Saturday, February 21, 1976: The Deadly Mantis (1957) / The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Synopsis: At a remote military observation post in the arctic, a pair of American airmen see a blip on their radar screen they aren’t able to identify. Moments later, they hear a harsh buzzing sound and their weather shack is wrecked. Later, a rescue team finds no trace of the men but does find a marks that seem to indicate something glided in and landed there. A C-47 transport in the same area crashes under mysterious circumstances. Investigators return to base with a strange spur-like object, about four feet long, that was lodged in the wreckage. At the Pentagon, a team of experts concludes that the object was broken off from a living creature of some kind, but are unable to make an identification.

Without a way forward, the experts suggest the Pentagon consult Dr. Nedrick Jackson (William Hopper), chief paleontologist at the Museum of Natural History in Washington; Jackson is renowned for his ability to do reconstructions based on scant evidence.

Summoned by the Pentagon, Jackson quickly concludes that the object isn’t made of bone, but cartilage, probably from some sort of insect. The editor of the museum magazine Marge Blaine (Alix Talton) presses him for more information but he can only speculate: the spur broke off a huge creature of some kind.

Blood tests later confirm Jackson’s theory that, as incredible as it seems, the attacks were caused by a gigantic insect — which Jackson believes could only be a preying mantis.

Asked to travel to the military base near where the attacks occurred, Jackson is surprised when Marge tells him she’s going too. She’s finagled passage on the military transport under the pretext of being Jackson’s photographer.

On arriving at the base, Marge meets Col. Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) and the two immediately hit it off. Parkman takes Jackson and Marge to the site of the plane crash, where they survey the damage and examine the marks left when the mantis glided in for a landing. That night, the mantis attacks the base, and conventional weapons like guns and flamethrowers are found to be ineffective against it.

Once the mantis flies away, jet fighters are unable to locate it, but a tip from a Canadian airbase leads helps them pick up the trail. The mantis has been traveling due south, and before long it travels down the east coast of the United States.

After an attack from a squadron of jet fighters, the mantis falls below the range of radar, and the trail is lost again. But before long it turns up in Washington, wreaking havoc on the nation’s capitol…..

Comments: Made during the height of the giant bug craze of the 1950s, this paint-by-numbers thriller was produced by William Alland, who’d worked on many of Universal’s sci-fi movies of that decade. It was directed by Nathan Juran, whose output was decidedly uneven (ranging from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and 20 Million Miles to Earth to The Brain from Planet Arous and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman). But while this wasn’t one of his better efforts, Juran isn’t the main problem here. Most of the issues with The Deadly Mantis can be traced back to the screenplay.

Martin Berkeley’s script tries to follow the template set by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but does so clumsily. Like Beast, this one starts in the arctic and ends in the United States. But while Beast was able to use its early scenes to build suspense, Mantis just marks time, using lots of stock footage along the way.

The romantic subplot is unusual for a film of this type: instead of pairing Marge with Ned Jackson, as we would expect from the movie’s early scenes, Marge instead falls for Col. Parkman. This surprises many first-time viewers (Parkman’s character, though introduced early, isn’t central to the action until the second half), and seems to have been done in order to paper over a serious structural flaw in the story.

The problem is this: once Dr. Jackson has identified the mysterious creature as a giant insect, there isn’t any reason to keep him hanging around, except as a means for Parkman to meet Marge. Even transporting him to the arctic base seems redundant; by this point we already know what attacked the plane and the weather shack. But waiting so long to get Parkman to the center of things creates some confusion as to who the hero really is. Only Steven’s top billing, and the fact that he “gets the girl”, will tip you off that he’s the main character.

Despite the lackluster script, the movie works well enough to pass muster, and I remember liking it fine when I was a kid. It’s entirely derivative of earlier films, but Universal was clearly looking to keep giant monster product in the pipeline, and this one follows the formula. Judged on its own merits, it’s a perfectly serviceable, almost generic 50’s monster movie.

We’ve seen William Hopper before on Horror Incorporated; he played Col. Calder in 20 Million Miles from Earth and would soon be cast as Paul Drake on the Perry Mason TV series, which would keep him busy for the next decade. Never an actor with a lot of range, he’s fine here, though I found it a bit hard to accept him as a renowned paleontologist. I suspect the role was written with a somewhat older actor in mind.

Craig Stevens is best-known for playing Peter Gunn on television. He seems rather subdued here as Parkman, but his part isn’t written to stand out in any way. The same could be said for Alix Talton, who plays a standard-issue love interest. Early on it looks as though her character will get some interesting things to do, as she volunteers her services as photographer in order to get to the arctic. But before long she’s simply falling into the nearest pair of brawny arms. I rather liked Talton’s look, and wish she’d had more of a career; this appears to be the largest role she ever had. She did a number of guest shots in TV shows in the 1960s before disappearing from the screen.

Murders in the Rue Morgue

Synopsis:Medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Waycoff) is at a carnival with his beloved Camille L’Espanaye (Sidney Fox). They enter the exhibit of Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) who has a gorilla named Erik. Mirakle claims to be able to speak Erik’s ancient simian language, then goes on to talk about his personal theories about evolution. At the end of his presentation he urges Camille to come closer to Erik, but when she does so Erik lunges at her, grabbing her and stealing her bonnet. Dr. Mirakle apologizes and tells her that if she gives him her address, he’ll send her a new one. Pierre is suspicious and tells her not to do so.

But Mirakle will not be deterred. He has Camille followed and gets her address anyway.

Meanwhile, the police are baffled by a series of prostitute killings, and we learn Dr. Mirakle is the culprit. Picking up streetwalkers and bringing them home, Mirakle injects them with gorilla’s blood, with the stated intention of finding out the “true connection” between humans and apes. But the blood of prostitutes is “dirty”, according to Mirakle; he needs a woman with pure blood. And so he plots to kidnap Camille and use her to prove his theory of human – ape kinship….

Comments: The stories of Edgar Allan Poe are justifiably famous, but they tend to be long on atmosphere and short on plot. For this reason, films based upon them take plenty of liberties. We’ve already seen what Hollywood did with The Raven and The Black Cat; and tonight we get to see what they make of “The Murders In the Rue Morgue”.

Like a lot of adaptations this one comes off better if you’ve never read the story it’s based upon. Understandably, a lot of changes had to be made in translation. But this adaptation is particularly distressing because it throws out everything that made the short story interesting and memorable.

That story – widely credited as the first detective tale – was published in 1841. It describes how a brilliant, penniless young man named C. Auguste Dupin solves a sensational double homicide that has baffled the Paris police department. The circumstances surrounding the murders are what we would describe today as a classic “locked-room” mystery: two women are found dead in their home, one nearly decapitated and the other beaten and strangled, her body pushed up the chimney by an enormously strong assailant. The door is locked from the inside, and the only windows the killer could have escaped from are nailed shut, also from the inside.

Dupin solves the mystery simply by applying his keen, disciplined mind to the problem, identifying and rejecting irrelevant clues and logically working his way through the facts until he arrives at the correct solution. That an amateur easily, almost effortlessly, solves this “insoluble” mystery is one thing. That he does so basically as a lark is quite another, and it makes C. August Dupin one of the most fascinating and enigmatic characters in literature.

But for the screen adaptation, the writers felt it was necessary to dismantle the elaborate puzzle-box that Poe had constructed and sand down the rough edges from their protagonist. Camille L’Espanayle is no longer one of the two murder victims. She has been pulled from the chimney, brought back to life, and transformed into Dupin’s girlfriend. Dupin (inexplicably renamed Pierre) is now a poor medical student, rather than an eccentric bohemian.

And the screenwriters, needing an antagonist, dreamed up a character named Dr. Mirakle, played with scenery-chewing zest by Bela Lugosi, an actor who was still basking in the success of the previous year’s Dracula. Mirakle’s motivations are shaky throughout — he seems to find Camille herself alluring, yet also wants her blood for his experiments proving human-ape kinship. This all figures (or is supposed to figure, somehow) into his theories of evolution. That Darwin’s On the Origin of Species would not be published until 1859 is apparently ignored. And why not? Mirakle’s motive doesn’t make sense anyway.

Lugosi is at least amusing as Dr. Mirakle; the same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the other principles. Leon Waycoff’s Dupin is an insufferable and ineffectual dullard, only a pale shadow of Poe’s creation. Diminutive leading lady Sidney Fox is certainly cute, but sweetness seems to be the only quality she can project.
As for Erik the gorilla, we get a man in a suit for the distant shots, and a chimpanzee for the close-ups. Movie audiences in 1932 were apparently much more forgiving in those days.

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