15 December 2008

Movie review: The Black Scorpion

The Black Scorpion (1957)
Directed by Edward Ludwig. Starring Richard Denning, Mara Corday, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro.

Willis O’Brien was one of the masters of special effects magic, the genius who brought King Kong and Mighty Joe Young to life, but for some reason producers never wanted to back his ideas for fantasy and science-fiction movies. O’Brien spent much of his career hunting for funding for imaginative projects like War Eagles and King Kong vs. Frankenstein, and occasionally picking up animation assignments, like Irwin Allen’s documentary The Animal World and a mini-budgeted monster film like The Black Scorpion.

Warner Bros. was hoping to follow-up the success of the killer-ant film Them!, which used full-sized monster ant props to create its headlining atomic horrors. In their new “giant bug” horror thriller (I know scorpions aren’t “bugs,” but I’m sure this was the term the producers used in their pitch) enormous and near-invincible scorpions crawl from beneath the landscape of Central America after a volcanic erruption and sting and drool their way toward Mexico City. But The Black Scorpion was done on a much smaller budget than Them!, photographed and set in Mexico to lower the cost of filming. O’Brien had precious little with which to work, and that he had to spend all this time on a shoddy re-tread of most ‘50s atomic monster-cliches gives the film a depressing aura. When he gets to do his full animation, the effects look quite impressive. But he has to rely on repetition of shots and numerous close-ups of silly-looking prop scorpion faces to stretch out the budget. Even this didn’t work, since the producers ran out of money before the composite animation for the giant scorpion’s rampage through Mexico City was completed, leaving an empty black matte of the scorpion “terrorizing” fleeing citizens. It looks like everyone is running away from a shadow puppet.

O’Brien gets to excel in two sequences. The climax of the military attacking the largest scorpion inside a stadium lets the animation cut loose with the monster hurling around trucks and grabbing at a helicopter. The shots repeat a lot, but it’s hard to resist a stop-motion animated monster in full attack mode. The best section is the descent of scientists Hank Scott (Richard Denning) and Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas) into a deep underground cavern system, where they discover not only the giant scorpions, but also a tentacled worm-creature and a huge trapdoor spider. There’s a “Lost World” elegance to the backdrops and ambience here that is transporting in the best way of stop-motion animated films. Also, the two other monsters are models originally built for the lost “Spider Pit” sequence in King Kong, so they form an important part of vanished special-effects history. You’ll root for the spider to get the aggravating little kid who stows away with Scott and Ramos, however. In fact, you’ll root against the uninteresting and smug humans every chance you get, and they appear in far too much of the movie.

The DVD of The Black Scorpion is more valuable for its extras than the soggy film with interesting effects that’s its main feature. The complete “Prehistoric Sequence” from Irwin Allen’s The Animal World appears, which O’Brien animated with Ray Harryhausen. I have great memories of this footage as a child, because it appeared in numerous television specials and museum footage about dinosaurs. The narrator’s scientific commentary is amusingly inaccurate—although acceptable for its day—but the nostalgia factor of O’Brien and Harryhausen’s dinos clashing is impossible to resist. Two pieces of special effects test footage for unrealized projects are also included: “The Las Vegas Monster” (staged on sets and props from The Black Scorpion) and “The Beetlemen.”