THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957) Starring: Craig Stevens, William Hopper, and Alix Talton
File under: Classic sf: giant monster: praying mantis
One of the best Big Bug movies of the 1950s (probably second only to THEM!, which is the CITIZEN KANE of Big Bug movies), THE DEADLY MANTIS is one of those odd films which is preposterous yet competent at the same time. Of course there were no insects in prehistoric times who were bigger than bombers, and if there were, they certainly didn’t live in the Arctic (where, if they did live, they presumably fed on wooly mammoths). But, once you get past this little roadblock, you find a pretty entertaining film in which everyone is so damn earnest you just have to go along with them and accept the movie’s premise.
The earnestness begins right at the beginning where we’re treated to seven or eight minutes of stock footage, which was a common tactic used to pad genre movies in those days. Only this time the stock footage is actually for once germane and the documentary tone lends a certain amount of realism to the plot.
Strange stuff is happening on military bases and lonely outposts in the Arctic, and I’m not talking about airmen jitterbugging with each other. Planes are crashing, weather stations are getting destroyed and men are disappearing. The only bits of evidence left among the destruction are great big chicken foot-like prints in the snow and a mysterious body part that no one can identify. Of course, we know who the villain is. The movie’s title kind of gives that away. But the military is baffled. So, naturally, the Air Force calls in a paleontologist to look things over.
The mantis doesn’t stand much of a chance with P.I..s Peter Gunn and Paul Drake (and Miss Georgia 1939) on the case.
I’m referring, of course, to the film’s stars in their most famous roles. Craig Stevens (who for some unknown reason changed his name from Gail Shikles, Jr. when he became an actor), the air force colonel in MANTIS, had an extensive career both in television and on the silver screen. He starred as the cool, tough, jazz-loving private eye Peter Gunn for 114 episodes (1958 to 1961) on tv, a show still worth seeking out on DVD. William Hopper, the son of acid-tongued gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and actor DeWolf Hopper, noodled around Hollywood for quite awhile until he fell into his career role of Paul Drake, Perry Mason’s second banana investigator in over 250 episodes of the long-running television series. Hopper was known for his prematurely white hair. I always wondered about this, and in researching this post (ie, reading IMDB) discovered that he’d had dark blond hair until his stint as a frogman in the Pacific during WWII turned it white from the stress. So, props to him for having the guts to do a difficult yet necessary job that turned his hair white. In MANTIS he’s the paleontologist who tracks down the identity of our villain. The third star is not the mantis, incredibly life-like and scary (if you’re scared of big bugs) as it was, but Alix Talton, who played the museum photographer who tags along chasing her boss, but in the end settles for the Colonel. Talton, who was not exactly an ingenue by the time of DEADLY MANTIS, had a largely forgotten and forgettable career.
They all did a good job in this film (even the mantis),
being ably directed by Nathan Juran, who also helmed other genre movies, among them 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS, ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN, and scores of 1960s television shows, many of which were also science-fictional. The mantis himself (herself?) Is more than credible. There are some great set pieces in the movie (eg, the mantis climbing the Washington Monument)
Parenthetically, when I was checking the intertubes for some photos to go with this post, my search term was, naturally, DEADLY MANTIS, and the first site I turned up was actually called DEADLY MANTIS. I figured it was a fan site for the movie and clicked on it without reading the description. Turned out it was about actual praying mantises with links leading to sites where you could buy the critters. I admit, I was tempted. Some tropical species, like the Leaf Mantis and the Ghost Mantis were pretty cool looking.
In the end, though, I didn’t think it was worthwhile to spend twenty to thirty bucks and twenty bucks shipping for a pet with an 8-12 month lifespan which was already an adult of unknown age. Also, when I mentioned this to Gail she said, no, absolutely not. She’s one of those who are disturbed by big bugs (and by big, I mean six inches long). She thinks THE DEADLY MANTIS is one of the most terrifying movies ever made and wouldn’t have a mantis of any size in the house.
I wouldn’t go so far myself, but I think this is a great example of a big bug movie, and a pretty good movie overall. I give it an 8.
We’ve had this movie for years on VHS, but it has recently become available on DVD, widescreen. I believe it’s on the compilation disk of SCIENCE FICTION CLASSICS, VOLUME 2, which I intend to get after I pad my Paypal account a bit.