Home Video Hovel: The Deadly Mantis, by West Anthony
Shout! Factory, home to many lovingly-crafted horror blu-rays under their Scream Factory imprint, is lately turning their attention to some of Universal’s goofier sci-fi/horror B-films of the 50s. There are few goofier than 1957’s The Deadly Mantis, in which a giant praying mantis is unleashed, Godzilla-like, from hitherto unexplored crevices of our bedraggled planet to wreak havoc and chew bubble gum; the lack of bubble gum in this picture should come as a surprise to no one.
William Hopper (son of legendary Hollywood gossip maven Hedda Hopper), nearing the end of his brief resurrection as a film actor after William Wellman rescued him from a ten-year screen absence with a role in 1954’s The High And The Mighty, stars as Ned Jackson, a paleontologist investigating the cause of mysterious disappearances of military personnel near the polar region. Craig Stevens, who went on to television fame as Peter Gunn, co-stars as the military commander who wants answers, dammit! Once it’s been determined that it is, in fact, an enormous bug that is the cause of all their miseries, our heroes contend with papier-mache special effects, flimsy sets, and enough stock footage to choke a horse (including shots from a 1933 movie that co-starred Leni Riefenstahl, who went on to direct monster movies of her own). Despite the mantis making its way to the more heavily-populated American northeast – including a stop at Washington D.C. – the film’s finale betrays its low-budget means by setting the climactic showdown in a Manhattan tunnel instead of the much more cinematically interesting environs above ground.
The Deadly Mantis has been given a 2K transfer, which works wonders on the cinematography of Ellis Carter (who also shot Republic serials with such piquant titles as Radar Patrol Vs. Spy King) but doesn’t do anything to improve the extensive stock footage employed throughout the picture. Apart from a trailer and a photo gallery, the most significant extras on the new Scream Factory Blu-ray include a commentary track by Tom Weaver, a monster movie expert and would-be comedian who is not nearly as clever as he thinks he is, and monster movie music expert David Schecter, who appears two-thirds of the way into the commentary and makes a much more informative impression with the brief time he’s given. By far the most unexpected and welcome bonus feature is the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode in which Mike Nelson and the Bots crack wise about this film in a way that Weaver can only dream of. The episode is from the show’s Sci-Fi Channel era, when it was kind of on the wane, but there are still some good laughs as well as a great Beneath The Planet Of The Apes-derived gag in one of the host segments.
Oscar-winning director Nathan Juran (he got it for art direction on How Green Was My Valley) made his first foray into science fiction/monster movies with The Deadly Mantis, and went on to cement his cult reputation with cinematic delights like 20 Million Miles To Earth, Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman and The Boy Who Cried Werewolf; there are few careers as chock-full of B-movie silliness as his and if that’s the kind of thing that rings your bell, you’ll hardly find a better place to start than this and you’ll hardly find a better presentation of his work on home video to start with.