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Twelve years ago Warners released a flat DVD of the '50s big-bug monster show The Black Scorpion, a favorite of stop-motion animation aficionados. In an interesting move for the Warner Archive Collection, their new DVD-R disc has been re-formatted for 1:85 widescreen, as it was seen in theaters.
Standing in line behind top rank monster movies like Them! are the also-ran titles such as this offering from the producers of Ray Harryhausen's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Perhaps thinking their earlier hit wasn't a fluke, the makers of The Black Scorpion whipped up a derivative thriller destined to rub arachnoid elbows with the similar Big Bug thrillers The Beginning of the End and The Deadly Mantis, both of which came out in the same year. Spectacular special effects can't hide 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. The show is one of Willis O'Brien's last efforts, with most of the actual animation done by his unheralded assistant Pete Peterson.
Thunderous volcanic smoke billows behind a portentous voiceover warning that nature is on the rampage. Violent eruptions lay waste to a vast area of rural Mexico. Geologists Hank Scott (Richard Denning) and Artur Ramos (Carlos Rivas) are helping out as best they can with relief efforts, and meet the beautiful rancher Teresa Alvarez (Mara Corday). Giant scorpions emerge from the volcanic vents in the Earth, terrorizing the already panicky campesinos. Our two heroes spearhead the scientific investigation. A crane is used to lower them into one of the deepest fissures to find out what other horrors are hidden below.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms producers Dietz and Melford, having lost the services of Ray Harryhausen to Columbia's Charles H. Schneer, must have looked around and found the only other ace stop motion animators at work in Hollywood. Willis O'Brien had spent almost a decade developing his personal fantasy projects only to repeatedly fall prey to abusive producers. Obie's desire 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 make a real creative contribution. One of them snuck away to Tokyo with his story about a monster called Prometheus, 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 film used atrocious stop-motion work done by other animators.
The producers of The Black Scorpion made their film in Mexico as well, except not as a co-production. Legend has it that the effects were performed 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 stitched together 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. He's 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. Veteran director Edward Ludwig knows where to put a camera but the performances still seem by the numbers. Richard Denning and Mara Corday make an effort in romantic scenes that only seem to hold up what viewers came to see - giant rampaging scorpions.
But the script takes forever to get going, while crowds of refugees flee from volcanoes and the rumored but unseen giant scorpion monsters. 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 consists of timewaster material to tie together four Big Bug set pieces.
An attack on a ranch has some effective moments and good animation, especially the opening when the titanic monsters gobble up three telephone linemen. 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. The cave setting is fairly exciting. Not only do they find scorpions down there, we also see 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 a few shots had to be duped from a work print after the 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 like chopsticks, snapping 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, a nightmare variation on the New York cop who becomes a morning snack in the producers' The Beast.
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 camera movement in this scene, panning and tilting with the action, is superb.
The animation is ambitious and grandiose, with as many as three scorpions on screen at a time moving their 24 legs and six claws 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. If one advances frame by frame, one can see animators' measuring braces pop in from time to time.
Real scorpions are lightning-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 the monsters -- no matter how you cut it, the ugly bugs just don't have personalities. 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. Its silly, drooling mouth looks like the grille of a 1950s sports car. 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 doubled 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 more grainy. The same superimposed explosions are repeated, suggesting that they 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 sub-genre imploded. 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 video transfers usually lessen 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 elevated every movie she appeared in and is still a '50s fave genre actress. She must have been thoroughly discouraged after this unrewarding show 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 resulting monster is less impressive than the average birthday piñata.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Black Scorpion replicates the earlier Warners disc but reformats the show for widescreen. Owners holding the 2003 standard format DVD may be satisfied with what they have, as all the same extras are present. And this widescreen transfer doesn't look any sharper or more detailed than the earlier disc. But it is true that the film plays better in its 1.85:1 theatrical format -- the extreme top and bottom of the frame were always meant to be matted away. Not only is the key subject matter larger, the compositions are improved. The animation sequences lose some of the 'tabletop' quality when shown tighter. The matte does not crop away any scorpion feet, or even the images of people fleeing low in the frame. We also don't lose the detail of the scorpion holding its tiny victim up to the moonlight, to get a better look at it.
The first disc's outstanding extras are all repeated. First up is a pair of audition reels by animator Pete Peterson. The Las Vegas Monster test is a couple of minutes of an unpleasant-looking creature shambling around miniature settings from The Black Scorpion. The second item 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. The transfer is flat 1:37. I must have owned 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 disc's The Black Scorpion trailer ballyhoos it as the next step in horror to follow The Beast and Them!, both of which were big hits for Warners. In the trailer is a shot of Harryhausen's Rhedosaurus stomping around New York that I don't recognize from the original film. 1
I met star Carlos Rivas on a TV commercial shoot around 1985. He was a great raconteur and was not upset in the least that I asked him about pictures like Black Scorpion, and Madmen of Mandoras by my UCLA professor David Bradley. Even as a senior citizen Rivas looked like lady-bait... a 1950s Jimmy Smits and Antonio Banderas.
The chintzy cover art was a good sales angle for the film, although why the pictured female thinks the goofy horror-head is sexy, I don't know. Mara Corday stays in Ranchera outfits through most of the movie. That's a shame -- her Playboy pinup from October 1958 is hot, hot stuff.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Black Scorpion DVD-R rates:
1. So, what happened to the Ray Harryhausen documentary we were told about two or three years ago, that contains beaucoup outtake footage recovered from the animator's estate? By this late date I was expecting to have a Region A Blu-ray in my greedy little hands.
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T'was Ever Thus.