The Black Scorpion (1957) ****
Director: Edward Ludwig
Runtime: 1h 28m
I have always found it odd that the first film in any given subgenre is almost always credited with being the best. These trendsetter films are almost always quality works, but they almost always contain missteps and mistakes alongside their innovations. Subsequent films have a space to analyze the original objectively and narrow down what did and didn’t work. Over a couple iterations the generic formula is perfected, the dead space and filler is streamlined and the special effects are improved. Of course in any trend there will be a large number of junk films churned out on shoestring budgets for the sole purposes of cashing in on a craze. However, the existence of these crappy rip-offs does not rule out the possibility of a quality rip-off: a film that learns from the flaws of the original and improves on the old design. The fact that critics are so quick to identify the starting film in a subgenre as the greatest example of that subgenre speaks to a flaw in their mindset, one that values bold artistic innovation over steady incremental tweaking. This goes some way towards explaining why some critics are desperate to claim Halloween (1978) is the original slasher, when it has a small army of predecessors. This preamble only serves to buffer the minor blasphemy I’m about to commit. You see, I think that that The Black Scorpion is a better film than Them! (1954).
A huge volcanic eruption has rocked the Mexican hinterland, on the same scale as the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii. Fortunately, the volcano erupted way off in the sticks, and not say, in the suburbs of Mexico City, so the loss of life was minimal. The worst hit was the town of San Lorenzo, where all communications were cut off and large swaths of local ranches were destroyed. Dr. Hank Scott (the film’s only Gringo judging by his character's name) and Dr. Arthur Ramos are a pair of geologists who are en route to San Lorenzo to study the volcano there. After getting some directions from telephone workers trying to restore communications to the distant town the two come across a wrecked police cruiser by a decrepit old farmhouse. They find the body of the police officer the car belonged to not far off, stone dead and still clutching his sidearm. The two geologists also find a baby in the house, shaking his rattle (which they initially mistake for the sound of a rattlesnake). The baby’s presence in the abandoned farmhouse is rather alarming, so the two take the boy with them to San Lorenzo where they dump him off with some relatives.
In San Lorenzo the local priest, Father Delgado, greets the geologists and tells them about the local tales of a demon bull that have emerged since the eruption. They aren’t just stories relayed by a few drunken ranchers either, there have been a rash of disappearances like the farmhouse the geologists came upon, not to mention heaps of mutilated, partially devoured cattle. The geologists aren’t deterred, they came to analyze the volcano and no demon bull will stand in their way. Devotion to geology may explain Ramos’ eagerness to dash off to the volcano but his partner is far more interested in flirting with a local land baroness he encounters on the way. True to form, while Scott is hitting it off with Teresa Alvarez, Ramos is examining a peculiar hunk of obsidian. It was obviously dislodged by the latest eruption, but it has a curious feature: a scorpion is preserved in the stone just like a fly in Amber. Of course, if this were real obsidian there’s be no way to see the arachnid inside, as obsidian is totally opaque. Still, that’s easy to swallow compared with the fact that when Scott cracks the rock open later the scorpion scurries out totally unharmed. The two geologists head to Teresa’s ranch, which they have decided to use as base camp for their survey, as it’s closer to the volcano than the town and allows Scott to continue his flirtation.
That night we get to the real meat and potatoes of The Black Scorpion: the giant stop-motion scorpions! The giant arachnids scurry out of the ground and begin attacking Teresa’s ranch and the town. Troops of cowboys ride out to fight off the scorpions with pistols and rifles, but small caliber bullets have no effect on the creatures’ tough exoskeletons. The monsters storm through the town, sending the inhabitants fleeing in a panicked mob, while the scorpions pick off stragglers. I can hardly over-emphasize how well done these creatures are. For genre aficionados it is enough to say that I had to double check the film’s credits to make sure that Ray Harryhausen did not handle the special effects. The stop motion creatures here are easily on par with the great master’s work in Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), which puts them at the very forefront of special effects. Indeed, the special effects czar for this production was none other than Willis O'Brien, a name only scantly less well regarded than Harryhausen, providing some of the first and best work of this variety in King Kong (1933). The impressiveness of the creatures will probably be lost on modern audiences, but anyone who can appreciate the charms of a stop-motion abomination should seriously check them out.
Now that communications have been restored the government is quick to mount a response, sending Dr. Velazco at the head of a military task force. It seems odd to me that the Mexican government would choose a scientist rather than an officer for the position of Scorpion Czar, but this is probably another case where Black Scoprion is taking it’s cues from Them! (1954). However, unlike his absentminded but knowledgeable counterpart, Dr. Velazco doesn’t even seem to grasp the fact that scorpions are not aquatic; at his big strategy meeting he has the scorpion Scott and Ramos pulled out the lump of obsidian splashing helplessly in a beaker of water. Now, I understand that scorpions aren’t high on anyone’s list of animals that need to be protected from abuse, but this seems like a needlessly cruel act on the part of the filmmakers and an unfortunate black mark on an otherwise excellent movie. Anyway, Velazco says the scorpions have their nest underground, and he’s planning to track down the entrance and then flood the cavern with poisonous gas. As you might have guessed if you make a habit of watching these kinds of films, Teresa offers her services only to be initially turned down but then accepted by the men after stating her case more strongly.
The government’s forces, their numbers bolstered by a levy of local cowboys starts to scour the countryside for the scorpions' nest. The number of extras and equipment employed by the film is quite impressive, suggesting that filming costs in 1950s Mexico were even cheaper than I had previously imagined. Other than Them! (1954) I can’t think of a single 1950s Bug Movie that operates on this grand a scale. They find the chasm, but the cave looks a lot bigger than they had initially expected, so large in fact that Dr. Velazco concedes that his plan to poison the scorpions may not be viable. Velazco decides to send the geologists down into the pit to reconnoiter the scene and come up with the best course of action. They use a crane to fashion a rudimentary elevator, just large enough for the two geologists and the necessary supplies. Communication with the surface is possible only though a telephone receiver in the elevator. Unbeknownst to any of the characters, Jaunito, Teresa’s young servant, has snuck along on the expedition despite being told repeatedly to stay on the ranch. Scott tells Teresa to watch him after giving her a goodbye smooch, but either the boy is impressively stealthy or Teresa is an impressively poor babysitter, because somehow he manages to stow away on the elevator.
The geologists and the stowaway are lowered into the pit, which opens up into a vast cave system that seems to stretch across most of Mexico and the American South West. As it turns out the scorpions are not the only creatures living in the cave; there are other giant bugs are hiding out in the depths, and creatures too weird to easily classify. It’s one of the former that the scientists run afoul of first, a large serpentine oddity that seems to have multiple heads. Scott takes a shot at it with a high-powered rifle, this doesn’t stop the creature but does enough damage that it decides to seek out easier pray. The shots however catch the attention of the scorpions, which come flooding out of the woodwork in droves. It turns out that the government has greatly underestimated the scorpion menace, rather than a few dozen there are easily hundreds. The scorpions overpower the bizarre worm-like creature and start to squabble over its carcass. The squabbling ends abruptly when an especially large scorpion lumbers in and kills it’s smaller brethren.
At this point, Juanito ventures out to explore the cavern. It isn’t long before he runs into a man-sized spider that starts to chase him through the cave. Fortunately for him, his cries for help bring the geologists to his rescue; Scott shoots the scorpion while Ramos barbecues it with his flamethrower. Before they can get the boy back to the elevator though it is attacked by one of the scorpions, fortunately the cable breaks before the scorpion can pull the whole crane down into the pit. Ramos jumps onto the frayed end of the cable just as the team on the surface starts to pull it up, and clings on for dear life for the whole of the hundred or so foot ascent. Ramos and Jaunito are left at the bottom of the pit, fending off scorpions until Ramos can get the topside team to send down the cable again, this time with a loop in it. It’s a tense couple of minutes but everyone gets out of the pit with their lives. At this point night is getting close, when the scorpions will most likely return to the surface. Velazco isn’t going to take any chances of that happening, so he orders his men to seal the entrance shut with a powerful bomb. It seems the scorpion threat has been dealt with, for now.
The government task force heads back to Mexico City, while Ramos and Scott spend the next couple months in San Lorenzo on their geological survey. While, at least that’s what Ramos is doing, Scott again is more focused on romancing Teresa. However, when aerial photography reveals that at least some of the scorpions have survived and are roaming about on the surface Velazco and his military handlers summon the geologists to the capital to help devise a plan to put the scorpions down for good. Just as the team puts the finishing touches on the wiz-bang gizmo that will save the day, an electrified harpoon gun that can penetrate the creature’s armor where it’s thinnest, they get news that a nearby train has been derailed by a giant scorpion. It’s not just any scorpion either: it’s the biggest one that Scott and Ramos saw back in the cavern. The final sequence where the monster attacks Mexico City only to be put down by the military and their newest weapon is one of the finest of its variety. It feels almost like we’re transported directly into the mind of a child as he pits his rubber scorpion against his model military equipment. Any lover of monster movies owes it to himself to check it out.
One of the issues I have with mid-century monster movies is that the creature or creatures spend the entire movie all but invincible only to become easily dispatched in the last ten minutes. This is certainly the case in Giant Claw (1957), Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955). The only way I’ve seen this successfully avoided is when there are swarms of monsters, as is the case in Them! (1954), or when the monster’s death is made into a tragic event, as is the case in King Kong (1933) or Rodan (1956). However, despite watching scores of the things I’ve never seen a genuinely thrilling final battle against a single monster until now. Black Scorpion accomplishes this surprisingly rare feat by having the heroes miss their first shot against the creature, and then depicting a pitched battle as the remnants of the military scramble to buy them time to reload and try again. It seems like an obvious move to improve the suspense of the film's climax, but Black Scorpion is the only monster movie from this era that pulls off such a trick.
Black Scorpion does almost nothing new, it executes Them!’s formula almost step by step; but at every turn it delivers more fun and excitement than it’s lauded predecessor. The parts of Them! (1954) that worked are kept and the parts that should have worked better are expanded and refined. Compare the brief scenes in Them! (1954) when the heroes explore the fumigated ant colony with Scott and Ramos’ exploration of the scorpion’s cavern. The former is short and contains only a few genuine thrills; the latter fills the 2nd act and gives the special effects department a chance to showcase a menagerie of giant insects. Them! (1954) can only be considered a better film if we overemphasize the older movie’s social commentary, which would be a grave mistake as that commentary hinges on a few lines of dialogue spoken at the end of the film and a couple of arresting images. When compared to Gojira (1954), a truly great work of 50s monster social commentary, it is plain that Them! (1954) is somewhat lacking. Black Scorpion has no social commentary, it is pure escapist entertainment, but it succeeds completely at its goals.
Black Scorpion may also provide an interesting experience for viewers convinced that everything made before 1980 dripped with blatant racism. Scott, the only white character in the film, certainly is the hero but the other characters are not diminished by his heroism. As I have mentioned throughout my review his partner Ramos is far and away the more dedicated geologist and the government authorities led by Dr. Velazco, despite his odd aquatic scorpion theory, are among the most effective I’ve ever seen in a monster movie of this kind. Teresa doesn’t get to do much more than most 50s monster movie heroines, but mercifully doesn’t spend any time screaming for help. Of all the film’s secondary characters only Dr. De La Cruz, who I didn’t mention in review because he has almost no bearing on the plot, is played for laughs. Even in his case, he is still depicted as a competent MD despite his goofiness.