Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
There are A-1 50s monster movies like Them!, and there are the also-rans such as this offering from the producers of Harryhausen's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Perhaps thinking their earlier hit wasn't a fluke, they decided to try again with The Black Scorpion, a derivative thriller that must have looked pretty silly next to the similar Big Bug duds The Beginning of the End and The Deadly Mantis which came out in the same year. Good special effects can't hide from a bad script, and are almost ruined anyway by some editorial monkeying with a ridiculous puppet-head that screams at the camera every six seconds or so. It's one of Willis O'Brien's last efforts, with most of the animation done by his unheralded assistant Pete Peterson.
Violent volcanic eruptions lay waste to a vast area of rural Mexico. Geologists Hank Scott (Richard Denning) and Artur Ramos (Carlos Rivas) help out as best they can and meet rancher Teresa Alvarez (Mara Corday). When giant scorpions emerge from the volcanic vents in the Earth, the two heroes lower themselves into one of the deepest fissures to find out what horrors are hidden below.
Dietz and Melford, having lost the services of Ray Harryhausen to Columbia's Charles H. Schneer, dug back and found the only other ace stop motion animators at work in Hollywood. Willis O'Brien had spent almost a decade trying to get projects through development while producers bought his ideas cheap and turned them inside out. Obie's intention to animate another classic monster was repeatedly sidelined - his name might end up on the credits for the sake of status, as happened with 1960's The Lost World, but few producers let him do his work. One of them took his story about a monster called Prometheus and snuck away to Tokyo, where it eventually became King Kong vs. Godzilla. Another story idea was split into two, with each half produced in Mexico as The Brave One and The Beast of Hollow Mountain, the latter with atrocious stop-motion animation done by other hands.
The producers of The Black Scorpion made their film in Mexico as well, except not as a co-production. As legend has it, the effects were done in tiny studios rented by Pete Peterson and Willis O'Brien, and even in their garages at home.
The story of The Black Scorpion is a real drag, assembled from every big monster attack film on the books. The acting is decent, except for an incredibly annoying Kid who tags along to plague the heroes, whining 'I want to hee-lp yew!" at the top of his lungs. This one is played by Mario Navarro, and if you need another excuse to dislike him, he was also one of the brats that got Charles Bronson shot dead in The Magnificent Seven.
But the script takes forever to get going, while crowds of refugees flee volcanoes and the rumored giant scorpions. Not until a scorpion freed from an ancient piece of amber turns out to be alive, do things get going. The rest of the script is a timewaster to tie together four Big Bug set pieces.
An attack on a ranch has some effective moments and good animation, especially the opening when some telephone linemen are gobbled up by the titanic monsters. Next comes a journey into a subterranean nest of slimy-crawly insectoid horrors, kind of a dry-land version of the diving bell setup from Harryhausen's The Beast. Not only are there scorpions down there, but strange prehistoric worm-things and a trap-door spider that pursues little Mario Navarro. To our dismay, it doesn't catch him. Some of this footage shows unusual scratches that have always been there; Savant suspects that it had to be duped from a work print after its negative was lost.
Even better is a chilling midnight attack on a passenger train by scorpions big enough to derail a locomotive. This variation on the famous El wreck in King Kong has a nightmarish tinge, as the lightning-fast scorpions use their claws chopsticks to snap up hapless survivors as if they were grains of rice. A scorpion holds one squirming man up to the moonlight before chowing down on him.
The finale in a Mexico City stadium is an excuse to pull out all the stops, with the surviving giant scorpion (who has thoughtfully killed the others, we're told) battling trucks, tanks and helicopters.
The animation is ambitious and grandiose, with as many as three scorpions on screen at a time moving their 24 legs in staccato steps. It must have been a stop-motion animation headache, and key technician Pete Peterson was said to suffer from arthritis. In the stadium battle the scorpion and several vehicles are constantly moving and struggling at the same time, with superimposed explosions working as well. Stop-motion animators will be impressed, and you can bet that the film was studied often. In the underground cave scene, I remember seeing a few measuring braces pop in from time to time, at least on an analog copy of the show.
Scorpions are quick, aggressive xenomorphic horrors, and The Black Scorpion exploits them fairly well. But the film is emotionally dead because there's no way to give character to such a robotic beast -- the ugly bugs just don't have personalities, no matter how you cut it. Making matters worse is the ridiculous big rubber scorpion face that is thrust at us in dozens of unwelcome cuts, drooling and screaming, and not for a moment matching anything in the animation. I can imagine O'Brien bringing his latest shots to the cutting room, only to find out that Dietz has cooked up this disgusting rubber face-thing to pad out the effects. At least I hope that's how it was; it would be sad to think of O'Brien and Peterson making the insert manikin.
Stop-motion animators sometimes tried to double their usable footage by running two cameras while working. Many shots in The Black Scorpion are recycled by being repeated as optical blowups. It doesn't take a sharp eye to see the same identical action happening only a few seconds later, only larger and granier. Even the same superimposed explosions are repeated, suggesting that they too were animated onto the original camera negative. The skill, patience and artistry required to animate these complex shots is staggering.
Contemporary reviewers of The Black Scorpion couldn't hide their boredom; the year 1957 clogged screens with so many cheap monster movies that the whole genre collapsed. The reviewers also complained about the film being so dark that drive-in movie patrons might not be able to see what's going on. The movie does have a lot of dark night scenes, but this new DVD lessens the gloom, pulling extra detail out of Lionel Lindon's B&W photography.
Carlos Rivas is a likeable sidekick, and the Mexican professors and military men are portrayed with respect. Except, that is, for a poor dope who picks up an electrified harpoon while the circuit is still closed. As for young Mario Navarro, you just want to hit the brat with a shovel: "I want to hee-elp yew!"
Mara Corday is still a '50s fave genre actress. She must have been thoroughly discouraged after this film and the atrocious The Giant Claw. That 1957 turkey about a flying super-turkey reversed the formula by shooting its live action on tiny Hollywood sets and farming out the effects to a Mexican company. The result was a monster less impressive than the average birthday piñata.
Warners gives its DVD of The Black Scorpion a terrific sendoff. The originally-widescreen show doesn't look bad in full frame, and the transfer is excellent, enabling a fine appreciation of the black silhouette used as a poor stand-in to matte the giant scorpion invading Mexico City.
The extras are nothing less than outstanding. First off, there are a pair of animation audition reels by Pete Peterson. The Las Vegas Monster is a couple of minutes of an unpleasant-looking creature shambling around miniature settings from The Black Scorpion. The Beetlemen is just a fragment, one strange deteriorated color shot of exo-skeletoned men crawling about.
The third extra is the entire prehistoric sequence animated by Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen for Irwin Allen's docu The Animal World. I must have had three copies of the View-Master 3-D slide set of this sequence, and even though the technique drags both animators back to the concept level of 1925's The Lost World, it's great to see this rare footage. The seriousness of Irwin Allen's intentions is signaled by a typical voiceover line: "This was millions of years before man came along, but if he was there...", followed by a sloppy shot of a caveman being eaten by a dino. The dinosaurs don't look that good and the animation isn't that hot either, but the scenes are colorful and attractive.
Incidentally, the trailer for The Black Scorpion included on the reel ballyhoos it as the next step in horror to follow The Beast and Them!, two of Warners' biggest hits. In it is shown a shot of The Beast stomping around New York that I don't recognize from the original film.
The chintzy cover art is excellently chosen for the film, although what the sexy female is doing there, I don't know. Mara stays in ranchera outfits throughout. That's a shame -- her Playboy pinups from 1958 were hot, hot stuff.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Black Scorpion rates:
Movie: Fair +, but Excellent for stop-motion fans.
Supplements: Stop Motion Masters, The Animal World, Las Vegas Monster
and the Beetlemen test footage
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: October 20, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson