Dec 22, 2014

On DVD: Buckets of Drool in The Black Scorpion (1957)

The minute I finished watching the new Warner Archive disc of The Black Scorpion, I did a quick Google search: "Do scorpions drool?" I got two links, both of them to reviews of this movie. So my guess is no, they probably don't in real life, but they sure do in this movie. I mean big, gushing rivers of goo. It's almost as if the filmmakers are telling you not to take anything you see too seriously. And I didn't. With great model work, an unusually generous view of Mexicans and a good pace, this was a fun monster flick, drool and all.

The story begins with an earthquake in Mexico, which immediately leads to the formation of an active volcano. A pair of geologists, one Mexican, the other American, go to study the phenomenon. On their way to the location, they find mysterious signs of destruction. They are soon consulting an entymologist and plotting the demise of enormous once dormant insects that have resurfaced from beneath the earth.

It is surprisingly difficult to get a decent screenshot of scorpion drool
Willis O'Brien (King Kong, The Lost World) works his usual magic on the stop motion animation. The scorpions are sinuous and sinister; you can sense their weight as they stomp through villages and cause massive destruction fighting each other. Like hand-drawn animation and 35mm film, I think model work adds a warmth to movies that can't be replaced with digital technology. Is it too much to hope that someone will one day revive this fascinating art form in a major film?

It takes about a third of the movie for the big scorpions to make their first appearance, but the set up leading to that moment is surprisingly entertaining. This is not the kind of flick where you can expect great acting, but the cast has an easygoing charm. They're sometimes wooden, but mostly personable. There's not much here that would be novel to fans of the genre, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the many Mexican characters were all treated with respect, and shown to be intelligent, hardworking and in several cases to also possess advanced degrees.

There's a love interest for the American, a sharp-witted ranch owner. She's a great female character at first, brave, resourceful and hardworking, but the era being what it is, she's soon expected to take notes, babysit and put on a pretty evening gown. Still, she's a step above your typical sci-fi heroine, even giving her gringo suitor a few pointers on Mexican culture.

The Black Scorpion gives you what you expect: a few white knuckle moments, a bunch of guys screaming "arrggh!" and great monsters. That it also treats all of its characters with respect, whatever their race or sex, makes it all the more enjoyable.

Special features include a short clip of effects legend Ray Harryhausen sharing his stories about working with Willis O'Brien, a clip about the pair's prehistoric animation for the documentary The Animal World (including the sequence from the film), some re-discovered test stop motion footage featuring a mutated baboon with a weird, wiggling nose and a few sci-fi trailers.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

No comments:

Post a Comment