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The Black Scorpion

The Black Scorpion(1957)

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In the wake of Them! (1954) - the granddaddy of all giant radioactive insect movies - Warner Brothers attempted to duplicate the success of their former box office smash with The Black Scorpion (1957). Set in Mexico, this science fiction thrille (now on DVD from Warner Video) follows two geologists - Henry Scott (Richard Denning) and Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas) - as they investigate a once dormant volcano that recently erupted. Their research yields a frightening discovery - a nest of gigantic scorpions in the caverns beneath the active crater. Even worse, these oversized critters leave their lair at night to seek human prey in the neighboring villages. With dynamite, Henry and Arturo successfully destroy the colony but fail to kill the king scorpion who escapes to Mexico City to sample the local cuisine. Eventually, the big bad mamma-jama is electrocuted after being lured to the public bullring with a truckload of fresh beef.

Pete Peterson and Willis O'Brien, the special effects technician who helped pioneer the use of stop-motion animation in fantasy adventures like The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933), were hired to create the title monster as well as some other cave dwellers including an inchworm with claws and a gargantuan spider. Without a doubt, these are the film's true stars and the sequence where a passenger train is attacked by The Black Scorpion is particularly gruesome with scores of screaming victims being stung and devoured. Equally impressive is the scorpions' lair in which the chiaroscuro lighting and set design create a unique fantasy world inhabited by Peterson and O'Brien's wicked creatures.

It was rumored that The Black Scorpion began as a test reel by Peterson and O'Brien that showed a giant scorpion demolishing a truck and snatching a man from a telephone pole with its claw. While this fact remains unproven, it was true that the producers of The Black Scorpion ran out of money during the filming, well before the final sequence where the title monster invades Mexico City. As a result, Peterson and O'Brien were forced to use a traveling matte in all the crowd scenes where the scorpion appears with live people but the effect is still superior to what you see in most giant bug movies.

The Black Scorpion was directed by Edward Ludwig, a former silent film actor, and according to leading lady Mara Corday, he was no picnic at the beach. In an interview with Tom Weaver for It Came From Weaver Five: Interviews with Moviemakers in the SF and Horror Traditions, she recalled Ludwig "was from the old school of screaming, so the Mexican people did not like him at all. They sabotaged some of the equipment and we had a little bit of tough times there. And I didn't get along with him too well, either. I can't stand people who make it tough on the set. I like to joke and make it loose. We're not doing Gone With the Wind....He got mad at me because I would not go right to my dressing room after the scene, like the old stars did...I said, "Please don't tell me how I'm going to behave. I'm not going to do that. That's none of your business. Once you say cut, that's it!" I didn't like that one bit."

Richard Denning also recalled the filming of The Black Scorpion in They Fought in the Creature Features, a book of interviews by Tom Weaver. Besides intimating that Mara Corday was trying to seduce him during production - an allegation that she completely denies - he also had some candid comments about the Mexican locations: "We shot out in villages, and I remember one day we had box lunches out in this village, outside of Mexico City. We broke for lunch and we're having sandwiches. I went to take a bite, and the flies were so thick on the sandwich I had to blow them away before I could take a bite, and hope I wasn't getting too many flies! We were in the town center, and it's the town rest room - there's no sanitation. You walk in there, and you just try to find a place to step so you're not stepping on a recent pile. And the flies are all over. So I wound up after that one with intestinal amoeba and dysentery and hepatitis. All from The Black Scorpion."

But enough about that. Warner Video's DVD edition of The Black Scorpion is given a presentation worthy of a major A-title and not what you'd expect for the release of a minor, non-essential sci-fi flick from the fifties. The transfer looks fairly sharp on this black and white feature though some of the night scenes are difficult to view. Overall however, it's an excellent package and includes some nifty extras including "Stop-Motion Masters," a new featurette with commentary by Ray Harryhausen that recaps some of his career highlights and the work of his mentor Willis O'Brien. There is also a colorful and fascinating excerpt from the dinosaur sequence in Irwin Allen's The Animal World and best of all, some rare, never-before-seen test footage of "the Las Vegas monster and beetlemen." The visual quality is pretty rough but fans of Harryhausen, O'Brien and stop-motion animation won't care.

For more information about The Black Scorpion, visit Warner Video. To order The Black Scorpion, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeff Stafford