(a film retrospective by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: 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.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2021 Mark R. Leeper