A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 505 – The Deadly Mantis

The Deadly Mantis – July 18th, 2011

For a giant monster action scream-fest this movie sure starts slow. First we get some cartography, then a nice lengthy lesson on radar and how we’re apparently using it to keep an eye on those shifty Canadians up north. Seriously, the first ten minutes of this movie are spent showing us maps of places and talking about the “Pine Tree Radar Fence” on the “unfortified Canadian border.” Then people talk over radios and nothing happens. Not precisely the sort of thing that grabs you by your lapels and drags you forward in your seat. Unless you’re a radar/Canada conspiracy theorist (okay, okay, I know it was Russia we were so worried about, but they’re never mentioned and the movie focuses a lot on “The North”).

We bought this ages ago, back when we worked at the video store in Pennsylvania. At the time we grabbed it because it was a cheap used VHS cassette of a movie MST3K had done. And we were amused by the idea of owning un-MSTed versions of MST3K movies, which is why we own Danger: Diabolik and Overdrawn at the Memory Bank and of course, Warrior of the Lost World. I’d marked it down as something we’d seen, because I know we’ve watched the MST3K episode all the way through, but then watching it tonight I realized that perhaps I hadn’t paid much attention to it. Vast swaths of the movie were brand new to me. Far more than could be accounted for by the editing done for MST3K’s bumpers and commercials. Ah well, I’ve seen it all now!

Truth to be told, I don’t think I’d missed much. It’s not that this is a horrible movie. On the contrary, it has some fairly well done effects for a movie of its kind. The giant mantis is nicely done and really, I can’t fault a movie for having Action Paleontology. It’s fun, really, seeing the military guys sitting around debating what to do and being somewhat clueless about this mysterious threat that’s destroyed outposts and whatnot, and then calling in The Scientist. I love seeing scientists as the go-to heroes in movies like this. Modern movies like The Rock and Jurassic Park do it too, putting scientists in lead roles and making them the ones who know what’s going on, but in older movies, like this and This Island Earth the scientists don’t play second fiddle to anyone. They’re heroes, by virtue of being smart. So I give the movie credit there, though This Island Earth gets slightly more thanks to having female scientists as well as male. Still this movie also has a fairly strong female lead, even if it does undermine her at the end.

As I mentioned, the movie starts out slow. There’s a lot of explanation here to set up the whole concept of the giant pre-historic mantis stuck in the ice in the arctic and freed apparently by a volcanic eruption down near Antarctica. And then lots more explanation for how it would be detected and why we’ve got soldiers stationed up in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. And what’s frustrating about that is that it’s not necessary. Who cares why the ice floe that held the mantis broke off, freeing it? And the soldiers and radar net or whatever? That’s all explained in context later on in dialogue between the various characters as they puzzle over the broken off bit of bug that gets found after one of the attacks. Was that part of the movie just propaganda to inform people about how well we were protected from Commies coming over the North Pole? No clue.

Once everything is explained we get our hero, Dr. Ned Jackson, and his intrepid journalist pal, Marge Blaine up north to encounter the mantis for themselves. Ned and Marge both work at the Museum of Natural History, Ned as a paleontologist and Marge as the editor of the museum’s magazine. Now, this is where the movie lost some of the good will I had towards it for having a paleontologist as the hero. Because once they go up to the Army base to take a look at the giant mantis tracks Marge is reduced to being a walking pair of breasts. The Army guys are all agog at her very existence and she’s treated as if she’s incompetent for the rest of the movie. Of course one of the Army guys ends up romancing her after the mantis is dead, telling her to leave the photography to Ned. Haha! Now that she has a man she doesn’t have to do that silly career stuff!

All in all, I was enjoying the movie well enough as a 50s monster movie but it sort of washed over me at times. It didn’t hold my interest terribly well. I’d look up and realize something was happening. I cheered when klaxons sounded because it meant there were things going on. And then suddenly they were trapping the mantis in a tunnel and shooting it with lots of big weapons and then it was dead. And I hadn’t realized that much time had gone by. I think it was all the talking. I don’t mind that there’s a good deal of discussion here because a lot of it is science talk about drawing conclusions based on evidence and so on. But then there’s other talk that just seemed to pad the film out a bit. Like I said, it’s not really a horrible film, but it is slow. Much slower than a monster movie should be. It’s got its high points and there are parts of it I quite like. But it suffers from all the nothing that happens in between the parts where the mantis is destroying stuff.

July 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Deadly Mantis

July 18, 2011

The Deadly Mantis

Here’s another movie we bought after seeing it riffed on MST3K. I have always been a fan of fifties monster movies, but I don’t know if I would have added this to our collection if we hadn’t had the MST connection. It’s not quite bad enough to be notable for its laughable qualities (like some of Roger Corman’s movies.) It doesn’t feature actors who went on to be stars in small roles (no Clint Eastwood or Peter Graves.) It doesn’t really stand out in my mind from other movies of the day. It is a great way to look at the tropes of the genre though.

As we watched the movie un-MiSTed for the first time we both commented on the fact that it does kind of require riffing. It starts out so very slowly! I think that the problem is that the movie is trying so hard to make it’s monster plausible. The film makers spend a lot of time trying to ground the events of the film in the real world, which makes things very slow to start.

The first shot of the movie is a very – very – slow pan over a map of the world zooming in on a volcano in the middle of the ocean deep in the southern hemnisphere. Then it pans up to the north pole, where it is implied that the volcanic activity has caused the ice on the edge of a vast glacier to fall away revealing a giant preying mantis encased in the ice. (Presumably this is the same iceberg that let loose the megashark and giant octopus in the Asylum film of the same title.)

Before the mantis can make with the killing and menacing though this movie briefly morphs into a documentary about the radar fences that defend our country from a sneak attack over the north pole. It’s an odd decision that makes the somewhat slow opening of the movie feel even more awkwardly paced.

Now Stephen Spielberg has famously said that in Jaws he built the tension by not showing the shark until the third act of the movie. This movie is evidence that this notion hardly originated with Senior Spielbergo – it’s just common sense in a monster movie. The deadly mantis is slowly built up through a series of attacks where we don’t get to see it in action. It breaks into an isolated radar station in the frozen north and devours a couple of airmen left there to monitor the skies leaving nothing behind but a wrecked shack and a strange clawprint in the Styrofoam snow outside. Then it attack a plane in the sky, again leaving not a sign of the plane’s occupants but breaking off a giant toenail clipping.

Then the movie stops following the mantis’ attacks and instead introduces us to a paleontologist who is brought in to figure out what kind of creature is causing this destruction. The reasoning of the colonel in charge of stopping the attacks, and the crack team of scientists he assembles, is that no creature alive today would leave behind this clipping, so it must have come off of a creature that is thought to be extinct. A paleontologist, they figure, is used to reconstructing a prehistoric creature using only the tiniest scraps of evidence. What’s amazing is they’re perfectly right – this guy figures out exactly what the monster is from just its toenail clippings and so he and his plucky reporter sidekick rush off to the north in search of it – just in time to be there when we finally get a glimpse of the deadly mantis, which wrecks the building they’re having a meeting in.

The enormous insect then proceeds to fly in a generally southwesterly direction, followed by radar, fighter jets and ground spotters who have giant charts of known enemy aircraft (Russian I presume) but no entamological charts. It menaces Washington DC very briefly, then it flies off again – impervious to bullets and missiles, until finally a brave airforce pilot rams it with his plane, and it takes refuge in a tunnel somewhere.

I do have to say that although this movie is strangely paced, kind of bland, and prone to long winded lectures when maybe some action and mayhem would liven things up, it does have a very cool monster. The mantis is a series of well done puppets and a couple shots of a real mantis on tiny models of DC landmarks. (It reminds me a lot of the forced perspective work and locusts on postcards in The Beginning of the End which came out in the same year, but this director doesn’t have Bert I Gordon’s passion for the material.) For the rousing conclusion in the tunnel they even have a parade-float sized version of the monster that waves its serrated fore-limbs about and has an articulated mouth.

It seems that a reasonable amount of actual research went into this movie, or at least the writer read a couple encyclopedia articles while dashing off the script. Certainly the movie misses no opportunity to have one of its characters talk at length about the science behind the creature. In the end though it’s just a kind of bland movie that almost completely failed to keep my attention while it was on. With its odd pacing and constant strange digressions from the main plot of a giant insect crawling around on landmarks and smashing buildings this movie simply begs for riffing. I need to find the tape we recorded the MST episode on now.

July 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment