Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Hubrisween 2018 :: D is for The Deadly Mantis (1957)

We open with a slightly bastardized lesson on Newton’s Third Law of Motion as a camera slowly pans over a global map until it zeroes in on a tiny South Pacific island, which dissolves into footage of a violent volcanic eruption on, we assume, the same island on the map. Here, a narrator chimes in, stating for every action, as we cut back to the world map and head north to the Arctic Circle, there is an equal but opposite reaction, which is, according to the footage we cut to next, large chunks of ice calving off the polar cap. And then this lesson, which was really more of a demonstration of Edward Lorenz’s Chaos Theory (-- a volcanic eruptions down south warms the ocean currents enough to melt some ice up north), ends with the emergence of something that had been trapped in this glacial ice for who knows how long. And what that thing appears to be is a praying mantis of some abnormal size. And with nothing to give it scale, we have no idea how big this deadly insect is -- yet.

Next, our narrator chimes in again as we embark on an exhaustive tour of the United States’ three-layered early warning defense network (circa 1958) against the threat of Communist invasion or a surprise atomic attack over the North Pole. It begins with the Pine Tree Radar fence that essentially runs along the Canadian border. The location of the Mid-Canada Radar Fence should be fairly self-explanatory. And even further north, as we return to the Arctic Circle, is the Distant Early Warning Line -- affectionately known as the D.E.W. line. Here, our narrator keeps on blathering as we watch how these radar stations and airfields were established; cut out of the desolate and inhospitable frozen tundra by these heroic and selfless men. And so, here, at the top of the world, sets Red Eagle One; the nerve center of the D.E.W. line, whose men keep a constant eye on the sky to keep America safe against those damnable Commies.

Now, a new commanding officer has just arrived at Red Eagle One. But Col. Joe Parkman (Stevens) barely has time to settle in before a report from a reconnaissance flight says one of his advanced outposts appears to have sustained massive structural damage; cause unknown. Two men were stationed at this outpost, who had detected a strange intermittent object on their radar scope headed right for them. Whatever it is, it sounded like an apocalyptically huge plague of locusts zeroing in on them. And whatever it was, attacked them so fast they didn’t have time to radio for help. And when Parkman can’t raise them on the same radio, he flies out himself to investigate. Sure enough, the building has been demolished; as if something huge had landed on the roof and flattened it. There is also no sign of the men stationed there, and the only clue is a pair of huge, three-toed skid-marks embedded in the snow that match no airplane or helicopter Parkman is aware of.

Obviously, this is the work of the thawed-out mantis. We know that, sure, but Parkman does not. However, we do start to get a sense of the truly ginormous scale of this thing when it next attacks a C-47 transport in a delightfully gruesome sequence viewed entirely from the doomed plane’s cockpit, when the insect latches onto it in mid-air, begins tearing it asunder, and the flight engineer falls dead into the co-pilot’s lap with half of his scalp torn off. Again, this all happened so fast there was no time to radio in a report. And when Parkman and his team find and examine the wreckage, again, there is no sign of any bodies. But this time, Parkman finds more than just a pair of tell-tale skid-marks as they pull a large, prong-shaped object some five-feet in length from what’s left of the fuselage that wasn’t part of the plane, or cargo, and appears to have broken off of something -- make that, some thing.

Passing this evidence up the chain of command, Parkman hopes General Mark Ford (Randolph), who runs the entirety of the Continental Air Defense network (CONAD), can find the right personnel to identify its source of origin before any more “accidents” occur. But all Professor Anton Gunther (Ames), a pathologist, and his team of experts can confirm is the large spur came from some living organism and eliminate what it isn’t. And so, Ford takes the stumped Gunther’s advice and contacts Dr. Nedrick Jackson, head paleontologist for the Museum of Natural History, who is a wizard at reconstructing prehistoric animals from just a handful of bones, figuring he’s the only one who could crack this mystery.

Speaking of Jackson (Hopper), he’s currently in his office going over the latest proofs for the next edition of the museum’s trade magazine with Marge Blaine (Talton), publicist, photographer, and managing editor for said magazine, when he gets the call from the Pentagon. After examining the object, Jackson has his suspicions on what it could be; but what it could be seems impossible. And so impossible, he waits for some lab tests before revealing what he’s thinking. And when those tests confirm the object most likely came from an insect, and doing a little math to extrapolate the ginormous size of this bug from what is determined to be a broken off leg spur, Jackson starts theorizing it must be some kind of prehistoric holdover that was most likely trapped in the arctic ice for millions of years -- like some of the insect specimens trapped in amber in his office, that somehow recently thawed out and revived. And with the evidence at hand, correlated with the missing men, who were most likely eaten, Jackson keeps on spitballing, saying the insect doing all of this damage is most likely some form of praying mantis.

Obviously, Jackson’s theories are met with skepticism -- and rightfully so, and he’ll need more proof to get Ford onboard the giant bug theory since all the eyewitnesses were inconveniently eaten by this new cryptid. Well, while they’re squabbling, all the proof Jackson needed is currently attacking an Eskimo village. And while most escape, others aren’t so lucky and become another batch of mantis-kibble. And worse yet, if we head back to that global map and trace this deadly predator’s pattern of attack, one cannot help but notice this delightful metaphor of all consuming Communism is heading directly south and is currently on a crash-course with the United States, who now needs to be more vigilant than ever lest it all becomes a big steaming pile of bug poop...

After re-releasing King Kong (1933) in 1938, 1942, and 1946, the always cash-strapped RKO Pictures once more ran their big gorilla into theaters in 1952, where it once again made them a ton at the box-office but also seemed to really strike a chord with a new generation of moviegoers and, more importantly, convinced several other studios there was money to be made with giant monster rampages on the big screen. In 1953, Warner Bros. picked up an independent feature, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and made a killing off the resulting stop-motion mass-destruction. And this development was also important for two reasons: one, again, big studios saw this type of sci-fi / horror hybrid as a viable commodity and it spawned many imitators; and two, hoping to follow the same business model, all kinds of low-budget and independently produced creature features sprung up all over Hollywood looking to also cash in.

Then, in 1954, Warner Bros. unleashed their own original giant monster movie. And though Jack Warner had no faith in it, THEM! (1954) went on to be the studio’s biggest money maker that year, igniting a whole new sub-genre of monsters: giant bugs running amok. Perhaps tapping into some post-war nuclear attack anxiety, and the atavistic repulsion of creepy crawlies in general, these mutations were most often caused by radiation. The giant ants of THEM! gestated in the fallout of the early atom bomb tests; the titanic arachnid in Tarantula (1955) was the direct result of good intentions gone awry and a radioactive isotope; and the swarm of gargantuan locusts in Beginning of the End (1957) mutated after consuming irradiated and mutagenic grain. At least the A-Bomb and the resulting radiation were off the hook this time. Instead, we have a leftover frozen fossil that fell victim to cause and effect.

Tarantula, of course, was Universal International’s answer to their rival studio’s giant ant picture and was helmed by their two big guns: producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold, who were the most responsible for UI’s triumphant return to their monster roots of the 1930s and ‘40s but updated them for the atomic age with the likes of It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and This Island Earth (1955). Tarantula was another hit, and so, another giant bug movie was soon in the works before this irradiated insect cycle petered out at the box-office.

Apparently it was Alland’s idea to use a praying mantis for his next monster. Seems the producer was fascinated by the species, their cannibalistic eating habits, and their grisly mating ritual where the female would eat the head of the male once he’d served out his life function. Fearless, lightning fast, and possessing a voracious appetite, the insect had great potential as a marauding menace of massive proportions. Alland then took his two page treatment to screenwriter Martin Berkeley, who co-wrote Tarantula with Robert Fresco, to flesh it out. Berkeley was notorious for naming the most names when he testified before the HUAC committee during the Communist witch-hunts of the late 1940s, ruining a lot of lives and careers. (Alland also named a lot of names, too, which might explain why he and Berkeley were such pals.)

Berkeley’s concocted plot borrows liberally from the George Worthing Yates model. Yates was another screenwriter who also tended to cannibalize his own plots during this atomic mutation boom as one can easily draw a through-line from THEM! to It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), to The Amazing Colossal Man (1957). All scripted by Yates, and all essentially shared the exact same procedural plot of strange occurrences, following the evidence, confirming the cause, and then a race against the clock to destroy the monster before it strikes a large population center. And so, a forensic autopsy of the giant praying mantis script would show evidence of all these same elements. But when you compare it to what transpired in Tarantula, one easily gets a sense Fresco must have had all the good ideas. But at the moment, Fresco was busy writing the script for the far superior alien invasion flick, The Monolith Monsters (1957).

Despite Alland’s initial enthusiasm it soon became quite clear that no one else on the lot was really all that interested in making The Deadly Mantis (1957). Alland himself was already halfway out the door and on his way to Paramount, where Arnold would soon follow. Director Nathan Juran was still hiding behind his alias, Nathan Hertz -- like he did for The Brain from the Planet Arous (1957) and Attack of the 50ft Woman (1958), and he wound up shooting the film in a style just north of perfunctory and with all the enthusiasm of an industrial short.

The film also suffered from a mass cast defection, too. The star of This Island Earth, Rex Reason, was initially supposed to play the lead, but he didn’t care to play second fiddle to a giant bug and asked to be released from his contract. And Mara Corday, a holdover from Tarantula, made it as far as a wardrobe fitting to play the love interest. But then immediately headed to the nearest bar with her friend and fellow actor, David Janssen, where they started drinking heavily and bitching incessantly about her part and being pigeon-holed, and then started tearing pages out of Corday’s script, converting them into paper airplanes, and started tossing them around the joint. When word of this incident reached the brass at UI, Corday was not only fired off the picture but her contract with the studio was terminated. And funnily enough, her next picture wound up being the even goofier The Giant Claw (1957) for Columbia.

Then again, almost everyone’s contract was being terminated at UI at the time. And here, we get to the real reason behind The Deadly Mantis’ massive shortcomings. See, it all kinda started back in 1946 when William Goetz took over as head of production for the newly minted Universal International Pictures after a hostile takeover of the old storied studio. Wanting to bring some prestige to the brand, Goetz dissolved the B-units, ceased serial production, and finally pulled the plug on the long running Universal Monsters franchise after Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). All of these decisions ended in disaster as Universal’s back catalog of horror, westerns, and comedy films re-released through Real Art were drawing as good if not better at the box-office than the newer high-end pictures.

And so, Goetz was shown the door in 1950, and the B-Units started rolling again, explaining why the Francis the Talking Mule and Ma and Pa Kettle pictures saved the studio from oblivion as Milton Rackmil and Decca Records took over in 1952. And it was around this same time UI started making sci-fi and horror pictures again, which culminated with the lavish production of This Island Earth in 1955. However, that film turned out to be a box-office disappointment considering its high production costs. And as TV continued to leech off ticket sales, and experiments in 3D failed and CinemaScope did its best to staunch the bleeding, the writing was on the wall for the studio, who started slashing budgets, cutting contracts, and laying off whole departments to cut costs. And it was during this tumultuous cash-strapped period, when UI was on the verge of shuttering up for good, and once more faced another hostile takeover bid from Lew Wasserman and MCA, which was the world's largest talent agency at the time, that The Deadly Mantis went into production.

And faced with a drastically reduced budget, Alland exchanged several memos with studio executive Jim Pratt on how to effectively cut corners. One in particular read, “Although it was made for considerably less money, a Columbia picture called It Came from Beneath the Sea was felt by all of us to be in the same competitive bracket as our Creature [from the Black Lagoon] and Tarantula pictures. Columbia’s use of stock footage was particularly effective in achieving this. I think it is agreed that we must explore the use of stock footage on a larger scale than we have heretofore considered, in the making of these pictures in the future."

And, oh, great googly-moogly, did Alland ever take the stock footage plunge as by most rough estimates The Deadly Mantis is easily a fifty-fifty split between stock and original footage; but to my eyes I’d put that split at about a sixty-forty ratio in favor of stock footage. I don’t think “Jungle” Sam Katzman and his merry band of Clover Productions over at Columbia, or even Ed Wood, fer cripesake, ever managed that dubious ratio. Either way that is way too much stock footage abuse for any motion picture to endure and is always one of the major complaints when people beef about this picture. And one of the most embarrassing deployments was during that attack on the Inuit village, culled almost entirely from S.O.S. Iceberg (1933), which was then skip-framed to speed things up, resulting in an aquatic retreat that desperately needed a serenade by Boots Randolph.

Anyhoo, despite all the witnesses, this latest attack still doesn’t sell General Ford on Jackson’s giant mantis theory, but it is enough to get the paleontologist on the next plane to Red Eagle One to confer with Parkman and visit the sites of these mysterious attacks. Smelling a scoop, Marge also manages to finagle her way onto the plane; much to the delight of Parkman and his men, who’ve been looking for females behind every tree for the duration of their polar assignment -- only there aren’t any trees at the North Pole. Later, after examining and measuring those strange skid-marks at the crash site, Jackson starts crunching numbers to determine the size of the mantis. Well, all he had to do was look out the window to see the thing first hand as the monster advances on the outpost, somehow, undetected, until Marge sees it, screams, and raises the alarm.

And as the base scrambles to repel the monster, it is driven off by the use of flamethrowers. All jets are launched to take up pursuit but the mantis proves too fast and they lose track of it. And since radar has proven rather useless in tracking the creature, General Ford calls a press conference, reveals the existence of the giant menace, and calls upon the civilian Ground Observation Corps (-- more on them later --) to help spot and track the movements of the deadly mantis.

Several days pass, and Jackson and Marge map out all reports of strange sightings and odd occurrences until one night, as Parkman drives Marge home, they’re kiss is interrupted by a newsflash about a nearby train wreck. She wonders if it could be the mantis, but Parkman feels it was most probably a genuine accident -- not seeing the telling skid-marks due to the fog and chaos of the scene.

Meantime, a bus is attacked and all the passengers devoured save for one lone and lucky witness who just got off, confirming the mantis is in the area, which is next sighted flying over Washington D.C., where it comes in for a landing on the Washington Monument. Parkman is flying the lead plane sent to intercept the creature, hoping to drive it out to sea. They score several direct hits but don’t seem to be doing much damage until Parkman fails to dodge the creature and must bail out before his jet rams into the creature’s torso, severely wounding it. Still, the mantis manages to limp all the way to New York City, where it crawls into the Manhattan Tunnel, which is quickly quarantined, sealed off, and filled with smoke from both ends to keep the monster at bay.

Since this tunnel is underwater, that quickly rules out the use of any explosives to kill it. And so, Parkman will lead a team of men into the tunnel armed with several chemical bombs to fatally poison the mantis. An eerie scene awaits them inside as the tunnel is choked with smoke, smashed cars, but no bodies anywhere. The mantis saw to that. Deeper in the tunnel, the crazed and wounded mantis is roaring and thrashing around, tossing the autos like tin toys. When the strike team finally reaches it, the first two bombs prove ineffective and they must retreat as the mantis scrambles after them until Parkman finally strikes the fatal blow with the last bomb, scoring a direct hit in front of the creatures head; and after several inhalations of the noxious gas into its trachea, the giant mantis finally falls dead.

Once the smoke clears, Parkman leads Ford, Jackson and Marge back into the tunnel to assess the damage. And while Parkman shows the men where his jet impacted, Marge moves to photograph the creature’s head, not realizing one of its front legs is starting to shift behind her. When it contracts and threatens to crush her, Parkman manages to swoop in and get her to safety. And as Jackson assures this was merely an autonomic reflex, and the mantis is assuredly dead, Parkman refuses to let go of Marge, they embrace and finally get to that kiss as we cut to the credits.

You know, I don’t get the hate for this movie. Even author Bill Warren, who’s never met a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan he didn’t hold in utter contempt for deigning to take potshots at these kinds of genre flicks, tears The Deadly Mantis a new anus in his book Keep Watching the Skies. Again, one of the major beefs with the film is the stock footage abuse but, strangely enough, we never actually get any stock nature footage of a real praying mantis doing what praying mantises do in the wild. Weird.

Now, one of the other major beefs with The Deadly Mantis is how the film is nothing more than a Public Service Announcement for the Ground Observation Corps that’s thinly disguised as a giant monster movie. Founded in 1952, the United States government called for civilian volunteers nationwide to join the G.O.C. to help maintain a 24-hour surveillance against the threat of an air attack. But despite this patriotic call to duty, they fell well short of the 500,000 volunteer goal to man the 14,000 designated stations. The Deadly Mantis contains ah-lot of stock footage of these volunteers manning their posts and watching the skies, and at the end of the film there’s even a credit thanking the Ground Observation Corps for its service and cooperation in the making of the film. But ironies of ironies, if it had been the goal to get more volunteers to man these posts, when The Deadly Mantis was released on a double-bill with The Girl from the Kremlin (1957) in May of 1957, the Ground Observation Corps would be disbanded by Christmas.

And if we can stop bitching for a second, one of the film’s true highlights is the mantis itself. Research shows there were several models of different scales built: one for shots of the mantis flying, another for when it was crawling around on the ground. The ground model was a rubber puppet nearly two feet long. Well designed, and anatomically sound, the puppet’s movements were executed by a series of rods and wires like a marionette. I couldn’t find who exactly designed the thing, but several sources say it was most likely animated by Fred Knoth, photographed and matted in by Cliff Stine, and crawled around on miniatures designed by art director, Alexander Golitzen. The six-foot flying model didn’t fair as well. And while I can appreciate the effort to blur the wings to give the illusion of flight, it’s wobbly stabilizers too easily brought to mind the errant, sparkler driven rocket going in erratic circles in Robot Monster (1953). For the finale in the tunnel, rumors abound of a 200-foot by 40-foot papier-maché model of the mantis was used, run on a hydraulic system to move its head, mandibles, arms and legs to crush those cars, which appear to be made out of molded and pressed plastic or fiberglass; but most of those scenes appear to be matte shots with the miniature, bringing the existence of such a large model into question -- that and a lack of any production photos pretty much nix this oft told production yarn.

And like with Tarantula, there were some efforts made to use an actual insect in some shots. There’s definitely a live one used during the Washington Monument segment. You can tell because you can see the beastie’s twitching antennae, which were left off the puppet for some reason. Practicality, most likely, with two less things to animate. Also credit to sound designers Leslie Carey and Leon M. Leon for concocting the monster’s near pitch-perfect primal roar. And I swear to god, the same sound-effect was used some thirty years later for the shark’s implausible roar in JAWS: The Revenge (1987). Sadly, just like with everyone else under contract at Universal at the time, almost all of these men and women who created all of those great monsters and made them creep and crawl and rampage would be let go within the year.

Honestly, on top of the stock footage abuse and being saddled with a cast and crew that were simply going through the motions as fast as humanly possible, I think the biggest tactical error made by Alland on down was making the mantis too damned big. And if you’ve seen some production art by Reynold Brown, the thing might’ve been even bigger! I mean, imagine a mantis the size of the mutated ants from THEM! Now imagine something that size, that fast, and that deadly, zipping around, impaling people on its claws and biting their heads off? Now THAT’S the deadly mantis movie I want to see. As for The Deadly Mantis we got? Eh. It ain’t that terrible. Though I do find it funny how a film that goes so far out of its way to praise our early warning defense network only manages to show how bad it utterly fails at detecting something that big coming right for us. Think about it, won’t you? Thank you.

Other Points of Interest:

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's four reviews down with 22 to go! Up Next: Joseph Braunstein took an axe, and gave the audience 40 whacks.

The Deadly Mantis (1957) Universal International / P: William Alland/ D: Nathan Juran / W: Martin Berkeley, William Alland / C: Ellis W. Carter / E: Chester Schaeffer / M: Irving Gertz, William Lava / S: Craig Stevens, William Hopper, Alix Talton, Florenz Ames, Pat Conway

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