Fans of American “big bug” science-fiction films from the 1950s generally cite Them! (huge ants) and Tarantula (far-too-big spider) as classics of a movie subgenre which saw assorted everyday creepy-crawlies mutated to enormous proportions, usually by atomic bomb radiation. Few, however, will wave the flag for The Deadly Mantis, a 1957 effort in which a giant-sized praying mantis is awoken from millions of years of slumber following an earthquake in the Arctic and proceeds to swoop about causing chaos and carnage across North America. This isn’t just because praying mantises are ugly-looking buggers but not especially terrifying, but also because The Deadly Mantis isn’t really very good...
Directed with what can best be described as workmanlike efficiency by Nathan Juran (who in 1957 also helmed the classic 20 Million Miles To Earth and later the original 1962 Jack The Giant Killer as well as many episodes of Irwin Allen’s outlandish 1960s sci-fi TV adventures) The Deadly Mantis, unlike its titular airborne mantodea, never really manages to take flight. Even by the slightly clunky standards of many of these cheap 1950s monsterfests, The Deadly Mantis just seems to be going through the motions. The script (co-written by Martin Berkeley whose previous credits include 1955’s better-regarded Tarantula) is flat and largely unengaging and the characters, the usual motley collection of starchy scientists, random soldiers and stiffly-suited civilians are utterly unmemorable. Token female Margo Blaine (Pat Conway) is clumsily manoeuvred into the role of romantic foil (to Craig Stevens’ Colonel Joe Parkman) as an afterthought, as if someone realised that none of these characters were remotely interesting or relatable – but the scenes where Parkman practically forces his attentions on Margo just seem creepy, inappropriate and crowbarred into the narrative just to add a bit of humanity to bland and forgettable characters.
Sadly even the Deadly Mantis itself isn’t able to make up for the inadequacies of the human cast. In flight it looks like an illustration cut out of a magazine, and whilst there are one or two decent model shots we’re not exactly in Ray Harryhausen territory, and more often or not the thing just sits there waving its mandibles about and failing miserably to appear even remotely threatening. After a brief tussle with the Washington Monument and a spectacularly unthrilling dogfight with some USAF aircraft, the injured Mantis takes refuge in a tunnel in Manhattan where it’s routinely dispatched by the brave Colonel Parkman and a handful of crack troops armed with a cluster of handy chemical bombs.
There’s always something rather charming about the naive simplicity of these 1950s ‘giant monster’ movies and there’s a reason why some of them are more fondly-remembered than others. The Deadly Mantis is clearly a cheap and derivative rush job which is rarely able to raise much more than a flicker of interest on the excitement meter. This is one Mantis which is more Deadly Dull than Deadly.
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THE DEADLY MANTIS / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: NATHAN H. JURAN / SCREENPLAY: WILLIAM ALLAND, MARTIN BERKELEY / STARRING: CRAIG STEVENS, WILLIAM HOPPER, ALIX TALTON, PAT CONWAY/ RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 24TH