THE BLACK SCORPION, 1957
Director: Edward Ludwing
Starring: Richard Denning, Mara Corday, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, Carlos Múzquiz, Pascual García Peñat
Review by Kevin Johnson
Recent volcanic eruptions release an army of giant scorpions to the surface; a team of doctors and army officials work up a plan to try and stop them.
The problem with the monster films from the “Golden Era” of cinema is that, after the well-budgeted, decently refined classics, one inevitably have to watch the less-than-stellar crop of B-movies that, frankly, may not hold up as well from before. These are the films that are wonderfully ridiculed by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew. And, unfortunately, I don’t have Tom, Mike, Joel, or Crow to help me through it.
Still, there’s something revelatory when watching these films. The term “Golden Era” in relation to entertainment doesn’t exactly refer to the overall quality but the streamlined, consistent, large number of films actually produced. So, to see the lower-quality and weaker films that were produced gives a clearer picture of the specifics and details of the overall production of films created in this time period. In other words, it averages out one’s perception of the regulated, controlled studio system.
Two geologists go to investigate a series of volcanic eruption taking place in Mexico. When they find evidence of isolated destruction and several dead people stricken with poison, it’s soon discovered that a number of massive scorpions were freed from their obsidian-trapped prisons from the eruption. They attack the local villages and soon set their sights on Mexico City.
If there’s one thing to gleam from a film like this, it’s the regularity to which studio executives and filmmakers maintained a strict necessity for certain conventions – specifically, the need for a female lead and a romantic subplot. And while a variation of this “rule” certainly exist today, the extent to which it was utilized in the 50s is obviously glaring, especially in films with little subtlety. The Black Scorpion, in a nutshell, completely shifts gears to “park,” to try and develop a chemistry between scientist Hank Scott and Teresa Alvarez. It doesn’t work.
It’s a shame, too. The movie starts of very well—intriguingly so. The geologists find a few dead bodies and large-scaled damage, and the local village panics as rumors spreads, injuries mount up, and spooked ranchers rant about sightings of monsters in the fields. Even the introduction of the female lead works – after all, she’s just a brave rancher who’s just trying to find help in all the paranoid madness. Too bad that, by the thirty-minute mark, the film’s flaws become much more pronounced. Several doctor and military characters exposit plot points just to advance the movie (and are just terrible, terrible actors), and, as mentioned before, the romantic moments add nothing to the overall film or the distinct characters’ relationships. And that’s leaving out the unnecessary poor-acting from the young help, Juanito (Mario Navarro), who just gets into random trouble to try and create tension. It doesn’t work, either.
But what DOES work is the special effects from supervisor Willis O’Brien, who was friends with Ray Harryhausen, the special effects wizard for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (looks like the connections never end!). Watching the giant scorpions wreck havoc on trains, buildings, people, cars, tanks, and even helicopters is quite amazing, mainly because everything moves really fast and yet remains clear in visual action. And, to be blunt, the scorpions are vicious with their attacks.
There are also a couple of awesome creatures taken from unused sequences from the film King Kong; specifically, the spider that chases Juanito in the cave, and a strange worm-like creature that assaults a scorpion. It’s pretty cool to see some 1933 beasts return from hibernation to see them in action. What’s not so cool is the close-ups of the scorpions’ faces. While awesomely creepy and scary the first time around, they filmmakers rely WAY too much on it, which just makes it ultimatley annoying in the end.
Still, The Black Scorpion is a decent indication of the “less-than-average” type of film made in the 50s. It’s more indicative of the mediocre B-films of that time period, like how the myriad of B-horror films might explain something about the naughts of this decade. While I won’t try and convince people to watch this film, it does make an interesting study. And the special effects are at least worth it, so there is that.