Saturday, October 28, 1978: The Deadly Mantis (1957) / House of Horrors (1946)

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.

So why wasn’t Dr. Jackson paired off with Marge in the first place? My guess is that Dr. Nedrick Jackson was intended as a much older character — like Cecil Kellaway’s grandfatherly paleontologist in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

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.

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.

House of Horrors

Synopsis: A spectacularly unsuccessful sculptor named Marcel De Lange (Martin Kosleck) is dining on bread and cheese by candlelight. It’s bread and cheese because he doesn’t have anything else to eat; and it’s by candlelight because the electricity in his loft has been shut off. But he is in good spirits because a wealthy patron of the arts is coming over soon to buy his latest creation for $1,000.
But when the patron arrives, he is accompanied by a supercilious art critic named F. Holmes Harmon (Alan Napier) who insults the work and implores the buyer not to go through with it. The sale is ruined.

Despondent, De Lange walks down to the river bridge. He is about to throw himself in when he sees a half-drowned man surface near the riverbank. He goes down to help the large, ungainly fellow out of the water, and returns to the loft, where he nurses him back to health.
He sees this man as “the perfect Neanderthal” and is inspired to create a new sculpture of his primitive cranium. It turns out that the stranger is an escaped murderer called The Creeper (Rondo Hatton), and his m.o. is to snap his victim’s spines. The police believe he is dead, and at first it isn’t clear to De Lange what sort of man he’s taken into his home.
But it becomes clear soon enough: The Creeper murders a streetwalker in the neighborhood (because “she screamed”, as the Creeper succinctly explains), and when De Lange angrily reads Harmon’s snarky write-up of his foiled sale, The Creeper gets up and leaves.

Meanwhile, reporter Joan Medford (Virginia Grey) visits her colleague F. Holmes Harmon. She is upset that Harmon plans to write a savage review of her boyfriend Steven Morrow (Robert Lowery) and his planned exhibit of commercial illustrations (pinups, which appear to be Morrow’s speciality). Harmon finds pop art in general to be contemptible, and Morrow’s work particularly vulgar; he is determined to ruin Morrow with another poison-pen letter to the art world.
Enter the Creeper. He kills Harmon and slips away. Because Harmon was working on a hit piece against Morrow when he died, police suspicion falls on him.
De Lange realizes that all he need do is express contempt for an art critic — or anyone, really — and hey presto, he reads that person’s obituary in the next day’s paper. Bringing the Creeper into his life has given him an incredible feeling of power, and if that weren’t enough, his sculpture of the Creeper is going well — in fact, we suspect it’s the first decent piece of art he’s ever created.
As the body count rises, Medford visits De Lange’s loft. She says she is looking for a story for her Sunday column — but is she? Why does she steal a sketch of the Creeper that De Lange has hidden? And what will happen to her when he –and the Creeper — find out?

Comments: House of Horrors is a distinctly minor film, but in a bargain-basement way it toys with some interesting themes: the root causes of victimhood, the nature of power, and the price of outsourcing your dirty work to somebody else.
These two movies will probably never be mentioned in the same sentence again, but while watching House of Horrors I was reminded of the 1980 high school flick My Bodyguard, with Martin Kosleck standing in as the picked-on teen and Rondo Hatton the bully who becomes the instrument of his deliverance.
The character of De Lange, after all, is living in a perpetual state of adolescent victimhood: he is downtrodden, ignored, cut deeply and constantly by the taunts of the art critics who delight in humiliating him. He burns with a teenager’s need to have his inner talents recognized. And like a teenager, his rage is as palpable as his frustration. “If I was big and strong,” he says to the Creeper at one point, “I would tear them apart with my bare hands”. He clenches his hands fitfully when he says these lines, imploring his powerful friend to act on his behalf.
And of course the Creeper does act, though he doesn’t do anything that De Lange couldn’t have done for himself. De Lange clearly lacks the strength to snap the spines of his adversaries, but murder by other means was always an option. It was the will to commit murder that De Lange lacked, the willingness to pay the moral price for an act of savagery.
Similarly, he blames Harmon and the other hostile critics for the grinding poverty he endures — even though Morrow, held in equal contempt by Harmon, does quite well financially. In fact Harmon dismisses Morrow’s success, on the grounds that “dollar signs don’t equal talent”.

We know De Lange doesn’t have money; but looking around his studio, it isn’t clear that he has much talent either. The sculpture he nearly sells, “Surcease From Toil”, really is dreadful.
The bust of the Creeper, by contrast, is quite good; there is a classical grace as well as a brooding power behind it. It isn’t exactly clear why the Creeper is willing to kill for De Lange. The sculptor has almost nothing to offer except, perhaps, his friendship. That the Creeper craves the friendship of another human being may seem unlikely. Nonetheless it is touching when the Creeper, surprised that De Lange isn’t afraid of him, extends his hand: “You’re my friend. Shake.” This childlike quality is engaging, but we see too little of it in House of Horrors; mostly the Creeper skulks around and kills the people De Lange wants dead, as though he were a personification of the sculptor’s id. That’s an idea just arty enough to appeal to De Lange and I’m surprised he didn’t suggest it himself.
Martin Kosleck appeared as nutty wax sculptor Rudi in The Frozen Ghost, and in spite of Robert Lowery’s top billing, his Marcel De Lange is the closest thing we have to a protagonist. Kosleck doesn’t disappoint in this film; as always his soft, accented voice works as a perfect counterpoint to his razor-sharp gaze, which can convey anger or madness — or both.

Rondo Hatton doesn’t get top billing either, but this movie was designed as a vehicle for him and his peculiar physiognomy. Hatton suffered from a glandular condition called acromegaly, the symptoms of which weren’t apparent until he was well into adulthood. The condition gradually altered the shape of his head and distorted his body and facial features, giving him a coarse, brutal appearance.
Virginia Grey rattles off snappy dialogue throughout (when her boyfriend complains that she works too many odd hours, she replies, “You should get yourself a nice fireside type. She’ll bore you to death, but you’ll always know where to find her”). Her performance isn’t particularly memorable, though she parades through the movie wearing a dizzying array of hats, which seem to grow more and more outrageous as the movie goes on.
The character of Harmon is played by Alan Napier, a talented and versatile actor who inexplicably found his greatest fame playing Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, on the TV series Batman.

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