Hello again, Brothers and Sisters of the Psychotronic Video World. A week or so ago I was discussing with Wes the possibility of getting a column going; specifically, I wanted to resurrect a column I’d originally written for a few issues of the now-defunct “B Thru Z Webzine.” I’d been quite proud of my work there, and disappointed to see the website disappear. That being said, I’ve got a number of columns I’d drafted for the site that I’d rather not see go to waste, so I pitched the idea to Wes of resurrecting “Classic Camp,” a review column focused on films made between 1950 and 1959, for the Blood Sprayer, and he gave the go-ahead. Thus, without further ado, I present the first installment of the resurrected Classic Camp:
I’m a monster kid going way back. We have crayon drawings of monsters, bats and skeletons signed “Bill, Age 5.” A major influence on my development as a monster kid was the fact that my local library had copies of every last one of the Crestwood House Monsters books – those slim, orange-backed books from the 1970s, each book detailing a specific movie or movie monster: King Kong, Dracula, the Wolf Man, “Mad Scientists” (the only thing I remember from that was that it was my introduction to the villainous Fu Manchu, as portrayed by Boris Karloff), etc.
I mention this because it leads in to today’s installment of Classic Camp. My girlfriend’s parents found a couple of these books at a flea market, and thinking of me, bought them. You can imagine, I’m sure, the flood of memories seeing these books again brought back. One of the books they found was for the film THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957), probably my second-favorite of the “giant bug movies” of the 1950s – no doubt in part because THE DEADLY MANTIS had a Crestwood House book, and as such I was exposed to it long before I’d ever heard of the more sophisticated THEM!. THE DEADLY MANTIS was one of the first two VHS tapes I bought with money I earned myself.
Reminiscing about childhood aside…
An Antarctic volcano erupts, causing the ice shelf of the Arctic to calve off an iceberg as the opening narration intones, “For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction.” As the iceberg drifts south, the camera focuses on a large, dark shape entombed in the ice. Cue title card.
The film then shifts to a brief, illustrated explanation of the joint US-Canadian RADAR Fences; a series of lines of RADAR stations designed to provide coverage for the northern United States and Canada, providing early warning of Soviet aircraft, missiles or ground invasion. This consisted of three distinct lines: The Pinetree Line, which stretched along the US-Canadian border; the Mid-Canada Line; and far to the north, the Distant Early Warning, or DEW Line, the first line of defense against a Soviet missile strike.
It is at an outpost of the DEW Line that the story begins proper; a supply plane flying overhead reports that the roof of the outpost has collapsed; Air Force Colonel Joe Parkman (Stevens) is called in to investigate. There have been no storms in the area, and no sign of a plane crash, but all the same the building is caved in and the men stationed there gone without a trace, save for a pair of strange, parallel skid-marks in the snow.
Soon, the mystery is compounded as planes begin to fall from the sky, their crews vanishing. An Eskimo village does the same. At each site, the same parallel tracks. In the wreckage of one plane, Parkman finds a five foot long, mottled-green…thing. It’s a large spike or hook, broken off at the base. He reports the hook to his superiors in Washington, who are (unsurprisingly) baffled by the thing.
A team of scientists examine the hook but are unable to determine anything about it other than that it was broken off of a very large, living thing. The head of the team advises Parkman to take the hook to Dr. Nedrick Jackson (Hopper), the head paleontologist at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Jackson accepts an invitation to the Pentagon to examine the find, and is accompanied by the editor of the Museum newsletter, Marge (Talton), who smells a story.
Unsure of what the hook is, Jackson begins to use process of elimination to at least determine what it is not. He ultimately deduces that the hook is a spur from the forelimb of a very large, probably prehistoric, praying mantis. Positive identification of the threat having been made, the military springs into action.
The Mantis is unfazed by jet fighters, unfortunately, and begins to work its way south in search of food and warmth. The Civilian Observer Corps are mobilized to help track the Mantis’ movements. Efforts to destroy the Mantis as it descends on Washington, DC (perching atop the Washington Monument) manage to do no more than simply drive the Mantis off. It lands again in Laurel, Maryland, where it derails a train.
Colonel Parkman leads a fighter squadron against the Mantis, a pursuit that ends with Parkman’s jet colliding with the Mantis’ neck. Parkman manages to eject safely; the Mantis, injured, spirals out of the sky, coming to ground in New Jersey, where it crawls into the Manhattan Tunnel seeking safety.
Parkman and Jackson lead a team into the Tunnel to finish the Mantis off with poison gas bombs. The Mantis dead and the air cleared, Marge begins to take pictures of the colossal insect, unaware as its forelimb comes up slowly behind her. Parkman carries her swiftly to safety; Jackson explains that the movement was simply an autonomic reflex, and that the Mantis is genuinely dead. Parkman, however, declines to put Marge down, choosing instead to toss her camera to Jackson as he kisses her.
Is this a brilliant film? No. In all honesty, it’s slow-moving even at a lean 78 minutes, with a significant quantity of stock-footage padding (most notably seven minutes of explanation of the Distant Early Warning Line and its construction) and a turgid, documentarian approach that drains the film of what little energy it has.
While science in films of this period and this caliber is rarely more than a simple hand-waving to give meaning to the monster’s presence, Dr. Nedrick Jackson’s explanations are particularly cringe-inducing. He describes the Mantis’ spur as “cartilaginous” in structure, explaining that this proves that it didn’t come from an “animal” – “chitinous” and “vertebrate” are the words he’s looking for there, as insects are most assuredly animals, and insect exoskeleton is made from the stiff, inflexible material known as chitin while cartilage is the flexible substance that holds our bones together and allow our joints to bend. I’m never sure whether to laugh or wince when Jackson comments that even reptiles have skeletons.
The film becomes more interesting in the historical context of its creation; THE DEADLY MANTIS hit US theaters in May of 1957, just months after Eisenhower began his second term as President. The Cold War was in full swing, and THE DEADLY MANTIS reflects this – if not making social commentary on the Cold War, at least drawing inspiration from it in the form of the DEW Line providing an early warning against a far different airborne threat then originally intended.
Additionally, the utilization of the Ground Observer Corps, a civilian defense organization whose volunteers were trained to identify aircraft (particularly Soviet ones), is an interesting point. While I am trained as a historian, the 20th century is not my area of expertise, and were it not for this film I don’t think I would have ever heard of the Ground Observer Corps. What I find surprising is that the Corps is not utilized, or at least mentioned, in any other film I can think of from this period. Given the number of flying saucer movies made in the 1950s, why was the GOC left out? A point to ponder.
While THE DEADLY MANTIS is not the best of the big bug movies, its dodgy science, ponderous narration and Cold War mentality ensure its permanence as a piece of Classic Camp.