Field Guide to Invertebrates in Film: Deadly Mantis

Deadly Mantis (1957)
Critter: Prehistoric giant praying mantis, Order: Mantodea
Size: Unreported, estimate- 100 feet tall
Top Flight Speed: 200 mph
Modus Operandi: Bats at or grabs buildings, airplanes and buses with forelegs. We are told that victims are consumed, but we never see how. A solitary hunter.
How the Menace Emerges: Earthquakes unearth frozen specimen
End Goal: Dinner

Deadly Mantis attempts to convince us of its scientific spirit with its opening line “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Newton, now, that’s science! The narrator is awfully fond of the wonders of surveillance and communication technology within the military complex. The first 6 minutes of the movie show us maps and stock footage of construction in the Arctic. Seriously, I have no idea why the makers of this film thought that we needed to know this much about radar or constructing an Arctic outpost. I do suspect that Universal approved of the savings generated by stuffing this flick with stock footage, a common low-budget practice in the 50s. As a cold-war love song to the might of the American military, Deadly Mantis suffers from its fetishistic treatment of military lingo and procedures.

Rather than the sharp lady scientist, Deadly Mantis gives us the unnecessary magazine photographer Marge Blaine (Alix Talton) who is supposedly driven by a hankering for a good scoop, but instead settles for a man. When she shows up at the all-male Arctic outpost, a sweaty, stuttering young chap tells us that she’s a “woman, a female woman. I thought they’d stopped makin’ ‘em.” If this were made in later times, I’m certain rape would have entered the picture here. Rather than the spunky gal who helps solve the case, our Ms. Blain is the second variety of 50s sci-fi gal: built only for romance and screaming.

Although the characters and story are lacking, the critter effects are pretty good. If they could have spent more time with our mantis than with the brass, Deadly Mantis could have been a great film. The mantis is obviously small-scale, and suffers from a lack of interaction with human victims on screen, but the iconic Washington monument scene features the real thing climbing a miniature model. The monster-makers didn’t look closely at their real mantis before they constructed the model. If they did, they would have recognized that mantises have a pair of mandibles, not a hinged jaw. Still, the full-body flight scenes are great, especially when paired with the roaring Navy jets.

Nit-picking Science: Dr. Jackson, pshaw! 1) Insects are animals too! 2) Insects are covered in an exoskeleton made of chitin not cartilage. 2) That’s no ant; it’s a stag beetle. 3) Maybe you could explain what “geometrical patterns” in “living protoplasm” are before you go on to explain how they change at death.

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