Wrap Shot: Them! and The Deadly Mantis

Behind the scenes of the iconic films Them! (1954) and The Deadly Mantis (1957).

George E. Turner

Giant bugs first arrived in Hollywood in 1954 and remained for several years thereafter. This invasion began with Them!, a Warner Bros. picture in which elephant-sized ants, supposedly created by atomic bomb tests in the desert, descended upon Los Angeles as charmingly as a Hell's Angels convention. This surprisingly good flick the studio's largest-grossing picture of the year was followed by numerous imitations from other producers, who pressed into service almost every genus of insect and backyard pest (with the possible exception of the tumblebug).

Some independent companies leapt aboard the bug wagon, with mostly appalling results; among the horrors that surfaced were giant spiders in World Without End, monstrous grasshoppers in The Beginning of the End, huge wasps in The Monster from Green Hell, and another not so itsy-bitsy arachnid in the creatively titled The Spider. Somewhat better was The Black Scorpion, in which high-grade animation effects by Willis O'Brien and Pete Peterson lost a valiant battle against tight-fisted production values. Not too dissimilar were movies about lizards, rodents, mollusks, and other creatures that attained humongous onscreen proportions during the era of post-bomb paranoia.

Most of the best bugs emerged from producer William Alland's unit at Universal-International, where the scripts weren't much better but good production values and superior special effects made a lot of difference. The first of U-I's multi-legged menaces appeared in Tarantula (1956), a triumph of macro-photography and optical compositing in which an actual spider convincingly tramples actual Mojave scenery while terrorizing real people. Cinematographer Clifford Stine, ASC was in charge of the visual effects, and Fred Knoth supervised the mechanical effects.

Photo Courtesy of Ronald V. Borst/Hollywood Movie Poster

The still shown here is from The Deadly Mantis (1957), U-I's second refugee from the garden. The picture was shot by Ellis W. Carter, ASC and directed by Nathan Juran. The praying mantis, while harmless to humans, is the T. Rex of its own world, with an instinct to dismember any fellow insect it may encounter, including its own kind. A specimen so large as to make these autos look like models which, of course, they are would be a monster indeed. Instead of working with a real mantis, the effects department constructed two versions of their star an articulated one for action on terra firma, and another with flappable wings for flying scenes. Operated in real time via rods and wires, the creature created havoc in Washington, D.C. and Manhattan before succumbing to poison gas. Optical effects, miniatures and rear projection were applied in heroic doses to make the critter seem very much alive and among us. Actors Craig Stevens, Alix Talton and William Hopper ran the first line of defense.

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