists working for the government in this movie are about as hapless a bunch of idiots as I have ever seen. First, the soldiers who find the talon insist that it is “as sharp as a needle!” when the audience can plainly see that it’s about as dull as a bowling pin. Then the Pentagon’s scientific task force, headed by Professor Gunter, is only able to conclude that the talon comes from some kind of creature not currently known to science. Finally, the real wall-banger comes when paleontologist Nedrick Jackson examines the strange talon. The eminent scientist insists that no animal has an exoskeleton, so the creature must be some kind of mollusk, insect or other kind of arthropod. This begs the question: if insects aren’t animals what are they? Fungi maybe? Despite his shortcomings at taxonomy Jackson does manage to identify the creature as a praying mantis of gigantic proportions.
The time has come to identify our response team. Jackson of course fills the leader/scientist role. Joining him are Reporter Alix Talton and Col Joe Parkman the commander of the DEW Line base nearest the mantis attacks. This triumvirate of reporter, scientist and military/law enforcement is replicated all over 1950s monster movies. From the high-brow such as The Thing From Another World (1951) to the mediocre like Tarantula (1955) to the downright goofy like The Beginning of the End (1957). Part of the popularity of this grouping is no doubt convenience, writing an ensemble of distinct heroes is easier when each draws on a separate stock type. However, I’m inclined to attribute a certain naïve optimism and lingering WWII-era “we’re all in this together” sentimentality to these cinematic trios. It makes a certain logical sense too, as in the event of giant bug attacks reporters, scientists, and soldiers would have to coordinate their efforts to kill the monster and prevent widespread panic. The pairing also carries a hint of the idealized society popular in the 1950s imagination; one in which the different members contribute what they can to a larger goal, often selflessly.
Well, at least that’s the idea. All this trio manages to do before the mantis destroys the DEW Line base is lay the groundwork for the inevitable and tedious romantic subplot between Parkman and Talton. It’s in this attack that we finally get a look at the titular menace, and boy it sure doesn’t disappoint. The puppet is actually pretty damn nifty and the modal work is up to snuff too. It’s easily more complicated and menacing than the ant mannequins employed in Them!. Our heroes escape with their lives but the encounter shows that the mantis is more than a match for anything less than a squadron of jet fighters. Its habit of flying low for short distances also makes the creature difficult to track via RADAR. So, the only hope of catching the mantis before it lands in a major city is to call in the Civilian Ground Observer Corps. The film makes a great deal about the importance and skill of the amateur plane spotters, which seems slightly absurd given the context. Distinguishing between Russian and American warplanes can be a tricky business, but keeping an eye out for a skyscraper-sized insect requires no such finesse. Unsurprisingly the observer corps locates the giant mantis in short order and the air force shoots it down. The heroes are convinced that the creature has been killed, but of course they are being premature in their celebrations.
Next thing you know the mantis turns up in Washington DC, and in the film’s most iconic scene, if anything from a largely forgotten B-movie can be called iconic, scrambles up the Washington monument. In the process of rampaging throughout the nation’s capital the creature disrupts Talton and Parkman’s late night make-out session. Just how Parkman managed to secure leave from his post at the DEW line is never clearly explained. One would presume that with his headquarters in shambles his place would be in the far north supervising the urgent repairs. Sure, the mantis is the priority for the government and army at the moment, but whose to say the Russians won’t capitalize on the situation and launch the much-feared preemptive strike. However, the movie doesn’t worry about the Russians (which is odd given the importance it places on the DEW Line) so neither will we.
The mantis continues its rampage across America until the Air Force picks it up again over the greater New York area, and forces it down to the ground. There, the creature retreats into one of the traffic tunnels connecting New York to New Jersey. The army doesn’t waste any time, they begin pumping the tunnel full of toxic fumes, and they send in their own infantry, in gas masks, to finish off the suffocating creature. After a pitched battle the mantis is put down. We get one final look at the massive puppet as it lies dead amidst the stranded cars and wreckage of the tunnel (and one final fake-out scare), as the heroes survey the scene of the battle once the smoke has cleared.
The Deadly Mantis is a mostly unremarkable film. It does little more than retrace the steps of Them! (1954) using a new giant insect in the place of ants. The puppet, while extremely impressive in it’s own rights, cannot challenge the sophistication of Harryhausen’s stop motion on one extreme nor can it stand up favorably to the goofiness of Bert I Gordan’s process shots on the other. As is often the case with sci-fi/horror movies of this vintage produced by major studies it falls into the realm of boring competence. The film is at times intolerably boring, as is certainly the case during the interminable newsreel that serves as a prologue. The best bits of the film are almost certainly accidental, chief among them being Jackson’s assertion that insects are not animals, a taxonomy mistake that most school children wouldn’t make. Even die-hard fans of 50s monster movies might want to skip this one, it’s nowhere near the worst I’ve seen, and equally far from the best. For B-movies that kind of mediocrity can be lethal.
The only somewhat interesting aspect of this film is the naivety, patriotism, and optimism that oozes from every shot. Now, many, if not most 1950s sci-fi/horror movies betray these tendencies to a certain degree, but nowhere have I seen a movie wallow in them to the extent that Deadly Mantis does. This is a film that takes a break from its narrative to heap praise on the Civilian Ground Observer Corps. It’s a film that opens with a seven minute long propaganda film about the DEW Line. At every step the press, government, military and scientific community works together like a well-oiled machine to deal with even the most absurd problems. All the while a capable and industrious civilian population aids them with their pluck and gumption. This is the America that never was, but that we all wish we lived in. A nation, free from internal strife and personal misgivings, whose ceaseless action solves problems and builds marvels. The Deadly Mantis is so damn positive that it makes me wish I was naive enough to believe it.