The best directed parts of The Deadly Mantis are when the film is propaganda for the military. Director Juran–and editor Chester W. Schaeffer–show more enthusiasm when putting together those brief expository segments than they do anywhere else in the film. Given it’s about a giant praying mantis thawed out from the Artic who eats people, one might think the enthusiasm belongs somewhere else. But, no. Air defense, Red Scare and maybe a little paleontological awe.
Juran certainly isn’t enthusiastic about his actors. Deadly Mantis’s stock footage gets better treatment than its actors. Lead Craig Stevens is pretty lame, so there’s nothing to be done with him. He spouts exposition or hears exposition or tells love interest Alix Talton to settle down and let the men handle things. It’s unfortunate, because Talton’s arc is then going from being self-sufficient and professionally respected to being an Air Force colonel’s squeeze. I suppose it’s affably handled. Steven’s isn’t offensively lame, he just can’t hack it.
William Hopper–as Talton’s friend and the super-cool scientist who figures things out but was also in the service so he’s not a nerd, you know (he doesn’t wear glasses)–is bored but he’s kind of great. Perpetually laid back. Like his paleontologist drinks some herbal tea and it chills him out. Or maybe it’s having spent his life named Nedrick. Regardless of Hopper’s acting motivation, Deadly Mantis is far more tolerable when he’s around. When it’s him and Talton bantering about science and government secrets? It’s probably at its best. Juran doesn’t direct the scenes well, but the museum set is one of the film’s more detailed.
The set design and the special effects are another problem. There’s no enthusiasm to the special effects. The sets at least have to match the stock footage and the set decorators Oliver Emert and Russell A. Gausman work at it. Deadly Mantis might be “stock footage theatre” but it’s well-integrated stock footage theatre. Except with the special effects. Mantis has lots of conceptual problems as a giant monster movie–like the giant monster doesn’t destroy anything and it attacks single people and there’s no eating people scenes. It’s a metaphor about trusting the military to protect us against the Russians first, giant monster movie second. It’s Juran’s fault. If he were doing better work, he’d pull up the rest of the production. None of its problems are insurmountable. Not even Berkeley’s script.
Solid black and white photography from Ellis W. Carter. It’s never breathtaking or even close to it, but it’s affable. It has more personality than the direction.
Really amusing supporting performances from Donald Randolph and Florenz Ames. And Pat Conway’s nice to have around, especially during Stevens’s expository scenes.
Maybe the nicest thing I can say–other than Talton and Hopper deserved a better film–is The Deadly Mantis never disappoints. It’s got a rocky, unpromising open and it never even implies it might significantly improve.