Nathan Juran’s The Deadly Mantis may be a product of the 50’s “Giant Bug” craze but – as with any craze – there’s always gems hidden amidst the quickly crafted fodder. 1957: Cold War fever gripped Hollywood and had the communist forces translated as empowered single-minded eating-machines capable of destruction on a massive scale. Along with cultural anxieties towards the enemy came a growing threat from household bugs, as published in daily magazines and “scientific studies”. The result was a late 50’s boom in creature features which often subjected man to the destructive after-effects of the Nuclear Bomb.
The Deadly Mantis was the first of the Creature Features to put Washington D.C. in harm’s way. Mounting tensions between Russia and America, along with a dwindling list of locations in which to wreak havoc, meant that the capital was always going to be the perfect place for a Big Bug showdown. The film’s capacity for propaganda is ridiculous and, to the modern viewer, frankly quant. The opening segments are war-time documentaries, explain the positions and functions of America’s various radar. The film then goes on to live out the fantasy of attack, allowing Americans to see how their defences might hold up against an unthinkable enemy. At one point, perhaps comically, the people of America are told to listen out for the wings of the Mantis which ‘sound like a squadron of heavy bombers’.
Juran is clearly well-aware of the type of film he’s putting together, abandoning his pre-war Oscar-winning credits to tackle the post-war hunger for escapism. The quality of the film and its direction are undeniable, and a huge reason why it still works today. The production values are impressive, the Mantis itself looks absolutely gorgeous (read: absolutely foul), and the miniatures are crafted so well, and edited so seamlessly, that the feature rarely looks silly. When the Mantis clambers its way towards an Artic Base, you’ll stop to consider how well the thing moves but also how impressive the explosions and scenes of chaos are. Similarly when it scales the Washington Monument, hunts a coach through thick fog, or skulks around in the Manhattan Tunnel, you’ll commend Juran for giving his Mantis ample chance to terrify the audience.
A terrific example of B-Movie escapism, The Deadly Mantis is also a fascinating piece of cinema history which says more about the Socio-political climate of the 50’s than it does, perhaps, about the dangers of Nuclear War.
Dir: Nathan Juran
Stars: Craig Stevens, William Hopper, Alex Talton