The Deadly Mantis (1957) … is our Cold War propaganda film

mantis11The Deadly Mantis invades Washington DC, climbs the Washington monument, and people run around like chickens on fire trying to stop this two-star B-Movie monster.  For those who love B-Movie horror, this is a great entry.  It is camp and has acting so wooden, it puts even Bela Lugosi to shame.  This is what many critics have called a “giant bug movie”, as if that were a genre all its own.  There are similar movies out there, such as Them! (1954), The Fly (1958), or the Kevin Bacon spectacular, Tremors (1990).  If giant ants, bugs, wasps, or worms flood the screen, it could be considered a “giant bug movie”.   Beyond just a “bug movie”, The Deadly Mantis is a piece of Cold War propaganda, a commercial about US defenses should the Soviet Union try anything smart.

Talk about a lost genre.  I can’t remember the last big bug movie I saw, but it must be years ago.  This classic 50s film was made for the drive-in because it was light on the budget.  However, it does have one political issue:  the Cold War.  The opening is directly related to the Cold War.

mantis5 As if summoning the flavor of Indiana Jones, this movie likes to use a map to teach us things.  The narrator reminds us that “For every action, there is an equal, and opposite, reaction” and then we’re shown an explosion on an isolated island, which unleashes the Mantis in the Arctic, for some reason.  The Mantis starts to defrost from an ice block, and now I know where Stan Lee got the idea to revive Captain America.

mantis4After that short episode, the narrator teaches us about radar, and here’s where we get the propaganda.  He explains facts about the three radar fences across North America and how America can easily detect a sneak attack.  One of the army defense forces is located in the Arctic and seemingly has major responsibilities, watching over the weather stations and remaining on high-alert.

After investigating a destroyed weather station, the Arctic defense force decides to consult some of the leading scientists about a mysterious attack.  Much like Them! (1954), they don’t know what is causing all the trouble, but we do.  It’s the Mantis, silly.  After a cargo plane goes down, the defense force is still at a loss.   White confetti that is supposed to be snow blasts them in the face.  They sweep it up.

mantis3This movie stars William Hopper, who was later famously featured in Perry Mason as Paul Drake.  He also starred in other 50s science thrillers, like 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), which had even more science than this stupid Mantis movie.  Geez, I didn’t think that was possible.  I’d rather watch an old Perry Mason episode than this movie, but no such luck.  Hopper as Captain Exposition suggests that a giant insect is the cause of the problem and they should use a giant can of raid to kill it, but decides to consult with someone who can really act before using that plan.  

It seems as if Hopper has already made up his mind and he starts explaining the diet of the Mantis.  He explains that a Mantis as big as this one is going to get fat munching on man!  Meanwhile, they cut to some stock footage of Eskimos and spend about two minutes showing some rowboats launching from the coast to find the Mantis.  Then they show the same footage again in a loop.  Huh?  The footage was actually from SOS Iceberg, which is a 1933 film.  I’m not sure how they got it and I’m not sure I want to know.  Anyway, they finally show the Mantis lurching toward an Eskimo in order to snack on him.

mantis8Hopper measures some more tracks in the confetti and heads to the Arctic army base, where they are having an all-male dance.  The guys hop around with each other while the Mantis takes the most leisurely stroll in history past the base.  They are all dancing, so the army guys don’t notice the giant Mantis peeking in their windows to watch the all-male polka.   

mantis7By now, I am exasperated with this stupid movie.  The Mantis has destroyed the army base and somehow gotten away.  Somehow.  Hopper, his girlfriend, and Joe Parkman have a cup of coffee.  Huh?  Isn’t the army out searching?  Where are the jets we saw earlier?  Did we just run out of stock footage?  I guess so.

It doesn’t matter anyway, because the Mantis has turned on the afterburners.  It apparently ran out of Eskimos to eat and decided to fly to Canada.  Hopper believes it went south and explains to us that it is retiring to Florida because it likes the weather.  Huh? 

mantis12They decide to broadcast a television program to instruct local sky spotters on how to spot the giant Mantis.  They show a large cardboard picture of a Mantis and explain that this is what they are looking for.  I’m not making this up.  If this is propaganda about US citizens being good sky spotters, I hope the USSR is not laughing.

Interestingly enough, they show stock footage of the USS Antietam and the USS Oriskany, two similar-looking aircraft carriers.  Jets launch into the air and fire some missiles.  They cut to a reaction shot of Hopper saying that the Mantis was shot down.  Is this movie all stock footage?  What’s the budget on this thing? Five bucks?

mantis2The Mantis is then sighted in Washington DC.  Geez, that guy can move fast.  They did all this runaround to get to the iconic shot of the Mantis on the Washington Monument.  It climbs up to the top like a champ.  Meanwhile, they show more stock footage of jets taking off.  The airforce tower controller says the jets are 100 miles out.  100 Miles??!? From Washington DC?!?  LOL.  This movie really is funny in how bad it is.

The Mantis gets bored and flies off.  Some anti-aircraft guns fire.  Yes, it is stock footage from World War II.  Imagine that.   Somehow, the Mantis evades the ground guns.  It must have flares or chaff or something.  Anyway, Parkman climbs in his jet and takes off after it, because he has to be in the finale.  He bails out after the Mantis shoots him down, proving that a bug is a much better pilot than a trained airforce veteran.

The Mantis decides to hide in a tunnel, so the army fills it with smoke.  Makes sense, right?  They send men in and they can’t see a darn thing.  Imagine that.  Once they find it, one of the stupid men throws a bomb in its face and the Mantis dies.  That’s it.  Finally.

All in all, this was the death knell of the giant bug movie.  It was made on the cheap and it shows.  Universal wanted to suck as much out of the genre as it could, I guess.  This movie is pretty funny in an unintentional B-Movie type of way.  One thing that struck me was the Mantis roar, a stock sound effect used whenever the thing attacked, which pretty much sums up this movie.  It’s as cheap as stock footage.

The Cold War Caused These Bugs

mantis13 Yes, this crap movie is an allegory for a strong American defense in the Cold War.  That’s why there was so much time spent on explaining radar over all of North America at the beginning.  I realize now that the narrator was really trying to tell the audience not to worry, that the United States is prepared if the Soviet Union tries anything.  They are so prepared, the USA can even deal with a giant Mantis, I guess.  They go to great lengths explaining the three lines of radar defense, the civilian Observer Corps, and other such preparations.  This movie is telling us that there is no way that any bombers are getting through from the North Pole, which makes this movie a piece of Cold War propaganda, not simply a big bug movie.

 Big Bug Movies, then and now

As I said earlier, there have been modern bug movies, but they were all over the place in the 50s, until burning out with a string of stinkers like The Deadly Mantis.  The bug movie has been revived from time to time and even delivered some classic films.

1.  Them! (1954)  – This is the true template for the big bug movie that dozens of others have copied. 

2.  Tarantula (1955) – Jack Arnold made this film, the guy who directed Creature from the Black Lagoon, another movie I’ve reviewed and not totally hated.  This one features a tarantula superimposed on the picture to make it look 100 feet tall.

3.  The Strange World of Planet X (1958) – This weird film closed out the 50s with some mutant bug appearances.  It is a British film and has some of the worst special effects of all-time.  The film quality is very poor and grainy.

4.  The Fly (1958) – This is probably the most well-known bug movie.  It stars Vincent Price, one of my all-time favorite actors.  I’ll have to watch this one again for a write-up on the site.  It was remade in 1986 as a horror classic enjoyed by a lot of people even over the original.  It’s not a giant bug movie per se, like The Deadly Mantis, but it does deal with bugs in a way that works.

5.  Empire of the Ants (1977) – This ant attack movie features Joan Collins.  It was not written by HG Wells, despite some people describing it as such.  HG Wells did write a short story called “Empire of the Ants”, but the movie has little to do with the themes of the story, which is a shame.

6.  Mimic (1997) – Mimic is schlock and a pretty bad movie, but it has Mina Sorvino, so that’s something.  It also features Josh Brolin.  

7.  Starship Troopers (1997) – I’m not sure if this one counts as a big bug movie, but it is more of a satire on other things than a big bug movie.  I don’t mind this one and it’s not as bad as other bug movies.

8.  Tremors (1990) – This is a Kevin Bacon classic about worms underneath the ground, which counts as big bugs, I guess.