AVAILABLE ON REGION ‘A’ BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 88 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In Mexico, a volcano erupts, causing an earthquake and damage to a nearby village. Hank Scott and Artur Ramos travel to the area to do a prelimirary survey, though Hank seems to be more interested in local beauty Tereza Alvarez. The two hear reports of cattle being eaten and find some mysteriously destroyed houses and dead bodies filled with poison. Some of the locals put it down to the mythical Demon Bull, but when Hank finds a prehistoric scorpion inside a rock that turns out to be still alive, and the poison turns out to be from a scorpion sting, it seems that a different kind of creature is doing the terrorising, a creature that lives in underground caves and has been freed by the earthquake to come out at night….
I do like my creature features, especially those of the old school kind, so I was surprised that, when I learnt that The Black Scorpion was coming out on Region ‘A’ Blu-ray, I hadn’t already seen the thing despite it featuring stop motion animation from no less than King Kong‘s Willis O’ Brien himself – though I don’t recall it ever turning up on TV. In any case, I decided to buy it despite the film not having a great reputation, and it delivered plenty of the ‘B’ movie fun I hoped it would. It was obviously modeled on the superior Them! in plot, structure and style, though has enough differences to justify its existence. Quite pacy and keen to showcase its real stars as much as possible, it’s a film that I feel could have been a minor classic of the genre if it hadn’t been hampered by obvious budget restrictions that rather hurt it in places, and especially in the climax where one imagine O’ Brien getting angry at not being given the funds and time to realise things properly. But if you dig this kind of thing then there’s a fair bit to enjoy, if rather less unintentionally funny stuff then you may expect. Whether you think that’s a good thing probably depends on what you watch these films for.
Despite being associated with the greatest giant monster movie ever made [sorry Godzilla, I love you but….], O’ Brien struggled subsequently through a career during which he spent a great deal of time trying to set up projects that were never realised or were made by other hands. One of them was eventually turned into King Kong Vs Godzilla. His successor Ray Harryhausen had the luck to link up with a producer, Charles H. Schneer, who respected his talents. The Black Scorpion began life as some test footage for a giant insect movie O’ Brien was planning on making. Warner Bros. were interested, and said test footage remained in the film, but the film was made on a far lower budget than O’ Brien intended, requiring much scaling down of the story. Money was saved by re-using the spider and worm models from the famous deleted ‘spider bit sequence’ from King Kong – well, this has often been claimed though Harryhausen and others have disputed it – and the sounds made by the scorpions were recycled from the giant ant sound effects in Them! O’ Brien and assistant Pete Peterson began filming the special effects in a large remodeled dressing room at the Tepeac Studios in Mexico City where the main part of the movie was shot, but money became tight and they had to finish them in Peterson’s garage in Encino, California. The Black Scorpion was a moderate success.
As with many 1950’s monster movies, we open with stock footage over which a narrator sets the scene, though it looked to me as if some of the erupting volcano footage was actually created for the film, while the narrator is almost hysterical in his delivery. One can chuckle – I certainly did – though at least there wasn’t a reference to the atomic bomb this time, and you may be surprised how seriously much of what follows is handled, despite the addition of a small boy character called Juanito who follows our hero around but disappears towards the end of the film. The sober semi-documentary tone of Them! is partially replicated, and there are some very similar scenes set in torn, deserted houses, though here the film holds off showing the creatures until nearly half an hour has passed, but don’t worry, they hog the screen from then on. And even the opening act is quite crisply paced despite Hank being distracted from what he’s supposed to be doing by Tereza. His frequent touching of her probably wouldn’t go down well with many modern viewers who may consider it unseemly, but it was a different time back then. Probably like most folk who watched films like this as kids, I used to find the romantic stuff little more than boring padding between the good bits as a youngster, but it often makes for quite amusing viewing as an adult, what with how contrived it often is. However, I just about bought these two as a couple, and especially liked the bit where he goes to kiss her, she pushes him away, then plants a smacker on him. And it was nice to not have a love ‘triangle’ for a change – in fact Artur does little but shadow Hank all over the place.
Monstrous sounds, a creepy little moment of a falling bush revealing a dead body leaning against a wall with the face paralysed with fear, and a brief detour to a local laboratory [which for once does not turn out to be the cause of what’s happening] lead up to a cracker of a scene where three repairmen are suddenly attacked by a scorpion who stings two of them, carries the other one off and wrecks the truck. The village is then for it, and it soon becomes apparent that there are lots of the critters, but they seem just as keen to fight and kill themselves as humans and cattle [which we hear about them killing but don’t see], and the poison from their sting could be used against them – though the plan to kill them all underground doesn’t entirely work, and before you’ve said the word “them”, one turns up near Mexico City, bigger than ever – though the final rampage really does look like they ran out of money. As in the attack on the village, most of the shots of the scorpion look unfinished, as if they didn’t actually do any animation and just double printed earlier shots onto the negative. In fact they’re simply empty travelling mattes. At least the battle with the military, if rather small scale, gives us some wrecked tanks and helicopters.
For the most part, the stop motion is nicely achieved, the destruction of a train possibly the film’s highlight. It’s a bit jerkier than we’ve become familiar with from Harryhausen flicks, but the scorpions look fairly realistically designed and move quite believably. I’ve seen far worse CGI effects in modern equivalents of these kinds of films which I know have a lot of fans but which often don’t quite “do it” for me – but being as I was a fan of films like King Kong and Jason And The Argonauts when I was only about eight years old I’m probably bound to say that. Much younger viewers may disagree. There’s certainly lots of usage of sometimes rather blurry back projection [just check out the scene where little Miguel is menaced by one of the scorpions- he’s so indistinct that he looks like a ghost!] rather than the Harryhausen technique of animating his creatures into otherwise completed footage. More evidence of the cheapness which holds this film back. And I suppose that some may laugh at the close-ups of a model scorpion face [that doesn’t look like the faces of the animated scorpions at all] which are cut in throughout – but I would imagine that viewers at drive-ins of the time would have found the slime-dripping visage horrifying enough to want to find solace in the arms and whatever else of their girlfriend/boyfriend. The briefly seen giant worm and spider look okay. The intensity of some of the attacks is also commendable, as is the bit where a poor woman is nearly trampled to death by fleeing crowds. Despite not having quite enough to work with, the filmmakers did try to do their best with what they had.
Director Edward Ludwig shows little personality, the darkness of many of the scenes probably being O’ Brien’s idea to try to disguise the shortcomings of his work. Star Richard Denning was a stalwart of 50’s sci-fi/monster movies and never did give a natural performance out of the films of his that I’ve seen, but somehow his wooden-ness has its own peculiar charm. The lovely Mara Corday actually out-acts him and it’s a shame that her character has little to do but be hit on by Denning. There’s less condensension to the Mexican characters than you might expect though. The Black Scorpion probably falls between two stools – not trashy enough to be a laugh riot but not well done enough to be named in film books as a classic and therefore a film for folk to seek out. But it’s still definitely worth a view to fans of this kind of thing. Even though I’d have probably adored it as a kid [I seemed to belong to the last generation of children who watched and enjoyed really old movies, we’d rave in the playground about the last Universal Frankenstein or Tarzan film we’d seen on TV], I would imagine that most of today’s youngsters would have trouble sitting through it unless joined by a movie-fan parent. More’s the pity – yet the fact that it’s got a Blu-ray release means that there must be still an audience for it – and thank goodness for that.