Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: it's time to start prayin' fer mercy from The Deadly Mantis.
The Deadly MantisDirector: Nathan Juran
Cast: Craig Stevens, William Hopper, Alix Talton, Donald Randolph
US Release Date: 1957-05
Alternative titles: Say Yer Prayers; The Manly Dentist
A praying mantis is so cool—and it's the only insect that can turn its head on its neck, like you or me! (True fact).
Monster effects are generally okay, though fleeting.
At least there’s no little kid.
Sadly, in this movie, the mantis never gets to turn its head, though it does wag it sheepishly a bit from time to time.
Slow start with much stock footage.
Too much military doubletalk—"Bravo ten-niner on your delta" and so on.
SYNOPSIS: Up there in the Arctic circle, strange things keep happening to the men under Colonel Joe Parkman's command. First, a couple of guys vanish and a weather station is destroyed. Then a plane crashes and a bunch of airmen disappear. Even odder are the long tracks discovered at these two sites, and the three-foot-long bone or claw found lodged in the plane. Neither Colonel Joe nor his boss, General Ford, can make head or tail of it, despite the fact that everyone in the audience knows just where this three-foot long artefact comes from—and despite the fact that everyone in the movie says it's five feet long.
It takes a fair amount of hemming and hawing to figure out that there is, in fact, a 747-sized praying mantis on the loose, and meanwhile, the transportation industry takes a major hit: the wrecked airplane is followed by a wrecked boat, a wrecked train, a wrecked bus and another wrecked plane. For a while there it looks like the Washington Monument might come under the knife too, a la Earth vs the Flying Saucers, but not this time—our majestic mantid, heading ever northward, simply perches on it for a spell.
Notwithstanding this restraint, our brave government-payroll representatives, led by Dr Ned and his loyal assistant Marge, are intent on snuffing the beast. All that trashed transport seems to have really put them off. So, when a mid-air collision brings the critter down in New York City, the army takes the opportunity to seal it into the Lincoln Tunnel. In one of the most audacious instances ever of special effects not being used in the movies, this isn't shown: instead, we see the bug flying over the city, then we see the bug plummetting to earth. Then we see people running up to each other, saying things like, "Did you see that huge praying mantis fall dramatically to the ground, causing untold destruction before crawling into the tunnel?" To which the only answer can be, "Ah—no, in fact, we did not."
Anyway, it's all pretty much academic after that, though there is a somewhat exciting "false" ending of sorts, presaging many more in the decades to follow…
Best lines of dialogue: "Two men don't just vanish!" Deadpan answer: "These did."
What says their prayers for the very last time: A couple guys in a remote Arctic outpost; a transport plane and crew; a couple fishermen; a train; a bus; another plane (but the pilot got out okay); a very large specimen of the baaaaddest bug in nature.
What gets saved: The Lincoln Tunnel, of all things.
Most questionable interpretation of Newton’s Third Law: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction," says the narrator. This seems to indicate that a volcano erupting in the Antarctic will result in a giant praying mantis being released from centuries of freezing suspended animation in the Arctic. Discuss.
Did you know? 1933 German-American co-production SOS Eisenberg is the source of the fleeing-Eskimo shots erly on, which helps explain why such a low-budget cheapie from Universal manages to have some impressive location footage from the Arctic.
Didn't you know? The real praying mantis has mandibles that look absolutely nothing like the loose-shutter-flapping-in-the-wind jawbone of the monster in this movie. Also, real mantises don't shriek like donkeys being run through a chipper.
This reminds me of… …Them! (1954), Tarantula (1955), The Beginning of the End (1957), Monster From Green Hell and Earth vs the Spider (both 1958) and Mothra (1961), among many, many others, all of which belong to the noble genre of giant-bug-on-the-loose movies. This is the only one with a praying mantis, however.
Somehow their careers survived: Craig Stevens (Col. Joe) would go on to play the title character in TV's Peter Gunn (1958-61) in a career that stretched from 1939 to 1988. William Hopper (Dr Ned) had an even longer career, beginning as an infant in 1916's Sunshine Dad and continuing for ten years as Paul Drake in TV's Perry Mason (1957-66). Alix Talton (Marge) had a small role in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), while Donald Randolph (Gen. Ford) played a character named Jamal (!) in 1952's Harem Girl as well as the Caliph (!!) in The Adventures of Hajji Baba (1954), before moving on to the possibly-embarrassingly-titled My Gun Is Quick (1957). Director Nathan Juran also helmed 20 Million Miles to Earth and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman in this same year; 1958 would bring The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, a distinct upgrade.
BOTTOM LINE: There are better big-big movies out there, but this one has its moments, and an undeniably awesome creature.
NEXT WEEK: Two Lost Worlds (1951)