1/11/07

804 The Deadly Mantis

(1957, Horror-Giant Critter, b&w)

She’s like a butterfly, gliding across the lily pond.

Rating: **

In a nutshell:

A paleontologist and a handsome colonel battle a gigantic preying mantis.

Summary:

Oh, THAT mantis.  Thank you for specifying.The camera focuses on a map of the world, panning slowly from place to place until we reach a tiny island in the middle of the South Atlantic. Volcanoes erupt and mountains collapse. A voice-over reminds us, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The camera pans northwards past Greenland, where icebergs crash and melt, revealing the giant eponymous insect. The opening credits roll.

When the credits finish we go back to the map, while the voice-over painstakingly details our country’s northern defenses. Eventually the voice-over gives way to stock footage, and finally (about a quarter of the way through the film) to flesh-and-blood actors. Colonel Joe Parker and his eager sidekick investigate a collapsed radar shed. They find giant insect footprints, but no bodies. Later, they investigate a fallen plane, surrounded by similar footprints. Here they find a long hook, such as a giant insect might use to swat down planes.

Back in Washington, a mustached general is at his wit’s end. His scientists can’t figure out the origins of the mysterious giant insect hook. At their suggestion, he employs paleontologist Dr. Ned Jackson to investigate. Ned and his photographer Marge identify it as the hook of a preying mantis, and then fly north to investigate further. Their efforts to discover its size soon become unnecessary, as the mantis appears to chase enlisted men and gobble down Inuits.

The mantis heads south, towards the USA, and the mustached general begs the populace to watch the skies for it. It appears in New England where it knocks over a bus, interrupting Colonel Joe’s advances towards Marge. It appears in D.C. to perch at the top of the Washington Monument. Navy fighters finally catch up with it over Newark. Colonel Joe bails out just before he crashes his plane into it, forcing it to land. Wounded, it crawls into the Lincoln Tunnel. Colonel Joe leads a squad of rubber-suited men into the smoky tunnel to gas it to death.

After the smoke has cleared, Ned, Joe, Marge, and the mustached general go in to have a look. Ned agrees to snap pictures of the mantis for Marge so she can make out with Joe.

Introduction:

The fated event that set the ape apocalypse in motion.Tom shows up in a polo shirt and blazer to lay down the rules for “Business Casual Day.” Since Mike is the only one who regularly wears clothes, Tom reads him a long list of rules, such as, “No chaps without pants.” Mike refuses to participate.

Host Segment One:

Down on the ape planet, a trio of harmonizing bomb-worshipers has brought their holy thermonuclear device to the apes for service. They sing adulation to the bomb while Bobo and Peanut struggle to repair the malfunctioning detonator. Mike inadvertently tells them how to fix it, provoking panic both above and below the planet. Mike bugs the nanites into fixing the ship while Pearl runs for shelter. The Satellite of Love leaves orbit as the planet explodes behind them. “I feel a disturbance,” says Crow, “as if a million monkeys cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.”

Host Segment Two:

Mike and the ‘Bots hold a memorial service for Pearl and all the dead apes. As he delivers the eulogy, Tom struggles to think of something good about Pearl’s life, but ends up by simply saying, “She was alive.” Pearl shows up in a deep space VW bus, firing a revolver out the window. Bobo has stowed away, so she hands him the gun and tells him to keep shooting. He accidentally shoots off two of his toes, distracting Pearl long enough for Gypsy to hide the satellite behind an asteroid.

Host Segment Three:

Mike falls asleep while driving, and almost swerves into oncoming traffic. He searches the radio frequencies for something to keep him awake. (Your crank is turned to Frank.) Each and every station only plays whiny, depressing country music. “Hangin’ around with a rodeo clown in the back of my GMC…”

Host Segment Four:

Tom doesn’t know how to drive, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. He runs over a large felt alien. Crow brings it inside. It shows its gratitude by eating him.

Host Segment Five:

Crow has turned the alien into meatloaf. Gypsy has received a letter from Dr. Peanut. Apparently the force of the blast blew him backwards in time to pre-apocalypse Wisconsin, where he met and fell in love with one of Mike’s descendents. In the cab of the VW, Bobo begs Pearl for some sweet corn. Pearl interrupts her parting threats to say no. They get tangled up when they try to switch seats.

Stinger:

Quoth the eager sidekick, “She’s like a butterfly, gliding across the lily-pond.”

Thoughts:

After a long, strict diet of servicemen and Inuits, the mantis happily scarfs down the tangy natives of Jersey.So, a volcano erupting in the South Atlantic can make icebergs melt near the North Pole? I guess it’s more plausible than the proverbial Brazilian butterfly that causes tornados in Texas, but I still don’t see the connection. Did the heat shoot across Greenland, destroying all in its path? You’d think the narrator would have mentioned something like that.

What he does mention is a lot of boring details about our northern radar defenses. We spend most of the opening scenes looking at a map. I understand the need to pad a B-Movie to meet the required running time and still come in under budget, but is it really in the movie’s best interest to shove all the padding to the beginning? If I were watching this in the drive-in I could have spent the first quarter of the film at the concession stand and not missed a thing.

Once the film gets moving, though, it moves pretty well, flowing easily from point A to point B and so on, not wasting time, but not taking us anywhere unexpected. From the mantis’ first attack on the radar station to its inevitable death in the tunnel, it’s a competent if rather bland and predictable Giant Critter film.

Of note: the shrieking, bewildered populace generally found in this kind of movie forgoes its usual appearance. There’s an obligatory hysterical female or two, but most of the population remains calm and collected, stalwartly scanning the horizon for insect invaders.

Also: if you lock them away in the Arctic for long enough, hardened soldiers apparently turn into blubbering little mama’s boys at the sight of a middle-aged woman.

This is the first of three episodes in which Mike destroys a planet by accident. (The others are The She-Creature and Riding With Death.) I think the bomb-worshiping glee club is a reference to some classic SciFi movie or other, but I don’t know what it is. They’re pretty funny though. Pearl’s deep space VW is perfect for her, and Bobo makes an excellent foil. The felt alien subplot was funny but not really all that developed. I enjoyed the reference to TV’s Frank’s radio station and those country songs were deliciously awful. I can still hear Mary Jo Pehl’s voice whining through my head. “Hangin’ around with a rodeo clown…”

Considering the endless padding at the beginning and the flavorless quality of the rest of the film, this episode could have been really, really boring. Fortunately, the SOL crew steps up and manages to fill the lengthy gaps in the action. As the icebergs melt at the beginning, Tom says, “Here in the frosting mines of Minnesota, Betty Crocker’s slaves work ‘round the clock.” As the narrator exhaustively explains our defenses, Crow says, “After all this effort, how could we ever really disarm?” As Colonel Joe leads his rubber-suited troops in for the kill, Mike adds the obligatory, “This is a bug hunt, man!” It’s not a very exciting episode, but a heroic effort by the Mike and the ‘Bots make it worth at least one viewing.