We are told at the start of this film that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In this story this means that a volcano on one side of Earth triggers a quake way over on the other, cracking open a glacier and releasing The Deadly Mantis (1957).
We next get a dull documentary-style history lesson about the construction and location of radar stations covering the planet, specifically the coverage extending Northward through Canada: the “Pine Tree,” the “Mid-Canada,” and the “Dew Line” radar fences that should protect us from all manner of attack. (After they mentioned “distant early warning,” I had a hard time hearing anything but Rush.) Indeed, the recently built station Red Eagle One does its job and are the first to pick up the presence of the mantis before it levels one of their shacks. As similar attacks continue and escalate, all the investigating Colonel Parkman (Craig Stevens) has to go on is piles of debris, massive furrows in the snow resembling skid marks, mystifying radar readings, and no sign of any bodies or human remains.
When Parkman’s crew find a sharp, green, hook-shaped fragment of an appendage at one site, they call in higher ups from the Pentagon and CONAD(Continental Air Defense), who have fancy rotary phones but alas, make no headway identifying the artifact’s origin or nature. One expert might help: a leading paleontologist with a talent for reconstructing whole prehistoric creatures from fragments, namely Ned Jackson (William Hopper). One look with his magnifying glass leads him to deduce this cartilage-based section must belong to something insectoid and “incredibly, unbelievably huge.”
Marjorie Blaine (Alix Talton) is a smart and classy media rep and photographer at Ned’s museum, a former reporter who’s first to figure out what’s going on when Ned is preoccupied. She’s the first to suggest the claw looks like part of a grasshopper or cricket, the first to wonder why nobody’s seen it yet, and the first of this crew to see it. When Marge goes with Ned to the Arctic, she makes a giant mantis-sized impression on all the military men and gets to be the first female they’ve seen in ages. After the mantis attacks an Inuit village and the radar station, it proceeds to buzz around North America wreaking havoc, so far, wide and fast I thought there was a whole swarm of them.
This movie could easily have been shorter and has too many talky scenes that feel like filler. That opening slow-mo scan across the map to show us where the volcano erupted, and then back up to the Arctic, takes longer than it would to travel the same distances in real life, and halfway through the picture Dr. Ned and company have a draggy jargon-filled conference, hashing out various possibilities before pointing at the mantis page in their book and telling us everything the movie’s title and opening credits already have.
Hopper and Stevens do the best they can, and it’s fun to watch them tackle this kind of dialogue seriously as well as react in amusement to the intentionally comic situations. There’s some extra interest added by going against the hinted romance between Dr. Ned and Marge, and pairing her instead with the less nerdy and more heroic Colonel Parkman. There are a few good images: I liked the search lights scanning the sky, random disaster reports over the radio, those two skyscraper guards in a “hold me I’m scared” embrace as the mantis peers at them through windows, the footage of the Aleutians, and the volunteer ground observers watching the sky and sending in reports (they even get thanked in the end credits).
The mantis moves too slowly on ground to be scary, but its look and scale are effectively unsettling, and it works really well when it’s unseen or shrouded in fog, smoke or darkness and left to the imagination. So my favourite part was a nighttime sequence in heavy fog, where Parkman and Marge stop at a train wreck and conclude it’s unrelated because they miss the telltale skid marks in the dirt. Moments later Parkman sneaks a kiss from Marge at a red light, while the mantis roars through town and flips a bus, right after a woman gets off at her stop. The mantis zips from there to terrorize Washington before getting the memo that movie monsters and supervillians are supposed to attack New York. Once near the Big Apple, the mantis faces full-on warfare, assault with heavy weapons, tracer fire and fighter jets. It ends up wounded and cornered in the Manhattan tunnel, which leads to another good sequence where the bug whines and howls in dense smoke and advances on the party tossing gas grenades.
“This is no place for romance,” says Marge, but once the Colonel saves her from the last stirrings of the Deadly Mantis, she gets more interested in him than in her mission of documenting the creature. “There’s your cover for next month’s magazine, Marge!” Take it yourself Ned, thinks Marge as she thanks the Colonel. For all my jokes and quibbles, this Nathan Juran movie was still good fun and a must for Big Bug movie fans.