Forgotten B&W Horror #10: The Deadly Mantis

We continue to look at movies that blur the line between horror and science fiction – a blurring that occurred with many sci-fi movies of the 1950′s.

Tim Rich

Contributor

Movies from the “golden age” of black and white films (approximately the 1930’s through the 1950’s) almost invariably contain well-written dialogue and strikingly subtle humor, making them a favorite among many fans of cinema. The horror movies of this more subtle period in film history are therefore of a cerebral nature, primarily relying on the viewer’s imagination to generate the true sense of horror that modern movies generate through more visual means. It is these oft-ignored horror movies that will be the focus of a series of articles detailing the reasons why true fans of horror movies should rediscover these films.

Here we are with the 10th component in the Forgotten B&W Horror series. With this installment, we continue to look at movies that blur the line between horror and science fiction – a blurring that occurred with many sci-fi movies of the 1950′s.

The Deadly Mantis (1957) regales us with the story of a prehistoric giant praying mantis that escapes from an arctic glacier where it was flash-frozen eons ago. It’s nice to see a giant monster film from the 1950′s that DOES NOT explain the monster’s creation as a product of nuclear radiation. In my opinion, that makes this a true horror movie instead of a horror/sci-fi movie.

In this film, the mantis somehow overcomes the same temperatures that froze him million of years ago and begins preying on members of the U.S. Air Force who are manning early-waring radar systems in remote locations. A giant clue to the identity of the killer is left behind when the mantis attacks a military cargo plane and one of the spikes on its foreleg is broken off. A paleontologist is consulted and he quickly identifies the spike as belonging to a giant mantis.

The mantis wisely begins making its way south to warmer climes, but is constantly harassed by the Air Force. Somehow, the mantis sustains direct hits from flame throwers, rifles, and air-to-air missiles. It’s only when a pilot channels his latent Japanese heritage and goes kamikaze on the mantis that it is finally brought down (but not killed). The military then traps it in an underwater tunnel that accesses New York City, where they finally put an end to its multi-million-year-old life.

Along the way we get to witness the inevitable flash romance between the lone female character of any significance and one of the male leads. I’ve fallen in love three or four times while sitting on a nude beach in the Spanish Riviera, but it never ceases to amaze me how quickly people fall in love in the early Hollywood movies.

 

Why This Movie Has Been Forgotten

This isn’t too bad of a movie, especially considering the time period and the genre. It’s hard to pin down why it’s such a rarity on late-night television, but I’ll give it a shot.

The plot is very simplistic and the female lead (Alix Talton as Marge Blaine) isn’t particularly gorgeous, although she’s not bad. The giant bug seems ridiculously impervious to all attacks, which makes the believability (such as it were) take a hit.

Other small and inconsequential issues, such as the director having no clue how an emergency military meeting would unfold and Marge Blaine calling a U.S. Air Force Airman Second Class a “corporal”, don’t detract enough from the story to warrant relegating this film to the dung heap.

I guess the lack of any major star power and the plot are what doomed the film to late night monster marathons.

And before someone thinks I made a mistake, there was indeed a U.S. Air Force enlisted rank of Airman Second Class in 1957. The rank is currently known as Airman First Class.

 

Why Horror Fans Should Watch This Movie

The Deadly Mantis has quite a few good qualities for the true horror enthusiast. Yes, it has the feel of a sci-fi movie but I think anyone with an imagination can get a good scare by contemplating how it would feel to be snapped up by a mantis and torn apart by those frightening mandibles.

The acting in Mantis is surprisingly good for a B horror flick and there’s just enough humor to move the story along during slow times. Some of the humor is unintentional (I think), such as the scene early in the movie where our hero, Ned Jackson, is holding a large piece of amber with what is clearly a beetle trapped inside. He refers to it as a giant ant. Maybe that was a shout-out to the movie Them!, which helped define the entire 1950′s giant bug genre.

The special effects are actually pretty decent for a 1950′s film. The mantis looks large and scary at times, and (according to my wife) even looks cute while it’s flying south.

The film has a rather well-known director (at least in sci-fi circles). For those who are unfamiliar with the name, Nathan Juran directed some of the most famous fantasy and sci-fi works from the 1950′s through the 1970′s. A partial list of his work includes:

  • Lost in Space (television series)
  • Land of the Giants (television series)
  • Attack of the 50 Foot Woman
  • Jack the Giant Killer
  • The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
  • 20 Million Miles to Earth

That’s quite an impressive list…and it’s only a partial list.

And finally, fans of nearly any film or television genre from the 1940′s through the 1960′s will recognize William Hopper, who plays paleontologist Ned Jackson. Hopper makes appearances in Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Knute Rockne All American, The Bad Seed, Rebel Without a Cause, You’re in the Army Now, and Stage Coach, to name a few. He’s even shown up in at least three Humphrey Bogart movies – Across the Pacific, Action in the North Atlantic, and The Maltese Falcon. Plus, Hopper has a great story that horror fans should appreciate. Serving as an underwater demolition expert in the Pacific Theater during WWII, Hooper’s hair was turned permanently white by the stress and terror of his job. Awesome!

 

Overall, I think any horror or sci-fi geek will enjoy this movie. How could anyone NOT enjoy a giant bug move?

 

If you would like to watch The Deadly Mantis you may view it at this link.