REMEDIAL SF 101: The Deadly Mantis

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The Deadly Mantis has got to be the most boring monster film I've ever seen.

If you have a scientific bent, this is not the movie for you.  You'll be sitting glassy-eyed and slack-jawed by the end of it, from all the mindboggling inaccuracies. Never mind the preying mantis that's (sometimes) four times bigger than a C-47 airplane, that was frozen in the Arctic ice for millions of years until a volcanic eruption in the South Atlantic started icebergs calving in the Arctic Circle, freeing the bug.  Never mind that bugs generally don't survive subfreezing temperatures.  Never mind a chitinous exoskeleton of that size would collapse under its own weight.  Never mind that the fossil specimens in the paleontologist's office are all modern cow and sheep bones.  Never mind he makes fun of the juvenile inaccuracy of a perfectly good cat skeleton that his students allegedly made with "too many vertebrae."

This movie couldn't have possibly cost very much to put together--and I mean, put together--because about three-quarters of it is made up of stock footage of airplanes, radar dishes, ships at sea, and scenery.  They even work in a sequence where one of the protagonists has to bail out of his fighter jet, just so they could use a really neat stock shot of a pilot ejecting from a plane.  If you're a Korean War-era military buff, you'll really enjoy seeing all the Air Force and Navy hardware trotted out.

Thing is, even for all the money they saved by using archival footage, they still didn't seem to have enough to pay for any halfway-decent special effects.  They must have blown the budget with the sequence where an Eskimo village sees the bug coming and takes to their kayaks, because later on they don't show the mantis crashing into New York and crawling into a traffic tunnel, they have witnesses describe it.

The obligatory romance seems forced and tacked on, and plays like a rip-off of Our Miss Brooks, as an Eve Ardenish museum magazine reporter (they have those?) who seems to be flirting with the paleontologist (who gets consulted because...well, th Air Force found what seems to be a huge bone sticking out of a crashed cargo plane) ends up being wooed by a Jack-of-all-trades Air Force colonel.

This guy is the commander of the Arctic radar station that first encounters the Deadly Mantis.  As the movie progresses he personally does the search-and-rescue missions on the bug's depredations, and then manages to comandeer a jet fighter at 2 AM to go try to shoot the thing down.  He's the one who gets to eject from his aircraft after it collides with the mantis while the insect is flying over New York City, having earlier in the day climbed up the Washington Monument.

This is all played totally straight, but I can't help wondering whether the filmmakers were going for the "Hey!  Let's rip off the best scenes of every monster movie ever made!" angle.

The action starts at a base camp in the Arctic, reminiscent of The Thing From Another World.  There's the whole awakened-prehistoic-monster aspect from Gojira.  In the funniest scene in the film, the mantis peers in at the protagonists through a window as they're wondering what it looks like, and then later climbs the Washington Monument, like King Kong.  When wounded by the jet airplane, the mantis crawls into the Manhattan Tunnel, similar to the way the ants in Them! took to the sewers.


To summarize the film, I'll say that after a long and dull educational-film lecture on the various radar nets set up in Canada to keep the Soviets at bay, we get a long and dull series of puzzling attacks that leave wreckage but no bodies.  It's only puzzling to the characters, because the viewers got to see the Mantis frozen in the melting polar ice in the opening credits sequence.  The Air Force calls on a panel of scientists to give their opinion of a yard-long claw found stuck in the side of a downed airplane.  You and I can see it's a claw, but these learned men seem totally stumped, so they recommend the paleontologist.  It's the plucky girl reporter who instantly observes, "It looks like a spine from the leg of a cricket!"

More long and dull speculation on what manner of beast could belong to a claw like that.  Eventually we do see the mantis, which is a pretty good marionette, but the puppeteers are inept so mostly it just waggles around a little and we're back to long and boring conversations.

Hence, "Less talk--more giant bugs!"

They figure out that the bug is headed south, presumably to get back to the jungle climes it's used to.  People are told to be watching for "anything unusual."  Like, say, a giant bug making a deafening buzzing noise, right?

Meanwhile, after having kerfuzzled all the lonely Air Force guys at that remote Arctic radar base, by showing up wearing a tight sweater, the plucky girl magazine editor seems to be set to make time with the multi-talented colonel (the paleontologist is probably gay or something) when they hear that a train and then a bus have been wrecked not far away from where they're canoodling at a stop light at midnight in the fog, just outside Washington DC.

This is when the colonel gets himself an F-86 Sabre jet airplane at 2 AM to heroically try to stop the deadly mantis.  Now, bullets, flame throwers, and air-to-ground missiles shot by Cougars had no effect on it, but they try again anyhow.  Somehow the Mantis has flown from DC to New York, and the colonel collides head-on with it, bailing out safely as the insect crashes into the city.

It crawls into the Manhattan Tunnel, where the Air Force and I guess local firefighters seal it up with tarps and pump the tunnel full of smoke.  I guess they think it's a bee.  I mean, that's an easy mistake to make, right?  The Colonel then takes command of this operation too, and leads a squad of HAZMAT-suited, rifle-toting men in after the bug, because rifles have always been so effective against movie monsters.

Ah, but they also have three bombs to use against it.  Three.  Not two, not four, but three.  Bombs that resemble gallon jerrycans of gasoline.  Yeah, Molotov cocktails will do what crashing headlong with a freakin' jet airplane failed to do.  Granted, they gave some blah-blah-blah explanation of what was in the bombs, but I was out in the kitchen getting myself a drink so I missed it and really didn't want to subject myself to a replay.  Mighta been RAID or something.

For some reason, they can't seem to hear or see the jumbo-jet-sized bug in the tunnel until they're right on top of it.  The first bomb makes no impression.  The second bomb doesn't seem to work, either, but then the mantis gasps dramatically and dies.  Most likely from getting crashed into by an airplane.  The paleontologist assured the Air Force that the insect was mortally wounded and would surely die in the tunnel, but then, that wouldn't allow for a heroic scene with fire and explosions.

Why do monster death scenes always seem more pathetic than triumphant?  Are we supposed to feel sorry for the creature now that it's twitching its last?

As our heroes survey the enormous carcass, the plucky reporter girl takes her camera and gets a little too close (like you'd get anything standing that close to it) and the bug twitches a claw.  This is the cue for Heroic Colonel Joe to swoop in and scoop her up in his arms as she screams mightily, and carry her to safety, for the obligatory closing kiss as the paleontolist (who's got to be gay or something) snaps their picture and explains the claw's movement was just an autonomic motion.

I couldn't help wondering which union would be responsible for cleaning up that mess in the tunnel.


Would Conservatives like this film?  Aw, hell, save yourselves, it's too late for me.  If you like looking at old footage of airplanes and boats and stuff, sure, watch this film--with the sound turned off and a finger on the fast forward button.