Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Black Scorpion (1957)

The Black Scorpion is a fairly typical representative of the 1950s giant bug monster movie genre. And as far as I'm concerned there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest claim to fame is that the stop motion effects were done by the great Willis O’Brien - this is the guy who taught Ray Harryhausen how to do stop motion.

We start with a volcanic eruption in Mexico. Artur Ramos (Carlos Rivas) and Hank Scott (Richard Denning) are geologists investigating the aftermath. They expect to find a certain amount of devastation but they find some rather puzzling things as well. Like a policemen who appears to have died from some mysterious kind of poison. 

They also find a lump of obsidian with a scorpion inside it. Not too startling, except that the scorpion is still alive and it belongs to a species believed to be long extinct.

That particular scorpion was of normal size but it soon becomes apparent that they are dealing with much bigger specimens. Much much bigger. Scorpions the size of a house. And other gigantic bugs as well, but the scorpions are the main problem.

There’s no point in shooting the scorpions - that just annoys them. An expert called in from Mexico City has some ideas on how to combat this menace but it’s going to be a dangerous undertaking. In fact it will involve Drs Ramos and Scott being lowered into a volcanic fissure in a metal basket. For some reason they need to take photographs of the monsters. This proves to be even more hazardous than expected when they discover a whole nest of giant scorpions - dozens of them.

Clearing out the nest is a challenge but just when it seems that the threat is over the giant scorpions are back and this time they’re heading for Mexico City. And it seems that nothing can stop them.

The script is dull and predictable, the plot holds no surprises for anyone familiar with this genre and the first half hour is rather slow but you watch a movie like this for the monster scenes and there are plenty of them and they’re very effective. The train scene is particularly good and provides some genuine chills. The climactic stadium battle is a frenzy of destruction. 

Richard Denning and Carlos Rivas make perfectly acceptable heroes. In fact Denning is pretty good. Of course there has to be a love interest - in this case that purpose is served by the lovely Mara Corday (who was no stranger to giant bug movies) as a feisty rancher whose ranch is threatened by the scorpion plague. Unfortunately the producers decided to throw in an annoying kid as well, although he’s not really much more annoying than the average kid in monster movies.

Willis O’Brien had made his reputation with King Kong. His stop motion animation in The Black Scorpion is exceptionally good - in fact it compares quite favourably with the best of Harryhausen’s work. Giant bugs are particularly suited to this technique since their movements are fairly jerky anyway. They look reasonably convincing and they actually do look huge.  

The most surprising thing about this film is that it involves giant bugs and yet there’s not a single mention of radioactivity. These gigantic bugs apparently survived for aeons in underground caverns until the volcanic eruption allowed them to get loose. This is a monster movie in which the monsters are not our fault, which I find to be very refreshing. Even better, it means we’re spared the dreary preaching that afflicts so much 50s sci-fi.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a pretty decent anamorphic transfer. There’s some minor print damage at times but on the whole image quality is excellent. Amazingly enough there are extras and they’re worthwhile extras to boot. The highlight is the prehistoric sequence from the 1956 Irwin Allen documentary The Animal World, with stop motion animation by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen.

If you love giant bug movies you’ll love The Black Scorpion. The story is trite, the characters are fairly uninteresting and the acting is at best adequate. None of that matters. It’s a movie about giant killer scorpions and it features some classic stop motion animation.  That’s all you need to know. Highly recommended.

No comments: