Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Deadly Mantis!

The Deadly Mantis is a hoot of a movie. Despite its somewhat wonky and overly direct title, and some belabored special effects, this movie works for me every time I've seen it, and that's plenty. There is a ruthlessness to the storytelling, a relentlessness to the forward momentum in this one that overcomes all the internal lapses in sense and logic.

The story begins of all places in the Antarctic region where a volcano erupts which triggers a tremor at the top of the globe in the Arctic region relasing a giant iceberg which holds captive but still alive a mammoth prehistoric Praying Mantis. We then get a quick course in the nature of the United States long range radar defense network. The first sign of trouble is the disappearance of part of that network, a remote weather station, then the loss of a supply plane, and later still an attack on an Eskimo village. The threat slowly but surely becomes known as first Colonel Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) investigates and later paleontoligist Dr.Nedrick Jackson (William Hopper) and his girl photographer Marge Blaine (Alix Talton) are called on to help identify the mysterious assailant. This trio become our focus as the Mantis makes itself known in a direct attack on a military base threatening the three directly. The Mantis then heads south as do our heroes and the scene shifts to the East Coast of the United States especially the Washington DC and later the New York City areas. The Mantis is public enemy number one and the whole force of America's aerial defenses are called upon to act and track this invader. They do and the conflict becomes increasingly personal and close-up as the Deadly Mantis is confronted.

This is a whopper of a bug, and a whopper of a movie. The reason I like this movie is unaccountable nostalgia for it from the many Saturday afternoons viewings as a kid no doubt, but these days I still find it a charming entertainment, never dull really because of its careful construction. This is less a monster movie than what I'd have to dub a military procedural flick. Like police procedural television shows the fun comes often less from the specific crime but from watching the steady application of police practice to figuring out the crime and catching the villain. Dragnet is a great example and in more modern times Law and Order (the first one). The small irony here is that Craig Stevens is best known for his role as Peter Gunn and William Hopper as "Paul Drake" on Perry Mason.

The Deadly Mantis feels like that to me. A movie which is a tutorial in American air defense and at the same time showing how those defenses work in harmony to protect the homeland from an exotic but still palpable threat. The Mantis is a pretty decent stand-in for an aerial attack from a foreign land (you know who I mean), and his rapacious nature sure doesn't understate the nature of the real threat many in the audience would've felt upon seeing this sci-fi adventure.

There are a lot of "bus" gimmicks in this movie too. The term from Val Lewton's movies, refers to any quick scares which turn to be benign. That happens in this movie a lot, and one of them is actually a bus for real. It's a cheap thrill and works for first viewers very well, though not so much on repeated viewings of course.

This is fun movie in this modern time far removed from the threat it symblizes, and I'd argue the movie which makes the best and most effective use of stock footage of any I've ever seen. This gives the movie a sense of being of its time more fully than many of these William Alland Universal movies feel.

The Deadly Mantis ain't a great movie, but it's a dandy entertainment and a blast back to a pre-satellite era when the United States was defended less by eyes in the sky but by a myriad of dedicated and hard-working eyes on the sky.

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