It’s big, it buzzes, and it screams like a banshee. So why is the Mantis monster so ho-hum? Universal-International tries to squeak out another boffo big bug epic, but 1957 screens were already crowded with grasshoppers and scorpions — and the screenplay is derivative — and somebody allowed producer William Alland to throw in every stock shot that wasn’t nailed down.
The Deadly Mantis
1957 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 79 min. / Street Date March 19, 2019 / 27.99
Starring: Craig Stevens, William Hopper, Alix Talton, Donald Randolph, Pat Conway, Florenz Ames, Paul Smith, Harry Tyler.
Cinematography: Ellis W. Carter, Clifford Stine
Film Editor: Chester Schaeffer
Original Music: Irving Gertz, William Lava, Henry Mancini
Written by Martin Berkeley, William Alland
Produced by William Alland
Directed by Nathan Juran
I grew up partly in the Mojave Desert. Our red ants were aggressive (and they stung!), our grasshoppers big and strong, and our scorpions were as scary as the occasional Black Widow spider that showed up in the garage. But none were as fascinating as the Praying Mantis stick-insects that frequent slightly less arid parts of Southern California. They sit on your hand, cleaning their claws (talons? grabbers?) with mouths that operate like miniature machine tools. When a Mantis eats something, it seems to erase it, hard and soft parts alike. They were the closest things to alien monsters we had (well, adorable horned lizards were appreciated as well). A movie about a giant Mantis ought to be really fearsome… so why is Universal-International’s monster epic about just such a monster one of its tamer science fiction outings?
Universal’s sci-fi monsters in the second half of the 1950s suffered from a lack of imagination. Their second copycat movie about a big bug was released in 1957 almost neck-and-neck with Bert I. Gordon’s micro-production Beginning of the End. Because no-budget monster fare literally exploded in 1956-’57, the suits in the front office likely decreed that little or nothing be spent on the show. Why go all-out when the cheapie competition earned just as much?
For The Deadly Mantis William Alland’s producing unit took on an epic monster story with next to no budget resources. Martin Berkeley’s screenplay regurgitates ideas from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them!, almost to the point of plagiarism. Alland added a cost-cutting twist: sandwiched between the isolated story pieces are long assemblages of stock footage, mostly of planes taking off and landing, and radar antennae turning.
Alland was likely taking a cue from Columbia’s Sam Katzman, a frequent pillager of stock film libraries. Mantis fully stages only three new action scenes — I’d say that at least a fifth of the film is from the stock library. It looks like half of a military short subject about the Dew Line and civilian spotters has been re-purposed. This isn’t what we expect from Universal in the 1950s: their visuals might occasionally be weak, but they were almost always created in-house. The scratchy, generic footage of jet planes and military equipment soon becomes tiresome. As an editor, when I watch the stock footage montages, I mentally cut them down to a minimum.
Kids love these giant big bug monsters, but this one has to be the least exciting — Katzman’s awful The Giant Claw is inferior in all departments, but its unintentional laughs make it more fun to sit through. Most of the Mighty Mantis’s havoc takes place off-screen — we are only told that it eats people like after-dinner mints, as do the far-scarier bugs in the same year’s The Black Scorpion. It’s no classic, but it has genuinely hair-raising sequences. But we see the Mantis do nothing more than wave its arms, walk ver-ry slowly, and cruise unconvincingly through the clouds like a stiff dragonfly.
The story points of The Deadly Mantis are thuddingly generic. A colossal Mantis is resuscitated in the arctic, by the ‘opposite but equal’ force of a volcano erupting in the South Atlantic: we really need Dr. Baxter to make ‘pretend-sense’ of that dopey malarkey. The camera instead drifts silently and aimlessly over a map of the world. The expressive scenes of glaciers, icebergs and curious Inuits were recycled from Arnold Fanck’s German adventure film S.O.S. Eisberg, the 1933 film starring Leni Riefenstahl. Aviation enthusiast Rocco Gioffre once loaned me a DVD of that thrilling show, which is packed with scenes of real, dangerous daredevil flying in the unforgiving arctic. The Inuits staring into the sky were originally supposed to be marveling at their first-ever sight of an aeroplane.
The Mantisus Enormousus makes its way south to wreck airplanes, fishing boats, etc. By blanketing the eastern seaboard in fog, the show deprives the cast of a good look at the monster until almost the last reel. But we’ve seen it constantly from the first scene: it’s not mysterious. We become impatient that it doesn’t do more. The Deadly Mantis is slow going indeed.
The capable cast struggles to animate the live-action scenes. A scientist (William Hopper) and a military officer (Craig Stevens, TV’s Peter Gunn) inspect wreckage and wonder what might have caused it. As the woman entering the male domain, pleasant museum magazine editor Alix Talton is mainly along for the ride. The officer is dark and handsome and therefore qualifies to help the gorgeous ‘assistant’ with her coat and claim her at the fade-out. Scientist William Hopper dispenses long-winded, unsolicited science trivia speeches. He gets all frantic when somebody questions his theory about a giant bug. Writer Berkeley ‘borrows’ the idiotic rationale expressed in Invaders from Mars: a scientist has two main jobs: think up crazy theories, and then believe in them until they’re disproven.
The movie has few if any real scenes in the dramatic sense. Director Nathan Juran tries to fill the void with random business from chosen supporting actors. Good-looking Alix arrives in the arctic, and enjoys being gawked at by girl-crazy airman locked up in the snowbound air base. Paul Smith’s sergeant flits about like a tongue-tied fool; he does all the talking, presumably because the other soldiers can’t speak on screen, or William Alland would have to pay them more. Under those conditions there’s no chance of creating a believable Arctic outpost atmosphere. The other generals, etc., are just plain dull. The best performance in the film is from extra bit player Harry Tyler, as a gawker at the Manhattan Tunnel. The nervy guy jumps the police line and asks a lot of questions — he’s got more life than anybody, and a great New Yahk accent!
Director Juran was just beginning his monster-fantasy phase; the former Oscar-winning designer may not have known that he’d only be directing a few scattered scenes for Mantis, with little control over the film’s overall shape. Juran helmed three of the best Ray Harryhausen films, and even his no-budget Attack of the 50-Foot Woman is well-directed. But the Mantis script has almost nothing dramatic to direct. Kids and nostalgic monster movie fans must wait patiently for the next appearance of the curiously uninspiring insect creature.
A real Mantis is used for a couple of shots but most of the time the big bug is a large marionette / rod puppet, filmed in miniature settings or positioned before rear-screen projections. The model doesn’t have enough detail but it looks very good against some okay miniature sets, often with heavy fog to enhance the creep factor. The most effective scene, the wrecking of a bus, should have been the first of several set pieces showing the monster in action. Partly hidden by fog, the rod puppet finally acquires a bit of visual mystery.
Unlike Them! this giant bug engages in little violent interaction with the human characters. For most of the show we’re stuck in ‘mysterious attack aftermath’ mode — the main characters are trying to figure out things we’ve known since scene one. Only in the final confrontation do people share the frame with the monster. When paramedics at the bus accident find no bodies, we’re told that the incredibly voracious Mantis gobbled them up. But we just don’t buy it — the critter moves so slowly, your grandma could climb out of the bus with a broken hip and still make a clean escape. Contrast that with the bug onslaught scenes in the crude, tasteless Cosmic Monsters: they nevertheless generate real Insect Fear, a frisson that escapes Deadly Mantis entirely.
In one scene experts examine a mysterious object that they do not yet realize is the tip of a Mantis talon. A general declares that the talon is as sharp as a razor, which strikes us as totally dumb — we can clearly see that it is rounded and dull. I now refer to script-visual disconnects like that with the term ‘The Metaluna Effect.’ Some white-haired characters in This Island Earth are suspected as being aliens. We’re told that if we look carefully, we’ll noice that they all have the same subtle indentation in their foreheads. But what we actually see are people with HUGE foreheads — they’re as conspicuously non-human as the Saturday Night Live skit they inspired, ‘The Coneheads.’ Sharp as a razor my a__.
The show rallies for the finale, sustaining a good sequence in the Manhattan Tunnel (or Holland Tunnel?). We finally see a big crowd, and it’s reasonably suspenseful when Craig Stevens leads a squad of soldiers into the tunnel on the film’s first and only genuine Bug Hunt. The scene is very much like the original scripted conclusion of Them!, when the giant ants were going to invade a big city. The matching between the live action and miniature footage is excellent. If only the scene weren’t so s-l-o-w: several shots truck down the Mantis’s segmented body, like a Buick commercial showing off the lines of a new convertible. The Mantis goes out with whimper.
The final post-extermination epilogue makes use of excellent traveling mattes that skillfully paste human figures into the miniature settings. These are so slick, I’d bet that Nathan Juran did design them … he probably put all his effort into the three attack scenes. The film’s one moment of interesting jeopardy places an unknowing Alix Talton in a dangerous spot, too close to the Mantis. Just as we’re beginning to accept Talton, Stevens and Hopper as living characters — the THE END card fades up.
Some say that the film doesn’t look like a Universal-International show, but I disagree — the sharp cinematography and the clean lines of the effects scenes evoke that studio almost as much as the skillful music score, which helps to whip up some matinee excitement. Proof that this is a bona fide Universal production comes at the arctic air base, when the colossal Peeping Mantis stoops to stare at Alix Talton through an unlikely giant picture window. Maybe he’s disappointed when he doesn’t see Mara Corday in a nightgown? I learned about sex from the movies, Mom — everybody goes for the girl.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of The Deadly Mantis looks great in widescreen. Sharp as a tack, with an excellent grayscale, this is far better than any copy I’ve seen. The sharpness is such that we can see when characters are added to scenes via those excellent traveling mattes — there are more opticals of that kind than I thought.
On DVD this title was incorrectly presented full frame. Nothing can improve the reams of stock footage, some of which was always scratched, but the tighter north/south widescreen compositions focus the action more tightly. Matting away the head and footroom also helps the effects shots look a little more real — less static snow and empty sky. The active music score gives the Mantis excellent entrance cues, and makes the long stock footage montages a lot easier to sit through.
It appears that Scream Factory is going to release the entire run of ’50s Universal monsters this year, even ones that haven’t come out on disc in Europe. The company is giving Tom Weaver’s commentary skills a workout. He’s clearly not as sold on Mantis as he is The Mole People, another lesser effort that I also think is more fun.
Tom pauses twice in the 80-minute Mantis to tell the listener to skip ahead several minutes, so he can just pass over sequences for which he has nothing to talk about. But everything he says is fairly interesting. There are the expected digs at William Alland and blacklist opportunist Martin Berkeley. We get nice bios of some of the cast members, and some dismissive slams at the dull ones. Tom dutifully parses the production logs to determine what was shot on which day. He’s able to cite a few deleted bits of business, but the documentation probably doesn’t cover the effects work that extended beyond the official live action shooting schedule. Universal apparently didn’t record who did what in makeup and effects — unless it was photos of department head Bud Westmore touching up other artists’ work for the benefit of the publicity cameras.
Script-wise, Tom does explain those boring maps up front, and the limp ‘equal but opposite reaction’ notion that a volcano in the South Atlantic will cause a frozen insect to thaw at the North Pole. The original script called for military tests to release Mr. Deadly Q. Mantis from the deep freeze, but the military ‘advisory office’ didn’t like that idea, as a Cold War public relations issue. That means that Alland and Berkeley originally plagiarized The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms even more!
Stephen King wrote in Danse Macabre that when the Mantis overturns a truck in the final scene, in TV screenings the embossed word ‘Tonka’ could be read on its underside, identifying the truck as a store-bought Tonka Toy. If it was there, and we can’t read it here, it may be because the digital scan is now properly timed. Old 16mm prints for TV telecine were always made with ‘low gamma’ (low-contrast) so they would look correct again when TV transmission restored the contrast. Low gamma prints sometimes betrayed things meant to be hidden in the shadows. If you recall, the first VHS tapes of the Star Wars movies revealed multiple garbage mattes popping on and off in the blackness of outer space.
I assume that people still know that Tonka Toys were hard-to-destroy toys, made out of heavy-gauge steel? We kids wrecked them anyway. The important thing is that we now know the miniature scale for that impressive wide shot in the New York auto tunnel. I confess that for many years I thought they had built a very large Mantis puppet, perhaps full-sized. Some of the composite effects shots, like Craig Stevens throwing the bomb, are so good that I was fooled. And I figured the Mantis moved slowly because the big dumb puppet was difficult to manipulate. (There likely was a second Mantis puppet, somewhat larger than Tonka Toy scale, for close-ups.)
An extensive still gallery contains a Spanish language poster bearing the title “El Monstruo Alado”. Written, it translates as ‘The Winged Monster,’ but when spoken, also sounds just like ‘The Monster at The Side,’ or ‘To the Side.’ You really needed to know that. The Spanish tagline reads, “Under its Implacable Fury, the World Trembles!” Once again, the dynamite Reynold Brown poster artwork was guaranteed to hold 12-year-old moviegoers spellbound.
The Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode for The Deadly Mantis is included. These do nothing for me, but my complaint mail from The Mole People tells me that plenty of viewers enjoy and appreciate them. A textless trailer is included as well; both are full-frame. It’s too bad that the trailer doesn’t display a big main-title logo, as I’d like to have seen how closely it resembles Joe Dante’s lookalike Mant! logo from his wonderful Matinee.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Deadly Mantis
Movie: Good – Minus
Supplements: Tom Weaver commentary, MST3K comedy version, still gallery, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: March 12, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson