Super Movie Monday – The Black Scorpion

Someday, since this is a superhero blog, I’ll have to cover the other Black Scorpion movie, the one about a black-clad female superhero. But since we’re in Halloween mode, we’re talking here about the cheapie released by Warner Brothers in 1957.

The Black Scorpion was made toward the end of Willis O’Brien’s career. O’Brien was a great special effects pioneer, especially in the realm of stop motion puppetry, but he was not so great at coming up with stories. After he won an Academy Award for the effects on Mighty Joe Young, his career suffered a gradual decline as he pitched project after project that never came to fruition. So a few years later, he found himself desperate enough to accept the job of supervising special effects on a low-budget film being shot in Mexico. Pete Peterson (the assistant on Mighty Joe Young who wasn’t Ray Harryhausen) did the actual animation.

The film opens with some dry narration over stock footage about a mighty volcano devastating Mexico. Then we meet our heroes, Hank Scott and Arturo Ramos, two geologists who have come to study the volcano. The volcano has destroyed phone lines, so they’re not sure if the nearby village of San Lorenzo even still exists. As they draw near to the village, they hear a mysterious sound (the same sound effect used for the giant ants in Them!) just as they come upon a farmhouse that has been partially destroyed. One thing you’ll notice as the movie progresses is that these guys are awfully jolly in the midst of all the death and destruction around them.

There is also a wrecked police car nearby. They talk to the police dispatcher, who does not sound at all Mexican. He keeps trying to get Hank and Arturo to identify themselves, and if you begin to suspect that he is a spy working for a mysterious government organization that may have caused this whole mess through a secret weapons project that got out of control, well, you’re wrong, but not without a good reason. The voice on the radio belongs to one Bob Johnson, who became famous as the anonymous voice on the tape that assigned missions to Jim Phelps and his Impossible Mission Force on Mission: Impossible.

They discover an infant in a crib is the only survivor, and moments later, find the owner of the police car.

Oh yeah, he’s dead.

Hank and Arturo continue to the village of San Lorenzo, where they deliver the baby to Father Delgado, who tells them about several mysterious deaths and disappearances that seemed to originate near a local ranch. So the next day, the two geologists head out there, where they meet beautiful rancher Teresa Alvarez.

They take her to San Lorenzo, where she convinces her ranch hands to return, while Hank and Arturo visit a local doctor who tells them the cop was poisoned from a wound in his neck. He also shows them a huge clawprint found at the scene. And this guy is, if anything, even more jolly than our two heroes.

After their meeting with the doctor, Hank and Arturo end up back at Teresa’s ranch. Both Teresa and young servant Juanito take a liking to Hank. Arturo discovers a live scorpion embedded in a chunk of obsidian they retrieved from near the volcano (that squeaks using the exact same sound effects used in old movies whenever you saw a bat). Cue the phone call. Teresa gets a call from the telephone linemen, telling her that the phones are fixed, just in time for her to hear them being killed by this big fellow.

The animation by Peterson is pretty effective. The scorpion models are a little rough, but the moody lighting and black-and-white photography work to the movie’s advantage (although when I deepened the contrast for this shot, I eliminated a clearly visible support wire running up from the truck’s bumper). In fact, you could consider the special effects to be pretty kick-ass if it weren’t for this.

This is just horrible in about five different ways that I don’t really need to describe to you. But the thing is, because the film has such a low budget, they cut away to this piece of crap a lot in order to pad the running time cheaply.

But before Hank and Arturo can rush to the site where the linemen were attacked, the ranch is attacked by another scorpion, while San Lorenzo is being attacked by yet another. And once again, the film betrays its low budget with some terrible traveling matte work. Or maybe it’s awesome.

See, according to IMDB and some other sources, the reason the scorpion is completely black here is that they ran out of money and weren’t able to complete the opticals. In this shot, they’ve pulled a matte for the scorpion (to prevent the background from bleeding through), but haven’t done the final pass to add the animated scorpion model. But given the dark night scene, this silhouette has a weirdly compelling quality.

The next day, a scientific expert from Mexico City shows up, along with some Army troops and some big tanks of poison gas for killing giant scorpions. They search for the place where the scorpions have come from and discover a huge fissure in the ground. Hank and Arturo, having the most experience with caves, volunteer to make the descent and set off the gas. But before they go, Teresa finds Hank so irresistible in his cave-diving suit that she has to plant one on him, finally.

Before they go, Hank asks Teresa to keep an eye on Juanito (who was discovered stowing away in one of the equipment trailers). Our heroes are lowered by crane in a gondola deep into the earth, until they reach bottom.

That white dot next to the black smudge on the upper left is a standard O’Brien pterodactyl or something. O’Brien always liked to add something flying to wide shots to give life to the environment.

Hank and Arturo discover that the cave not only hosts a bunch of giant scorpions, but also some other strange giant creatures.

That tentacled worm on the right there is supposedly one of the unused puppets from the lost spider pit sequence from King Kong. I actually have my doubts about this. The models for Kong were constructed in 1932-1933 by Marcel Delgado, who talks here about how the rubber starts to break down from the day the model is finished. I seriously doubt you could animate a 25-year-old model without it disintegrating in your hands. On the other hand, they could have scavenged the armatures (the jointed metal skeleton inside the model) and fabricated new models around them.

Before Hank and Arturo can set off the gas and return to the surface, they have to save Juanito, who has stowed away aboard the gondola and is now being chased by this crab-clawed trapdoor spider (also supposedly a spider pit sequence monster).

By they time they all get back to the gondola, it is in the process of being destroyed by the biggest scorpion of all. Arturo barely manages to get back to the surface on the bare cable before sending it back down for Hank and Juanito. Teresa is startled to hear that Juanito is down there. Yeah, you only had one job, lady: keep an eye on Juanito. Way to not even notice he was gone.

Finally everyone is safe, but they didn’t manage to set off the poison gas. Instead, they decide to dynamite the passage. They depress the plunger and HOLY SHIT!

There on the left is the 900-foot volcano that has devastated the entire countryside. And it is literally dwarfed by the monster (miniature) explosion set off by the army.

So the passage is sealed and the threat of the scorpions is ended. Until Hank and Arturo are summoned to Mexico City, where the government tells them that more scorpions have been sighted. Hank relates how they saw the big scorpion kill the smaller ones by stinging them in the throat, their one weak point.

But before they can perfect a weapon to kill the scorpions, the creatures attack a passenger train and massacre the inhabitants.

And once again, a great scene is diminished by a limited budget. The animation here is great, but its impact is muted by some awful mattes and the fact that virtually every animation shot in the sequence is repeated at least once, sometimes with the aid of an optical zoom to change the composition.

The big scorpion appears and kills all the smaller ones. It is later confirmed that this scorpion is the only one left alive. The army uses a truck filled with raw sides of  beef to lure the scorpion to a bullring, where they intend to kill it with an electrode shot into its throat weak point.

The scorpion appears and battles the army in the ring. The battle is fast and furious, and much more involved than anything Harryhausen would do in, say, 20 Million Miles to Earth.

But once again, there are only a few shots, which are stretched by being repeated. It’s up to Hank to save the day, which he does by firing the electrode into the scorpion’s weak point, killing it. And almost immediately after the scorpion dies, Hank and Teresa are taking off to have some quick victory sex (at least, that’s what it looks like).

So once again, as with The Son of Kong, we’re presented with a film which is not very good. For all the fact that it’s about giant scorpions emerging from the earth to kill people, it’s mostly pretty dull. And while the animation effects are impressive, they are leavened by way too many close-ups of that drooling half-human scorpion face.

But as with The Son of Kong, the remarkable thing about The Black Scorpion is that it was made at all. Pete Peterson, the animator, was fighting multiple sclerosis at the time. By the time the two worked together for the last time on The Giant Behemoth two years later, the pain was so bad that he could not stand upright. All the miniatures had to be built low to the ground that Peterson could animate sitting down. Making stop-motion animated effects that quickly and cheaply is amazing; doing it while dealing with debilitating pain is even more so.

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One Response to Super Movie Monday – The Black Scorpion

  1. Sargon says:

    I love how the big scorpion has an identifiable fighting style – he spins, he flips his opponents over and stings for the underside. It really gives the monster some character and menace that he obviously knows what he’s doing.

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