The Black Scorpion (1957)
"Every horror you've seen on the screen grows pale beside the horror of The Black Scorpion"
Volcanic activity unleashes giant scorpions from centuries old underground imprisonment and they proceed to wreak havoc in the countryside and then eventually Mexico City.
Another of the slew of 1950s science fiction monster movies, The Black Scorpion does at least feature giant monsters that weren't the by-products of atomic testing, something of a rarity for the decade! By this point in the 50s, audiences had been shocked by all manner of flying saucers, ants, sea monsters, dinosaurs, spiders and even gigantic human beings so adding giant scorpions to the list was not a stretch of the imagination. There was a firmly established playbook for this genre by the time The Black Scorpion hit the cinemas and it shows, with little to distinguish it from the rest save for one particular aspect - the special effects. In fact, The Black Scorpion is almost a like-for-like re-run of Warner Brothers earlier smash hit Them! which had giant ants on the rampage, and even goes so far as to 'borrow' the same sound effects use for the creatures.
Like pretty much all of these 50s flicks, The Black Scorpion's story runs like clockwork and there's little differentiating it from any of the others apart from the monster. The casts are all full of stone-jawed heroes, glamorous dames, token military men, caricature locals and cute kids who don't listen to grown ups. The forced romances between the cast, the dubious scientific debates, the attempts at characterisation - do we really care? These films are about giant freakin' monsters so let's cut the crap and get down to the nitty gritty! The story here is a real drag, simply padding out the running time between sightings of the scorpions, with plenty of uninteresting characters looking for something to do when the monsters aren't on-screen. Richard Denning (who starred in The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Mara Corday (who would appear in The Giant Claw, also released in 1957) are both wooden in the leads, though Corday's striking beauty at least gives us something good to look at.
What makes The Black Scorpion so different to the other 50s sci-fi films is the special effects. Willis O'Brien, the legendary effects maestro behind the original King Kong, brings the scorpions to life in glorious stop-motion detail. The animation is excellent considering O'Brien was in his 70s and in poor health and working with a very low budget - the man was certainly able to rekindle his old magic here, though a lot of work was done by his assistant Pete Peterson. Still, there's nothing like learning from the best, just as stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen had done with O'Brien on Mighty Joe Young. There's just under ten minutes of monster action in here but its worth every second, especially given that we see more than scorpion on screen at the same time. That level of animation is extremely complicated for a big budget production so I have no idea how the team here pulled it off with their low overheads.
The first time we see the scorpions is during an attack on some telephone repairmen near a bridge and even today, the attack is still savage and brutal, with one poor chump not only grasped in one of the scorpions' claws but stung with the tail too. There's an imaginative scene in which two of the main characters take a cage ride down into the volcano and into the scorpion's lair in which all manner of giant worms and spiders lurk. They are creatures left over from the unused spider pit sequence from King Kong and you can clearly see where they would have fitted into the 1933 classic. The finale, in which the black scorpion squares off against the military in a football stadium in Mexico City is also fantastic as all manner of stop motion tanks and helicopters battle the scorpion in a fight to the death. It's truly great visual eye candy and O'Brien's effects are worth the watch alone. However, the film's best sequence involves that famous staple of both King Kong and Godzilla - stopping a passenger train in mid-flow. The black and white photography just adds a chilling menace to a lot of these attack scenes, with one scorpion eerily holding it's prey up to the moonlight.
Unfortunately, O'Brien had no control over the rear projection and in some scenes, images of the giant creatures are beamed onto a huge screen behind the actors. But the image is so blurry and out of focus that you wonder whether the characters are actually watching a film-within-a-film. Some of the empty shadow matte shots of the black scorpion entering Mexico City are so ridiculously poor that I really feel sorry for O'Brien and the hard work he put in. There's also a really big prop head that is used for close-up shots and this drooling bad boy looks like he's constantly grinning at the camera (the first photo I used in the review). It's a really daft prop which looks nothing like the stop-motion scorpions in other scenes. The production ran out of money so the re-use of footage (and the constant close-ups of that head!) is evident and the cheap way in which it's all put together really harms the overall quality of the film.
The Black Scorpion is a little different to the other 50s science fiction flicks thanks to the truly amazing superb special effects and if anything, this deserves a watch to see one of the greatest animators of his generation working his magic on bringing giant scorpions to life. But in a decade clogged up with so many versions of literally the same story, it's about the only saving grace.
The Black Scorpion
Director(s): Edward Ludwig
Writer(s): David Duncan (screenplay), Robert Blees (screenplay), Paul Yawitz (story)
Actor(s): Richard Denning, Mara Corday, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, Carlos Muzquiz, Pascual García Peña, Fanny Schiller
Duration: 88 mins