fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Deadly Mantis directed by Nathan Juran sci fi film reviewThe Deadly Mantis: DEW or die

By the time the sci-fi shocker The Deadly Mantis premiered in May 1957, American audiences had already been regaled by a steady stream of giant-monster movies on the big screen, starting with 1953’s classic The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. In 1954, Them!, with its monstrously large ants, kicked off a subgenre of sorts, the giant-insect movie, and Tarantula would follow in 1955. After The Deadly Mantis, The Beginning of the End (giant grasshoppers), Monster From Green Hell (giant wasps), Earth vs. the Spider and Attack of the Giant Leeches soon appeared to stun and amaze moviegoers. Unlike most of those other films, however, TDM featured a giant monster that was not the result of radioactive bombardment or an H-bomb blast, but that was just naturally humongous: a prehistoric entity released via natural phenomenon.

In the film, the viewer witnesses a volcanic eruption that takes place near Antarctica, while our narrator intones the ominous words of Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” And, implausibly enough, this blowup near the South Pole soon triggers an earthquake near the North Pole, almost 7,900 miles away (!), which releases… Anyway, cut to the intrepid men working at the polar DEW line, where odd events soon begin to transpire. Colonel Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) investigates the demolition of a weather station, the downing of a C-47, and some very odd tracks in the snow. Before long, noted paleontologist Nedrick (!) Jackson (William Hopper, who many viewers will recall from his roles in The Bad Seed and 20 Million Miles to Earth) and museum reporter Marge Blaine (Alix Talton; a great screamer, as it turns out) join the colonel near the North Pole to join in the investigation, and Jackson isn’t long in getting to the bottom of things, declaring “In all the kingdom of the living, there is no more deadly or voracious creature … than the praying mantis!”

Of all the giant-monster films mentioned above, The Deadly Mantis is most reminiscent of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the granddaddy of them all and, in my humble opinion, the greatest dinosaur movie ever made. Like the 1953 film, it too opens in documentary-like fashion and with a dry, scientific narration. The monster in both films is first observed as a radar blip near the North Pole, and both pictures feature discussions regarding the thawed-out mammoth remains that had recently been discovered in Siberia. In both films, our prehistoric creature attacks a fishing trawler off the Canadian coast and is ultimately destroyed near a NYC landmark (Manhattan Beach in the former; in the depths of the “Manhattan Tunnel” in the latter). But whereas Beast had boasted the truly awesome stop-motion FX of the late Ray Harryhausen, Mantis had to make do with FX of a lesser-calibre, more traditional kind. Still, the creature looks impressive enough on the ground, if a tad silly while in flight.

The film contains at least four memorable sequences: our first glimpse of the creature, from below, as it towers over a bunch of fleeing Greenlanders, who swarm away in kayaks out to sea; the creature’s attack on the DEW station, repulsed by both rifle fire and flamethrower; the mantis’ ascent of the Washington Monument; and finally, that Manhattan Tunnel windup, as Parkman and his men toss “3RG chemical mines” at the mantis in an already densely foggy environment. (This denouement might bring to mind the storm drain finale in Them!) For once, the use of stock footage is well integrated; the footage used is crisp and clean and actually looks as though it had been shot for the film in question. Surprisingly, the first 1/3 of The Deadly Mantis, before we even get a glimpse of our monster, might be the film’s best section (an “Arctic tour de force,” according to the Maltin Classic Movie Guide), slowly building suspense in an intelligent manner against its snowbound backdrop. The picture has been surprisingly well directed by Nathan Juran, although perhaps it is unfair of me to use the word “surprisingly;” Juran, after all, would go on to helm such cult favorites as 20 Million Miles to Earth (released just one month later), The Brain From Planet Arous, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad AND First Men in the Moon (those last two WOULD benefit from Harryhausen’s participation). TDM also features a love triangle of sorts — seemingly obligatory in many of these ’50s sci-fi films — that is a tad surprising, as pretty Marge does NOT wind up with the guy you might be expecting. In all, a satisfying, nicely realized and intelligent monster movie, and perfect fare for viewing with your 8-year-old nephew, of course.

Further good news regarding The Deadly Mantis is that it comes to us today as part of Universal Studios’ Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection, and is presented via a pristine-looking print. On the same DVD disc can sometimes be found the film The Land Unknown, another B&W sci-fi outing from 1957 that also (strangely enough) clocks in at precisely 78 minutes and showcases prehistoric monsters in a polar setting. A perfect double feature, both films come highly recommended by this viewer, an admitted sucker for 1950s sci-fi. And speaking of that decade, back in the 1950s and ’60s, I am old enough to recall, a NYC urban legend had it that there was a $1,000 fine for killing any praying mantis. Well, I’m sorry to report, baby boomers, that this popular myth just had no basis in reality, beneficial as these harmless, little insects might be. “Beneficial,” “harmless” and “little” … three words, surely, that would NOT describe our “deadly mantis”…


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....