Directed By: Nathan Juran
Starring: Craig Stevens, William Hopper, Alix Talton
Tag line: "A Thousand Tons of Horror! From A Million Years Ago ..."
Trivia: The first stock footage of the aircraft carrier is the USS Antietam, CV-36, the first US carrier with an angled deck
One of the things that piqued my interest about The Deadly Mantis, a 1957 giant bug movie, was that it was directed by Nathan Juran. In the years following this film’s release, Mr. Juran would helm a trio of pictures that featured the special effects wizardry of Mr. Ray Harryhausen: 20 Million Miles to Earth, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (the best of Harryhausen’s Sinbad series), and the underrated First Men in the Moon. While he did suffer the occasional misstep along the way (a la Attack of the 50 Foot Woman), Juran would go on to establish himself as one of the fantasy genre’s most reliable filmmakers, and with The Deadly Mantis, I was anxious to see what he’d bring to the table.
The trouble begins when a team of U.S. military personnel stationed in Northern Canada, part of the country’s widespread Early Warning System, fail to respond to radio calls. Col. Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) heads up an investigation, and what he finds is that the entire base has been destroyed, with no sign of any survivors. Soon after, a military plane, sent to check out a strange blip on the radar, crash-lands, killing everyone on board. It’s at the sight of this disaster that Col. Parkman uncovers his first piece of evidence: an object that looks like part of a humongous claw. Dr. Nedrick Jackson (William Hopper), a paleontologist working for the National History Museum, believes the claw came from a gigantic praying mantis, and, along with Marge Blaine (Alix Talton), editor of the museum’s magazine, he heads north to lend his assistance in tracking down the creature, which, after being trapped in the arctic ice for thousands of years, is quickly making its way to the United States border.
The opening scenes of The Deadly Mantis look as if they were lifted from a documentary, with Juran utilizing military stock footage to help explain the origins of the United States’ Early Warning radar system, which stretches all the way to the North Pole. From there, the action shifts to the icy regions of Northern Canada, where the creature first makes its presence known. The destruction initially occurs off-screen, but before long the mantis is front and center, crushing everything in its path (while it doesn’t look anywhere near as impressive as the ants in Them or the title monster in Tarantula, this mantis is far from the worst giant creature in cinema history).
By no means is The Deadly Mantis perfect. Much of the film’s second half borrows heavily from the movies that preceded it; like the ants in Them and the squid from It Came From Beneath the Sea, the mantis brings its destructive power to a major metropolitan area (in this case, Washington D.C.). What's more, the filmmakers' decision to throw a female character into the mix with a bunch of love-starved men results in a number of uncomfortable scenes. But thanks to director Juran, who keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, The Deadly Mantis rises above these issues, and in the end proves to be a fun, spirited entry in the ‘50s giant bug sub-genre.