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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Black Scorpion

Warner Brothers was an A-level studio, but could also produce very B-grade films too. The Black Scorpion (TBS) would be just another in big-bug sub-genre. The acting varies between vapid and passible. The plot follows a well trodden path with adventurer scientists, a pretty love interest, a monster menacing a town and a showdown between monster and military. What sets TBS apart, however is the evident animation skills of Willis O'Brien (launched into fame by King Kong in 1933, and mentor to the brilliant Ray Harryhausen). This animation skill allows the story to feature more monster scenes which actually carry the movie.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Two scientists, one American (Richard Denning) and one Mexican (Carlos Rivas) come to explore a newly erupted volcano in Mexico. Even as they arrive, there are mysterious disappearances of people and peculiar damage to houses, which the volcano did not cause. Villagers talk of a demon. Hank and Artur meet a pretty rancher named Teresa (Mara Corday), and the usual love interest develops. Soon, a giant scorpion emerges from near the volcano and attacks some telephone linemen. It later attacks Teresa's ranch too. The army and scientists search the area and find a large deep hole. Scorpion sounds verify that it's the source. Hank and Artur descend via a crane, in gas suits and with poison gas. At the bottom of the shaft is a large cavern. Many large scorpions, a couple of giant armed inchworms and a woodtick-like spider thing live down there. A black scorpion, larger than the rest, battles the others over an inchworm carcass. This allows our heros to escape. The army blows up the hillside, burying the shaft in tons of rocks. All is assumed well, but an official in Mexico City worries that some of the scorpions might have escaped into the labyrinth of caves and might re-emerge. They do just that. A passenger train is derailed by a scorpion. Others begin a feeding frenzy on the wreck victims. The black scorpion arrives and kills all the others to claim the train for itself. After this, the black scorpion heads to Mexico City. Panic in the streets. They lure the scorpion into a soccer stadium. There, it battles tanks and helicopters. It is ultimately done in by a harpoon shot into its throat, hooked to high voltage wires. It's dead. Cue happy romantic ending for Hank and Teresa. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
After a slowish start, the action picks up and stays pretty brisk up to the climactic battle. The stop-motion animation is quite good and makes it easier to gloss over the poor acting moments. Seeing Willis O'Brien's "lost" creatures is worth it alone.

Cold War Angle
There is little of the Cold War in TBS. Even the creatures themselves have no link to radiation. Nor do they stand in (well) as personifications of nuclear danger. They're simply huge natural monsters.

Notes
Skilled Hand -- Willis O'Brien was a very talented stop-motion animator, but had a spotty career. In TBS, his title is "Supervisor of special effects." Peter Peterson may have done the bulk of the physical work under O'Brien's direction. The animation moves show O'Brien's attention to detail. He may have gotten the superior title as compensation for bringing along two models he created for King Kong. The inchworm beasts and the wood-tick-spider were shot for Kong, but their footage deleted and eventually lost altogether. These creatures and the skilled animation of the scorpions make TBS worth watching. TBS was one of O'Brien's last films.

Another Big Bug -- TBS joined the ranks of the big-bug sub-genre begin by the giant ants in Them! ('54). Up to this point, we've had ants, a tarantula, grasshoppers and a mantis. We could include the "mollusk" things in The Monster That Challenged The World ('57) and the crabs in Attack of the Crab Monsters ('57). TBS is a worthy member of the sub-genre. Viewers will note that giant creatures have been more successful when they are insect-like. Fur and feathers have been much less successful (as witness, The Giant Claw ('57))

Budget Strain -- Many features of TBS bespeak of budget pressures. One, is the setting: Mexico. Much is done in the western-mode, outdoors. Many mexican actors (of varying skill) no doubt helped trim the payroll. Near the end of the movie, you can see where even O'Brien's animations give way to simple (and poorly done) matte shots. There are also repeated bits of footage to save on shooting fresh, but similar, material.

Star Watch -- Richard Denning was a regular in 50s B-sci-fi. He was Rick in Day the World Ended ('55) and Frank in Target Earth ('54), as well as Mark in Creature from the Black Lagoon ('54). Mara Corday was the love interest Stephanie in Tarantula ('55), and Sally in The Giant Claw ('57).

Ad Hype -- The posters for TBS tried to tantalize without revealing any details. "Note: The management reserves the right to put up the lights any time the audience becomes too emotionally disturbed!" and "We urge you not to panic or bolt from your seats!" Since big-bug movies had been around for three years, there was little TBS could add to live up to such hype. But, in B-movie tradition, it really did not have to deliver. The posters only had to get some tickets sold.

Bottom line? TBS is worth watching for O'Brien's animation skills and especially for his bizarre cave creatures "lost" from King Kong. Fans of big-bug movies will find the usual. All in all, it's not really very "sci-fi", but parts of it have appeal.

1 comment:

John Drake said...

Howdy,


Let's see.

The plot line is okay.

The special effects are very good to fair.

Richard Denning is good.

Mara Corday - what a doll, and she can act.

For fun, it is well worth watching.

Don't expect high production values and you will be happy.


See you at the movies,

John