The Black Scorpion (1957)

As the second review of this Throwback Thursday AmeriKaiju triple feature, I’ve decided to revisit a Journal Entry featuring special effects by Willis O’Brien, the man who gave life to King Kong in 1933 and taught Harryhausen his stop-motion craft. How did this one fair when I first posted about it, and has my opinion of it changed? I guess we’ll find out, won’t we?

Well, I mean, I won’t, as I already know the answer.

Just read the article please, smart ass.

Summary: Geologists Dr. Hank Scott (Richard Denning) and Dr. Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas) are sent to study the sudden appearance of a volcano after an earthquake strikes the Mexican village of San Lorenzo.  When townspeople start to disappear, stories spread of a “demon bull” that steals people in the night.  The superstitious villagers soon discover how foolish they were to believe such nonsense–because it’s giant prehistoric scorpions released from an underground cavern through fissures in the Earth’s crust caused by the seismic activity that are truly the culprits.  Hilarity ensues as Hank tries to save Mexico while also courting plucky local rancher Teresa Alvarez (Mara Corday).  Oh, and there’s a kid named Juanito (Mario Navarro) who’s like the Short Round to Hank Scott’s Indiana Jones, if both Indy and Short Round were at all like Hank Scott and Juanito.

Thoughts: The Black Scorpion is a “giant insect” atomic horror film, not unlike Them! (1954), which deals with ants; Tarantula (1955), which deals with a tarantula; The Deadly Mantis (1957), which deals with a praying mantis; and Beginning of the End (1957), which deals with Peter Graves.  Come to think of it, it seems 1957 was a big year for big bugs.  There’s no follow-up to that statement; it’s just something strange (in a mundane sort of way) that I noticed.

As the title suggests, The Black Scorpion deals with scorpions–specifically, stop motion scorpions that, from afar, are anatomically correct, but turn into puppet scorpions with googly eyes when filmed up close.  While the close-up shots invoke the same sort of terror as would coonhounds in fur coats (I’m looking at you, 1959’s The Killer Shrews), the stop motion distance shots are something special.  This is because of Willis O’Brien, the RKO special effects genius and stop motion wizard who not only brought King Kong to life, but also trained Ray Harryhausen in the mystic arts of time lapse animation.

I can’t tell you, dear reader, how much I love Willis O’Brien and his work because I don’t think any human language in the history of this spinning asylum we call Earth is sufficiently able to carry that amount of positive emotion–nor am I.  Good ol’ “Obie” brings the same amount of professionalism to The Black Scorpion as he does to A-pictures on which he’s worked, and the same meticulous study of natural movement to arachnids (technically what scorpions are) that he did to mammals (also called Kong & Son), Saurian reptiles (also called dinosaurs), and cephalopods (also called Oodako).

But the scorpions aren’t the only monsters in this film.  No, fans of stop motion creatures are in for a treat.  At one point in the film, when heroes Dr. Hank Scott (Richard Denning, who is apparently in this movie) and Dr. Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas, who is also a guy in this film) travel down into a cavern that houses the giant scorpions, they see a few other giant bugs down there–including a black spider (said to be the same puppet used in the mysterious lost “Spider Pit Sequence” from the 1933 King Kong) and a centipede/worm type of thing (which looks especially squiggly).

As for everything else, The Black Scorpion is what you’d expect from a mid-budget 1950s sci-fi B-movie.  The acting is average and the story is more ambitious than the film’s budget, but the stop motion effects are top notch and pacing is good enough to keep a person from getting bored.  The setting (Mexico in the 1950s) is also refreshing and somewhat unexpected.  There’s even a sequence where a train is attacked by the giant scorpions, which is basically a giant monster trope by this point in time.

Conclusion: While no one will ever accuse The Black Scorpion of being high art (or serious, credible science fiction), it’s a delicious slice of nuclear American cheese with more stop motion monsters than what’s advertised on the tin.  Willis O’Brien was a pioneer and master at his craft, and his creatures (like those of Ray Harryhausen and Jim Danforth after him) are timeless and magical.  If you’re a fan of 1950s B-movie schlock, The Black Scorpion is a great way to kill an hour and a half.

For some reason, this movie reminds me of The Giant Claw, which is also an American kaiju film from 1957. The greatest differences between the two are plausibility of story (The Black Scorpion has the slight edge as it tries its best to be a serious attempt at a sci-fi film) and quality of special effects (thanks to Obie, The Black Scorpion wins here again, using painstaking stop-motion whereas The Giant Claw uses traditional puppetry for its monster). But both films remain schlocky atomic age fun for everyone.

Considering The Black Scorpion and O’Brien’s work in general, I find myself wishing more and more that Merian C. Cooper’s War Eagles had been made just so I could see Obie’s giant stop-motion eagles destroy zeppelins in a spectacular battle above New York. That’s probably the most pulpy thing you’ll read today.

You’re welcome.

– Randall Malus, 06/20/2019

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