The Deadly Mantis, 1957. 9/10

A polar eruption, and, even before the credits roll, there’s our Deadly Mantis poking out of the ice. For once, nuclear testing/radiation isn’t present, or necessary, in this ’50s sci-fi classic. The narration gives a documentary authenticity. Colonel Parker (Craig Stevens) arrives at Red Eagle One (the new base) just as the Mantis blows into an outpost.

“Two men don’t just vanish” “These did” the rescue team figures. Then we get the Shooting Stars scrambling to intercept the ‘bogey’ (the Mantis being the bogeyman). As soon as we hear that tell-tale buzzing though, we know the C-47 is toast. This time the rescuers discover a piece of a kayak, err, a fragment of a Mantis leg. The seamless combining of stock footage with actual scenes is already apparent, and very successful.

Also noteworthy are resemblances to The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms from a few years before. The arctic origin of the creature, attacks on remote outposts, scientists huddling (William Hopper’s Dr. Jackson) with generals over the identity of the creature, complete with paleontological drawings, attack on locals and fishing boats, news flashes, etc.

I mention these similarities because Beast From 20K was one of the first and best of the giant creature sci-fi films; so it was worthwhile to follow in that movie’s footsteps, so to speak. For one thing, suspension of disbelief is maintained by this outline. Dr. Jackson reels us in closer with his Siberian mammoth analogy. The Greenland deal gives us a full blast Mantis attack just halfway in, which is great.

The Mantis itself looks menacing–especially it’s eyes. it always helps when a creature movie makes use of a critter which is naturally disturbing-looking. Crabs, ants, scorpions, Mantis, good. Ladybugs, not really; even giant rodents manage to look cute. After the attack on the base, the quick cut from the flying Mantis to the squadron of jets works great. There’s the usual ineffective weapons; I would think a flamethrower would be deadly to anything organic.

Anyway, the mantis flies kind of stiffly, but its wings are whirring fairly realistically. Then we get the Navy jets’ missile attack, which does have some effect. (Oddly, although it’s focusing on East Coast environs, it’s spotted over Fresno CA, not all that far from me). The bus attack in the fog is creative; there’s a horror tinge to these scenes that builds atmosphere. Climbing the Washington Monument is clever–as the filmmaker is taking advantage of an opportunity to use a real mantis on a model. Same thing when he descends over the (modelled) NYC skyline.

This is really interesting viewing for early jet-age stuff, as F-86 Sabre jets get into the action too. More stock footage put to good use. Again, missiles do mess it up. The pacing is so good that the tunnel scene skips what’s presumably the mantis’s search for a hideout–it’s already in there, crushing some Tootiestoy cars (plenty of real demolition-derby wrecks are strewn around for the live-action scenes).

Like the foggy scene, there’s more mysterious obscurity–this time by deliberate use of smoke. The gas bombs do the trick, but the mantis dies in a fairly agonizing sequence; the death-rattle is a nice touch.

The Deadly Mantis does so much so well. Even the romance (the Colonel and Alix Talton’s Marge) isn’t a distraction. In fact, Marge’s role is almost an inversion of sexism; in that she’s not only quickly accepted by everyone, but held in awe by the air force base guys.

A great viewing experience for early sci-fi fans–not to be missed. 9/10.

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