Friday, December 28, 2018

The Black Scorpion

The Black Scorpion
Edward Ludwig

Not far from Mexico City an earthquake strikes, Dr. Hank Scott (Richard Denning) and Dr. Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas) head out to investigate. They find not only an active volcano but some unusual destruction. Hank falls in love with a rancher named Teresa Alveraz (Mara Corday). A second earthquake reveals that giant scorpions live deep underground and they are now stirred-up, hungry and ready to eat the local populous. They are massive, aggressive and impervious to all weapons. How will mankind survive?

"Scorpion shmorpion, I'm getting wrecked on all this nitrous."
What’s cooler than giant bugs? Pretty much nothing. As a kid, I loved scorpions, largely due to watching Clash of the Titans (1981) three-hundred times on HBO and seeing Perseus duke it out with some horse sized arachnids. As a budding movie nerd, I really took a shine to the atomic horror films of the 1950s, they were movies I could simultaneously enjoy as a monsterfest, take delight in the sometimes brilliant but also occasionally shoddy effects and laugh/be ashamed at the hopelessly out of date cultural norms. The 1950s obsession with giant invertebrates has been well documented, the massive ants of Them! (1954) kicked off the craze and soon the world was facing down huge praying mantises, swarms of bus-sized locusts and even a sizable mollusk.

The stop-motion animated horrors of The Black Scorpion come courtesy of  Willis O'Brien the pioneer behind the original King Kong (1933) and  Pete Peterson who worked with O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young (1949). The giant scorpions and other assorted strange creatures look marvelous in action. They move fluidly, all their various limbs bending and stretching give these monster a feeling of weight and realism. Due to time and budget constraints, much of the footage gets reused several times, especially during the final battle between the Mexican army and the last giant scorpion. There are also close-up shots of the scorpion heads that are giant drooling monsters which bear no resemblance to the realistic stop-motion creatures. They are silly but loveable in their own way.

"Make sure you film my good side."
Where The Black Scorpion is less successful is its story. The characters take too long investigating the reason whole villages are being wiped out, there is an annoying kid and a tepid romantic subplot to drag things out until we get to the monsters. The Black Scorpion seems to have been structured in the same way that King Kong takes it’s own sweet time to build up to the reveal of the title character, but The Black Scorpion just doesn’t have the same engaging characters to make that journey enjoyable. There are also a couple dumb plot turns, the most ignoble being during the final battle when our heroes are trying to shoot an electrified harpoon into the weak spot of the scorpion. The gunner misses and then stupidly grabs the still electrified harpoon only to die so that the white guy can get in the shot and save the day.

The Black Scorpion is a solid entry in the 1950s science-fiction giant bug subgenre. It has its fair share of structural problems, but you’re there for the giant monsters rampaging around, destroying tanks and stinging people to death, and in those respects, the sting of The Black Scorpion is delightfully sweet.

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