Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Deadly Mantis (1957)

By Orrin Grey

The Deadly Mantis (1957). Directed by: Nathan Juran. Starring: Craig Stevens, William Hopper, Alix Talton.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. I have fond memories of the Crestwood House Monster Series book of tonight’s film, mostly because it had a picture of the titular deadly mantis in a tunnel full of wrecked cars on the cover. It’s a pretty great shot, though you never see it quite so well in the movie itself.

The film, an early effort from director Nathan Juran who would go on to do Attack of the 50 Foot Woman as well as several much-better films with Ray Harryhausen, is a turgid love letter to radar and airplanes, enlivened pretty much exclusively by having a big mantis puppet instead of a live mantis being rear-projected over some shots of buildings or soldiers, as in a movie like, say, The Beginning of the End. Its duo of screenwriters are also credited with things like Revenge of the Creature and previous Vault of Secrets alum Tarantula, which should let you know what you’re in for, if a movie from the 50s about a big praying mantis didn’t clue you in enough, already.

We open with the customary pointless narration and stock footage, including long and loving shots of a map of the world. Then, after about four million years of our being told about radar, the movie actually gets around to starting. They get a lot of mileage out of a big praying mantis fingernail that baffles all the scientists, except our resident paleontologist hero (William Hopper, playing the role that would have gone to Peter Graves had this been a Bert I. Gordon flick), who explains how invertebrates (and skeletons, for that matter) work to a fellow scientist and a general. Because the schooling was good back in those days, you know.

Until the big mantis actually shows up, the movie is filled with stock footage of airplanes and radar arrays – overexplained, iffy 50s science – and the usual reaction to its one female character. (“A female woman. I thought they’d stopped making ’em.”) Once the mantis shows up, he tends to steal the show, even if he spends a lot of time flying, superimposed over shots of papers with unlikely headlines. Finally he’s “shot” down by a fighter plane over New York, and we end up with the wounded mantis in the Manhattan Tunnel, giving us that aforementioned scene from the cover of the book. Fortunately, when the Them-esque climax takes place, the tunnel is filled with smoke, so it’s tough to see anything, even though we’ve already seen the mantis pretty clearly lots of times by then.

The mantis gets a death scene lengthy enough to warrant a Mel Brooks parody, followed by the obligatory “nervous reaction” fakeout, and all the male characters taking time out of their busy world-saving schedule to alternately laugh at and romance the one lady character. Oh, 50s movies.
That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we call down one of the many curses that rest upon the mummy’s tomb.