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
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
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
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
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
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.