The Black Scorpion

The Black Scorpion

The Black Scorpion (1957) — Directed by Edward Ludwig. Starring Richard Denning, Mara Corday, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, Carlos Múzquiz, Pedro Galván, Pascual García Peña.

I loved monster movies as a kid. Aw, heck, I still do. You might think it’s all about seeing people picked up by giant claws and devoured by a gigantic creature or buildings smashed to pieces by enormous feet, which is a lot of fun, but for me it’s just as much about seeing things brought to life that don’t exist in the real world, someone’s imagination realized on film. I remember watching the original King Kong, captivated by Kong and the dinosaurs even on my parents’ tiny black and white TV. I marveled at Ray Harryhausen’s Cyclops in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Later I would be terrified of Medusa’s green gaze in Clash of the Titans; I almost couldn’t look at the screen, convinced I would turn to stone just by catching a glimpse of her eyes. Stop motion animation, particularly in older films, may look hokey if you didn’t grow up on it but I still love the craft. The patience and attention to detail required to simply walk a model across the screen still blows me away. We still see stop motion in current films but the trend is more towards animating an entire movie instead of integrating models with real actors and locations. I look forward to sharing these old classics with my sons at an age where they can be as dazzled by them as I was. Unfortunately The Black Scorpion, though featuring some impressive animation by one of the pioneers of the craft, isn’t one of the best examples of this dying art form.

Geologists Hank Scott (Richard Denning) and Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas) head out to Mexico to investigate a once dormant volcano brought to life by an earthquake. I think it seems like a risky move too but, you know, scientists be crazy. What our handsome geologists didn’t expect to discover is a nest of gigantic, monster-sized scorpions attacking the nearby village of San Lorenzo. The creatures are led by the larger, googly-eyed, hairy “granddaddy” of giant scorpions. At least our geologists aren’t the ones to blame for releasing this danger onto the world like some scientists from your typical 1950s black and white science fiction/monster movie; nature is flipping the bill for this one. Hank not only battles giant scorpions but along the way he falls in love with the beautiful local rancher Teresa Alvarez (Mara Corday). He also has to save a pesky young boy, Juanito (Mario Navarro), who has a tendency not to listen to the adults in charge and ends up in mortal danger.. Stupid Juanito.

I could criticize The Black Scorpion for its lackluster plot and bad acting but that seems like a waste of time, especially when considering that laughing at such problems in old monster movies is part of the fun. What we really want to see is a giant scorpion ravaging the land, attacking crowds of innocent people, and using its stinger to stabbing other giant insects. It takes thirty minutes to get there but we start off with a great scene of the scorpion slaughtering a couple of telephone repair guys. The monster and his minions continue their attack on the Mexican countryside before retreating back to the depths of the earth. Hank and his team make Indiana Jones proud and travel down to the scorpions’ lair in an attempt to kill them with poison gas. In one of the film’s highlights the scientists encounter a giant spider and a giant worm, the models for which are rumored to have been used in the lost spider pit sequence in King Kong. Later on the climax of the film features an impressive battle between the scorpion and the Mexican army in a sports stadium. It’s a fantastic sequence that nearly took me back to my childhood.

The Black Scorpion is one of the last films worked on by legendary stop motion artist Willis O’Brien. O’Brien, aka “Obie”, is a pioneer of the craft… you might even say he’s the granddaddy giant scorpion of stop motion animation. He is most known for his masterful work in the early to mid-twentieth century, including such classic films as The Lost World (1925), the original King Kong (1933), and Mighty Joe Young (1949). He was also an inspiration and mentor to the equally legendary, if more well known, Ray Harryhausen. I can’t imagine what science fiction film, or my youth, would be like without their accomplishments. I am disappointed that Obie was never able to realize his vision of a King Kong vs. Frankenstein film, although that idea did pave the way for the incredible King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Black ScorpionObie’s work on The Black Scorpion is impressive, even if some of the footage is too dark. The movement of the scorpions’ legs alone is a marvel of the patient craft of animation. On the other hand the close ups of the moist, drooling, scorpion doll slowly creeping into the camera are hilariously ridiculous. It’s a technique O’Brien used to introduce Kong in King Kong but to much greater effect. In The Black Scorpion the device is used over and over again, even going so far as to repeat the same exact shot. And the creature’s bugged out eyes are far too goofy to evoke anything but laughter. Rather than wanting to devour you he looks like he’s thirsty for a sip of your beer.

There are also a couple of shots of the creature attacking Mexico City where it looks like a cartoon shadow of the scorpion wandering through the streets, ambling after crowds of fleeing people. According to Wikipedia these were traveling mattes apparently used in place of models when the budget for the production ran dry. That’s disappointing because the stop motion creature mixed with the authentic look and feel of the location in these scenes might have elevated The Black Scorpion into something even more memorable.

If you’re a fan of stop motion monster movies you’ll have to find some time to check out The Black Scorpion. It’s not my favorite monster movie but there are some memorable animated set pieces. Those with a passing interest in the magic of this disappearing craft might find some entertaining moments but would do better to look elsewhere. Try King Kong or The Golden Voyage of Sinbad if you’re of a mind.

The Black Scorpion was featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which might make for a more enjoyable viewing experience for those who prefer to view the film on a certain level.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: