THE BLACK SCORPION (1957) (film retrospective)

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Mark Leeper

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Sep 6, 2021, 10:03:16 AM9/6/21
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The 1950s could be thought of as the Golden Age of giant arthropod
films and frequently giant arthropod films are mis-categorized as
science fiction.

Some of the Fifties science fiction films are not as good as they
once seemed. THE BLACK SCORPION, on the other hand is actually a
better monster movie than I had remembered. True, there are a few
embarrassing touches that leave a bad impression. But there are
also some subtle touches in the script. It boasts the effects work
of Willis O'Brien, best known for creating KING KONG. In fact, in
that film when Kong shakes the men from the log, they were
originally supposed to fall into a spider web. The decision was
made not to use the spiders in that film and they finally get used
here.

One of the bad touches accounts for why the scorpion had to be
black. The film ran out of money in production so no image of the
scorpion could be super-imposed over the matte silhouette of the
scorpion in many of the later scenes. The producers assumed the
imagination of the audience would fill in just a very dark scorpion
so the eye cannot find the details. In these scenes the monsters
are shown in silhouette.

The plot of THE BLACK SCORPION borrows a lot from THEM! The film
starts with an apparent news announcement of a huge volcano, the
largest in modern times, striking Mexico and bringing with it a
powerful earthquake. Two main characters, geologists (played by
Richard Denning and Carlos Rivas), are studying a volcano in Mexico
when they get involved first with a beautiful rancher and then some
mysterious disappearances. It seems a number of people including a
police officer have disappeared. Also, the scientists hear some
mysterious sounds that are a lot like the ant calls from THEM! The
locals think that the cause is a demon bull. It takes a long time
to establish that the real menace is a breed of twenty-foot
scorpions released by the volcano from being sealed in rocks. Uh,
that is the premise of this film, that arthropods sealed in rocks
for millions of years can remain alive. The idea was used in many
Fifties science fiction films and is probably based on the fact
that some animal embryos can remain viable for long periods of
time, but the idea that you could break a scorpion out of obsidian
and it would be alive as is portrayed in one scene is complete
balderdash. But in this case we are led to believe that this
particular volcano and quake released a pocket of prehistoric
monsters who had been sealed in rock. If that were true, why
hadn't it happened with any previous quakes anywhere in the world?
Our heroes find the cavern and enter it to use poison gas on the
scorpions, a plan that fails but they do get to see a variety of
giant insects, spiders, and some thing that looks like an unknown
worm-like relative of a scorpion. The humans have to struggle to
get out of the cavern. They seal it with dynamite only to have the
creatures escape to cause more havoc with an attack on Mexico City.

Richard Denning (who played an over-ambitious scientist in THE
CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) plays Dr. Hank Scott, and Carlos
Rivas (of THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN) is Dr. Artur Ramos. Mara
Corday (of TARANTULA) provides love interest as a local rancher.
The acting is not great, but sufficient.

The film shows the signs of a quick production and a bit of sloppy
script construction. The worst faults of the film are use of
mattes and the silly face of the scorpions. The face is not at all
scorpion-like and is made even less so by its teeth and the fact
that it is drooling. At one point early on we and the scientists
hear a rattle that frightens the scientists but turns out to be a
baby with a rattle. When we see the baby it seems too small and
quiet to have been doing the loud rattling. The occasional use of
under-cranked camera to speed up the action is too transparent and
unconvincing. Generally, however, money-saving corner-cutting is
cleverly concealed. In a scene of a line of scorpions leaving a
cave, footage is repeated, but it take a really close examination
to notice. The scene is used once again when the scorpions attack
a train and here it is more noticeable. A helicopter rendered in
stop-motion looks wrong because the of the difficulty of showing
its fast-spinning blades by using a motionless model repositioned
between frames. Ray Harryhausen had the same problem when he tried
to represent fast-spinning flying saucers. A familiar voice-over
voice is heard too often in the film. The same voice narrates the
opening footage, is heard on the police radio, and is heard again
toward the end of the film. We see a swarm of scorpions attack a
train, but are told shortly thereafter that only one is left alive
and are left wondering what killed all the others.

On the other hand, the script is at least reasonable, making the
film watchable by adults, and it never seems overly silly or
juvenile. Corday plays a rancher woman who is quite capable and
repeatedly impresses the men, somewhat against the stereotypes that
were common in the Fifties. One nice touch is that the scientists
make mistakes. Most notable is that they accidentally electrocute
a soldier helping them fight the largest scorpion.

The screenplay was written by David Duncan, a sometimes writer of
science fiction novels. He also wrote the screenplays of THE CURSE
OF THE FACELESS MAN, THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD, and
(best known) THE TIME MACHINE. The Willis O'Brien scorpions are
fairly nicely done and have motion like the kind Ray Harryhausen
gave his creatures. O'Brien apparently used the scene of the
attack on the phone linemen to sell the film to Warner Brothers.
That was then used in the film and for a scene shot later in which
we see the linemen, doubles were used and kept in shadow. Overall
it is not too shabby for an enlarged creature film.

Film Credits:
<https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050197/reference>

What others are saying:
<https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1044836-black_scorpion>

--
Mark R. Leeper

Paul S Person

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Sep 6, 2021, 11:16:59 AM9/6/21
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On Mon, 6 Sep 2021 07:03:15 -0700 (PDT), Mark Leeper
<mle...@optonline.net> wrote:

>The 1950s could be thought of as the Golden Age of giant arthropod
>films and frequently giant arthropod films are mis-categorized as
>science fiction.

Aka "creature features".

And this one is, indeed, one of the best.

>Some of the Fifties science fiction films are not as good as they
>once seemed. THE BLACK SCORPION, on the other hand is actually a
>better monster movie than I had remembered. True, there are a few
>embarrassing touches that leave a bad impression. But there are
>also some subtle touches in the script. It boasts the effects work
>of Willis O'Brien, best known for creating KING KONG. In fact, in
>that film when Kong shakes the men from the log, they were
>originally supposed to fall into a spider web. The decision was
>made not to use the spiders in that film and they finally get used
>here.
>
>One of the bad touches accounts for why the scorpion had to be
>black. The film ran out of money in production so no image of the
>scorpion could be super-imposed over the matte silhouette of the
>scorpion in many of the later scenes. The producers assumed the
>imagination of the audience would fill in just a very dark scorpion
>so the eye cannot find the details. In these scenes the monsters
>are shown in silhouette.

Works for me every time I watch it.
IIRC, they also see the Black Scorpion kill one of the others -- thus
revealing where the scorpions are vulnerable.

The "apparent news announcement" may have been tweaked for the film,
but the footage is most likely actual footage of the Paracutin volcano
in 1943, including the reaction of the villagers. No giant scorpions
accompanied /that/ eruption, of course.
I'm fairly sure we are told (radio announcer? gummint official?
scientist?) that the Black Scorpion killed them all.

Not that that necessarily makes the reduction in giant scorpionkind
any more realistic.

>On the other hand, the script is at least reasonable, making the
>film watchable by adults, and it never seems overly silly or
>juvenile. Corday plays a rancher woman who is quite capable and
>repeatedly impresses the men, somewhat against the stereotypes that
>were common in the Fifties. One nice touch is that the scientists
>make mistakes. Most notable is that they accidentally electrocute
>a soldier helping them fight the largest scorpion.
>
>The screenplay was written by David Duncan, a sometimes writer of
>science fiction novels. He also wrote the screenplays of THE CURSE
>OF THE FACELESS MAN, THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD, and
>(best known) THE TIME MACHINE. The Willis O'Brien scorpions are
>fairly nicely done and have motion like the kind Ray Harryhausen
>gave his creatures. O'Brien apparently used the scene of the
>attack on the phone linemen to sell the film to Warner Brothers.
>That was then used in the film and for a scene shot later in which
>we see the linemen, doubles were used and kept in shadow. Overall
>it is not too shabby for an enlarged creature film.

O'Brien, as I understand it, trained Harryhausen, so the similarity is
to be expected.
"I begin to envy Petronius."
"I have envied him long since."

T987654321

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Sep 17, 2021, 1:36:29 PM9/17/21
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Awful FX even for low budget at the time.

Paul S Person

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Sep 18, 2021, 11:39:51 AM9/18/21
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On Fri, 17 Sep 2021 10:36:28 -0700 (PDT), T987654321
<qwrt...@gmail.com> wrote:

>Awful FX even for low budget at the time.

If you say so.

I've always found them perfectly adequate.

But then, my criteria are practical: do I believe it? (That is, is
disbelief suspended?)

I'm not interested in technical details.
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