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The American Kamakiras

by Michael Bogue

(Revised version of an article that originally appeared in G-FAN #62: May/June 2003 Issue)





You say Gimantis, I say Kamakiras, but we all know we’re talking about the same kaiju.  Kamakiras are, of course, those gigantic praying mantises that besiege Godzilla and Minya in 1967’s Son of Godzilla.  However, this wasn’t the first time SFantasy filmmakers featured oversized mantids on the screen.  Just as Western movies featured giant spiders before Kumonga’s debut in Son of Godzilla, so too did one lone American movie feature a giant mantis as its menace before the advent of Kamakiras – 1957’s The Deadly Mantis.

Released by Universal-International in May of ‘57, The Deadly Mantis fits snugly within the fifties subgenre of “big bug” movies.  In the 1950s, Western screens were infested by giant ants (Them!), colossal spiders (Tarantula, Earth vs. The Spider), monstrous scorpions (The Black Scorpion), mammoth mollusks (The Monster That Challenged the World),  huge locusts (Beginning of the End), and tremendous wasps (Monster from Green Hell).  Consequently, it’s no surprise that the praying mantis, one of nature’s most predatory insects, likewise received the “super-size” treatment.




The Mantid from Planet Monster

The story of The Deadly Mantis basically follows the familiar plot of many 1950’s monster epics.  In the Arctic, an unknown force obliterates an American radar outpost.  When Colonel Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) and a fellow Air Force officer investigate, they find the outpost’s men missing, and they also discover curious skid marks and “footprints.”

Next, a C-47 is wrenched from the sky.  When Col. Parkman and one of his men investigate, they discover the plane trashed, but they also find a curious hook-like object.  In Washington, D.C., paleontologist Dr. Ned Jackson (William Hopper) determines that the hook is the “spur” of a giant prehistoric praying mantis.

No sooner can you say, “What the heck would a mantis the size of a blue whale eat?” than the antediluvian insect attacks an Eskimo village.  (Most of this assault is actually stock footage from 1933’s S.O.S. Iceberg.)  Dr. Jackson and his shapely assistant Marge Blaine (Alix Talton) journey with Col. Parkman to an Arctic Air Force base to get to the bottom of the mystery.  (No mystery to the viewer, since we saw the giant mantis thawing from an iceberg at the beginning of the film.)

Before long, the lumbering mantid attacks the Arctic Air Force Base at which our heroes are stationed.  Efforts to combat the beast are futile, and soon the titanic insect takes to the skies.  Authorities in Canada and the U.S. are alerted; Dr. Jackson determines that the mantis is heading south along the eastern seaboard.

Near Richmond, Virginia, the mantis wrecks a train (offscreen) and mangles a passenger bus.  Later, the creature briefly lights in Washington, D.C., then buzzes off, presumably in search of more human prey (gigantic as it is, it would probably take nothing less than a suburb of Los Angeles to fill its belly for even a day).  Jets hound the creature, wounding it with a barrage of missiles, and the monster is further damaged when one of the war planes collides with it head-on.

Descending to the earth, the beleaguered prehistoric insect takes refuge in the “Manhattan Tunnel” (as it is billed in the movie), where Colonel Parkman leads a poison gas assault against the injured behemoth.  After tossing a few cars around and coughing its last, the mantis finally expires – apparently not too soon for the movie’s two perfunctory “lovebirds” (Marge and Colonel Parkman), who embrace for the obligatory closing kiss.




Attack of the Fifty-Foot Film Commentary

In volume one of Keep Watching the Skies!, genre critic Bill Warren summed up his view of The Deadly Mantis thusly: “it is dull.”  Certainly the movie does contain mucho padding, which mostly consists of documentary information about the North American early warning radar arrays.  Indeed, the movie begins with a slow (some would say glacial with pun intended) map sequence that seems to go on several times longer than it really is.  But the monster action itself is not bad, and the film’s acting and other technical aspects are proficient enough.

Martin Berkeley’s script is, at best, routine, though relatively painless, save for some silly “comedy relief” involving the reaction of some of the Arctic Air Force officers to Marge.  Indeed, the screenplay is a virtual compendium of “fifties monster movie” clichés.  But clichés aren’t necessarily bad when they’re part of the expectations of a film genre’s fans, and The Deadly Mantis is structured to appease the majority of “old” creature feature devotees and giant monster enthusiasts.

Speaking of old, baby-boomers are likely to recognize the film’s two male leads.  Craig Stevens (Col. Parkman) played early TV detective Peter Gunn (1958-1961), whereas William Hopper (Dr. Jackson) essayed the supporting role of private investigator Paul Drake in TV’s long-running Perry Mason series (1957-1966).  For readers too young to have seen such shows, both are products of television’s fondly remembered “Golden Age.”  Stevens, Hopper, and female lead Alix Talton invest what life they can into their sketchy roles, with Hopper faring the best of the three.  Hopper had a relaxed, affable quality that serves him well in the thankless role of Dr. Ned Jackson – he doesn’t even get the girl at the end!

On the musical side of things, William Lava’s thunderous, crash-and-bang orchestral score captures the wonderful character of 1950s Grade-B monster epics, especially those that came out of the Universal-International stable.  The film’s giant mantis almost even has a “theme” of sorts.




Juran the Giant Maker

The Deadly Mantis was directed by one of fantastic cinema’s most prolific yet little-known craftsmen – the late Nathan Juran.  In addition to The Deadly Mantis, Juran directed The Black Castle (1952), Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Flight of the Lost Balloon (1961), Jack the Giant Killer (1962), First Men In The Moon (1964), and The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973).

Under the pseudonym Nathan Hertz, Juran directed two of the fifties most outrageous sci-fi efforts – The Brain From Planet Arous and Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman, both 1958.  The first featured a disembodied extraterrestrial brain portrayed in one part of the film by a painted balloon, the second a wronged wife who grows to gigantic proportions via shaky trick photography.

An architect turned art director, Juran won an Oscar for his art direction of 1941’s How Green Was My Valley.  In the 1950s, Juran turned to film directing, and though he directed a number of non-SFantasy films, it is for his “monster movies” that he will probably remain best remembered.

His direction for The Deadly Mantis is capable, if less than award-winning.  Juran attempts to achieve mood by filling some of the scenes with nocturnal fog, and many of the mantis’s scenes occur at night, heightening their effectiveness.  The director’s pacing is fair, though the intrusions of “early warning radar” scenes, totally extraneous to the movie, do slow things down during the first half.  Of course, given that the entire movie is only 78 minutes, Juran makes the most of the modest monster story (and even more modest budget) he has been given.




The Nth Voyage of Special Effects

While story, acting, and direction are always important, special effects are usually the “star” of most giant monster movies.  Even if the effects aren’t convincing, they at least need to be entertaining.  And the visuals in The Deadly Mantis, credited to Fred Knoth, Clifford Stine, and Tom McRory, should satisfy the majority of kaiju eiga fans.

 

The mammoth mantis itself is mostly realized by two different models.  The most often seen model is the “ground mantis,” a twenty-inch marionette with movable head, mouth, body, and legs; the other model is the “sky mantis,” used for shots of the monster in flight.  Suspended by wires, this model is stationary except for the rapidly beating wings.

The “ground” mantis generally works well.  Its major debit is its lumbering gait – as Bill Warren says, no faster than it shuffles, most people could probably just run away from it.  But the ground model proves effective in its major set pieces, such as when the mantis briefly attacks the Arctic Air Base, overturns a fog-enshrouded bus, and plods through the car-infested tunnel.  The miniature work (buildings, cars, etc.) is on a par with the best from Toho, augmenting the ground model’s efficacy.  Low-angle camerawork also aids in the illusion of the giant mantis wreaking havoc.

However, the most arresting scene in the film uses a real praying mantis in lieu of models.  Briefly, the mantis lights on the Washington Monument, then climbs to the top of that national edifice.  An actual mantis is used for these nocturnal scenes, which are quite convincing.  From inside the Washington Monument, two frightened security guards watch the underside of the mantis through a window as the giant insect scales the tower, a surreal and almost creepy spectacle.

Another good scene features the model mantis somewhat improbably “sneaking up” on the Arctic Air Base.  Through a window, we see the huge mantid’s head looking in as Marge, facing away from the window, fails to notice.  However, this sequence goes on far too long, rendering what might have caused a minor frisson into provoking amusement or exasperation instead.  It is also a clear homage to (or outright theft of) a similar scene in 1955’s Tarantula.

Deadly Mantis producer William Alland was quite pleased with the film’s effects.  And they do compare favorably to Toho SFantasies of the 1950s.  The major problem with the effects is that the budget constrains the mantis from indulging in any “urban renewal.”  For example, after the mantis is injured by missile fire and spirals down into a major city, it might have been nice if the insect had smashed into the side of one or more of the surrounding skyscrapers.

One poster for the film shows an illustration of the mantis plucking a train from a trestle bridge (a scene not in the movie); another shows the mantis snatching a plane out of the sky (another scene not in the movie).  And one piece of concept art for the film shows the mantis lifting a huge ocean liner out of the sea!  Such illustrations make one wonder if more ambitious effects had been planned but were scuttled due to cost concerns.

Another problem with the effects is that the giant mantis in the film doesn’t act like a praying mantis.  Actual mantises stalk their prey, remain very still before they strike, sway from side to side, then quickly lunge forward and grasp their victim with their large spiked forelegs.  The mantis in this movie doesn’t do any of these things, which is unfortunate.  Still, this “faux mantid” will provide entertainment enough for most giant monster fans.




Twenty Million Critiques to Earth

Like most kaiju eiga of the 1950s, The Deadly Mantis receives fair notices from the majority of Western critics.  In its 1967 annual, the original Castle of Frankenstein, a renowned genre magazine of the sixties and seventies, calls the mantis’s star vehicle a “Typical grade-B monster-adventure, competently produced and acted.”  I think that one sentence fairly sums up the movie’s worthiness. 

Still, not everyone takes a shine to this “big bugger.”  As indicated before, SFantasy film historian Bill Warren has little use for the movie.  In his first volume of Keep Watching the Skies!, he calls The Deadly Mantis “leaden” and “unimaginative” and declares that it is “one of the worst SF films ever made by Universal.”  He also disparages the film’s monster, saying, “The mantis itself is done very badly” and that the “model work is also poor.”

However, in the more recent magazine Monsters From the Vault #9, authors Bryan Senn and Lynn Naron see the film in a different and more complimentary light.  They find the movie’s mantis “fairly impressive in appearance” and state that the filmmakers “serve Mr. Mantis well by photographing it against some well-made models.”  Summing up, Senn and Naron declare, “As Big Bugs go, The Deadly Mantis is superior to most [in that subgenre].”

Mainstream critics tend to agree with Senn and Naron.  Leonard Maltin’s Move & Video Guide gives the film two out of four stars, noting that “obligatory love story interrupts good special effects.”  Steven Scheuer’s Movies on TV and Videocasette likewise rates the movie with two out of four stars.  In addition, Mick Martin and Marsha Porter’s Video Movie Guide awards the film two and a half out of five stars.  “Okay special effects” the book’s review declares, “though even at 78 minutes it seems too long.”  I agree that the padding is sometimes extensive during the movie’s first half, but in a way, this Air Force documentary footage gives the film a sort of low-budget 1950s charm, though perhaps this only holds true for baby-boomers who grew up watching black-and-white creature fests on TV.




The Mantis Who Cried Kamakiras

Looking at the similarities between Kamakiras (or Gimantis) and the featured kaiju of The Deadly Mantis can be quite instructive.  The monsters are not all that different.  For one thing, both Universal’s mantis and Toho’s mantids are primarily realized via well-articulated marionettes.  In addition, the designs of the mantises in both films are stylized.  For example, the Deadly Mantis has no antenna and a mouth different than that of a real praying mantis, just as Kamakiras likewise have “invented” mouths as well as dragon-like ridges on their backs.

Furthermore, neither creature appeared in any sequels.  However, as I write this in July 2004, one or more updated Kamakiras are scheduled to appear in Godzilla: Final Wars.  It’s also interesting to note that when considering what foe he would have Godzilla fight, director Shusuke Kaneko originally considered Kamakiras because of the possibilities CGI opened for the monstrous mantids, but decided against it because the recent Godzilla vs. Megaguirus had just featured the Big G battling Big Bugs.

Getting back to our comparison in progress, there are also dissimilarities between the giant American mantid of 1957 and his Toho kin.  A major difference involves the sounds each monster makes.  The Deadly Mantis bellows an unimaginative, dinosaur-like roar that sounds not unlike “Spot” on TVLAND’s The Munsters.  The notion of a monstrous insect mimicking a T-Rex is pretty silly (imagine Mothra growling like Gorgo), and it hurts the Deadly Mantis’s credibility.  On the other hand, Kamakiras (individually and jointly) make both slurping, hiss-like noises as well as shrill, high-pitched squeals.  While “real” giant mantises might not make any sounds at all, Kamakiras’ insect chitterings are more convincing than the Deadly Mantis’s dinosaurian bellowings.

Another difference involves the origins of the mammoth mantids.  The Deadly Mantis is a gigantic prehistoric mantis thawed out from an iceberg.  Meanwhile, car-sized Kamakiras inhabit Solgel Island, but no attempt is made to explain what they are doing there or where they came from.  After the island is exposed to radiation and intense heat, the Kamakiras grow to Godzillian proportions, eventually coming to blows with the Big G himself.

Of course, that brings to mind yet another difference – the Deadly Mantis is the star of its film, while the Kamakiras are only “supporting players” in Son of Godzilla.  Indeed, these combative mantids tend to be overshadowed by Kumonga, the island’s monstrous giant spider.

As for the movies themselves, differences are readily evident.  The Deadly Mantis was clearly made for general audiences, and in 1957 it was probably aimed at the ten-to-twenty set.  However, in 1967, Son of Godzilla was apparently made for the under-ten crowd, what with its silly “comedy relief” and juvenile father-son antics of Godzilla and Minya.  In addition, The Deadly Mantis features mostly urban settings, whereas Son of Godzilla takes place on a small South Pacific atoll.  Consequently, while the Deadly Mantis threatens Washington, D.C., Kamakiras never set spur off Solgel Island.

Still, one surprising similarity of both movies is that neither offers much in the way of destruction.  In Son of Godzilla, the Big G partially trashes an experimental weather base, but the Kamakiras never so much as knock over a few palm trees.  And while the monster mantid in The Deadly Mantis flits about urban locales, it fastidiously leaves the real estate unscathed.  Indeed, the lack of city razing in The Deadly Mantis is the film’s biggest disappointment.

Nevertheless, the majority of kaiju eiga fans will probably admit that almost any giant monster movie is worth seeing at least once.  And The Deadly Mantis rates at least one rental.  Competent and straightforward, Nathan Juran’s film exemplifies Western “monster-on-the-loose” epics of the 1950s, and in spirit it isn’t far removed from Rodan or Godzilla Raids Again.  It’s also one of the better “Big Bug” flicks.  You may yawn during the North American radar discourses, but the monster mantis itself should keep you fairly enthralled.  Why?  Because The Deadly Mantis provides plenty of old-fashioned “creature feature” fun that all but the under-six set in the family can enjoy.

In short, Kamakiras really have nothing on the Deadly Mantis.  The American “Gimantis” is just as formidable and convincing.  In fact, you might want to watch a double bill of Son of Godzilla and The Deadly Mantis, just to compare the two monster mantid realizations.  You might even decide – dare I say it? – that you actually find The Deadly Mantis the better of the two films.  And if so, you certainly won’t be alone!




BIBLIOGRAPHY

Eder, Bruce, “Nathan Juran,” http://movies.yahoo.com.

“Frankenstein TV Movieguide,” Castle of Frankenstein 1967 Annual, Gothic Castle Publishing Co.: 1966.

Maltin, Leonard, editor, Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide, Signet: 2001.

Martin, Mick and Marsha Porter, Video Movie Guide 2000, Ballantine: 1999.

Scheuer, Steven, Movies On TV and Videocassette, Bantam: 1991.

Senn, Bryan and Lynn Naron.  “Battle of the Bugs: Tarantula vs. The Deadly Mantis,” Monsters From the Vault #9, Monsters From the Vault: Summer 1999.

Warren, Bill.  Keep Watching the Skies!  Volume 1: 1950-1957, McFarland: 1982.



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