The Deadly Mantis (1957) [31 Days of American Horror Review]

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Director: Nathan H. Juran
Starring:  Craig Stevens, William Hopper, Alix Talton, Pat Conway

Giant bugs and other creatures had been all the rage for a few years by the time The Deadly Mantis was defrosted, but even if it’s somewhat lacking in inspiration, it makes up for it in charm.

It’s a weird combination of excessive stock footage, erratic model work and talking heads, but it’s slow burn to avoid revealing its monster actually works despite itself in its world-building and when it actually all kicks off? The Deadly Mantis is really, really good.

In the South Seas, an erupting volcano causes a chain reaction that results in the shifting of North Pole icebergs . Below the melting ice caps, a 200-foot-long Praying Mantis, frozen in the ice for millions of years and now awakened…

When a military outpost is mysteriously destroyed, Col. Joe Parkman (Stevens) is sent to investigate and after another attack, slowly uncovers evidence that some kind of large creature is responsible. Bringing in an expert in the shape of Dr. Nedrick Jackson ( Hopper), a paleontologist at the Museum of Natural History, as well as magazine editor Marge Blaine (Talton) who has tagged along as his photographer, Parkman begins tracking what they now realise is a titanic insect.

Worse, the creature is moving south and after stopping in Washington DC, a botched attempt to drive it out towards the sea ends up with it headed straight for New York City…

For a good forty minutes there’s not much going on in The Deadly Mantis, but somehow it just works. In a clear attempt at budget-saving, director Nathan H. Juran concentrates on building his cast of characters that will pore over documents, maps and books while having serious conversations with each other about the mysterious monster.

Brilliantly, instead of feeling like padding, it just adds tension to the inevitable reveal. As we slowly find out just what we’re up against, it’s given so much extra weight by the build-up. It feels like a holy terror about to be unleashed, a giant nightmare that we have only had described to us and saw the aftermath of and that makes it all the more frightening.

Obviously when we finally do see it, it’s a papier-maché puppet, but the groundwork has been laid, so you buy into it. One of the models was a life-size (that’s 200 feet!) version and looks incredible, while another was considerably smaller and used for the flying scenes, which are the low-points of the film.

The highs are when the Mantis is finally unleashed, because it is absolute carnage and what surprisingly well-realised carnage it is too. The model work is superb, the interaction of the actors with the beast is completely effective and best of all, there’s a feeling of real peril.

Too often in giant monster films, the limitations of effects mean you can’t help but have a slight disconnect between the elements, but The Deadly Mantis feels very real and threatening.

By the time of the wonderfully atmospheric final battle in the Manhattan Tunnel, we’re totally swept along in its path of destruction and what absolute joy it is.

This isn’t a film with a great ensemble cast. There’s nobody that really stands out, but Stevens, Hopper and Talton all do enough to carry the plot along and sometimes, that’s all you really need.

The Mantis is the star of this show and it’s all about first building up its threat and then stepping back and watching it live up to it.

Saying all that, The Deadly Mantis is a film that’s not trying reinvent the wheel or even make anything other than drive-in dollars. It’s immensely enjoyable, but on a very basic level. No more, no less.

Rating: 3.5/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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