The Black Scorpion
Wow! Prime stop-motion animation from the heyday of monstrous science fiction, in a new restoration that puts a brilliant shine on those creepy crawly critters. Richard Denning fights giant arachnids while Mara (swoon) Corday frets and wrings her hands, waiting for the next kissing scene. The new scan clears up a lot of flaws, and gives us a much better look at the Lost Art of stop-motion magic.
The Black Scorpion
Warner Archive Collection
1957 / B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 88 min. / Street Date March 20, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Richard Denning, Mara Corday, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, Carlos Múzquiz, Pascual García Peña
Cinematography Lionel Lindon
Special Effects Willis H. O’Brien, Pete Peterson
Art Direction Edward Fitzgerald
Film Editor Richard L. Van Enger
Original Music Paul Sawtell
Written by Robert Blees, David Duncan and Paul Yawitz
Produced by Jack Dietz, Frank Melford
Directed by Edward Ludwig
The ’50s big-bug monster show The Black Scorpion now gets its moment of glory. First things first — this new scan of The Black Scorpion betters anything I’ve seen of this key stop-motion monster romp, including earlier discs from Warners. Different, improved elements have been sourced. I’ll explain more below.
Standing in line behind top rank monster movies like Them! are the also-ran titles such as this offering from the producers of Ray Harryhausen’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Leaning heavily on the earlier hits, the makers of The Black Scorpion whipped up a derivative thriller to compete with other insect horrors in the Big Bug Year 1957: The Deadly Mantis (May 26), Beginning of the End (June 28), and Scorpion (October 11).
Of the three pictures Scorpion has by far the most effective and exciting special effects. The rampaging giant arachnids are scary, nightmarish things that only a zoologist could love. They skitter along quickly, like real scorpions, with nervous, chopstick claws that snatch up victims as if they were grains of rice. The great Willis O’Brien’s epic special effects go a long way toward redeeming the weak script. Some editorial decisions don’t help either. Every animation shot that can be recycled, is repeated, some several times. Intercut with them is a foolish-looking puppet-head scorpion that screams at the camera every six seconds or so. The show is one of O’Brien’s last efforts, with most of the actual animation done by his unheralded assistant Pete Peterson.
The film’s first half hour feels like padding. Violent volcanic eruptions lay waste to a vast area of rural Mexico. Smoke billows as a portentous voiceover warns that nature is on the rampage. Geologists Hank Scott (Richard Denning) and Artur Ramos (Carlos Rivas) interrupt their researches to help with the local relief efforts as best they can, and meet the beautiful cattlewoman Teresa Alvarez (Mara Corday), dueña of Rancho Miraflores. Released from volcanic vents in the Earth, giant scorpions terrorize the already panicky campesinos. Our two heroes spearhead the scientific investigation with the Mexican authorities. A crane lowers them into a deep fissure to find out what other horrors are hidden below.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms producers Dietz and Melford, having lost the services of Ray Harryhausen to Columbia’s Charles H. Schneer, must have been directed to the only other ace stop motion animators at work in Hollywood. Frustrated in his attempts to repeat the success of King Kong, Willis O’Brien’s personal fantasy projects time and again fell prey to abusive producers. Obie’s name might end up on the credits for the sake of status, as happened with 1960’s The Lost World, but few producers let him make a real creative contribution. One of them snuck away to Tokyo with his story about a monster called Prometheus, which eventually became King Kong vs. Godzilla. Another project was split in two, with each half produced in Mexico as The Brave One and The Beast of Hollow Mountain. The latter film used weak stop-motion work done by other animators.
The Black Scorpion was filmed in Mexico as well, but not as a co-production. Legend has it that the effects were performed in tiny studios rented by Pete Peterson and Willis O’Brien, and even in their garages at home.
The story of The Black Scorpion is a rehash of the four or five ‘big monster attack’ films then on the books. The acting is decent, except for an incredibly annoying Kid who tags along to plague the heroes, whining at the top of his lungs: “I want to hee-lp yew!” He’s played by Mario Navarro, and if you need another excuse to dislike him, he was also one of the brats that got Charles Bronson shot dead in The Magnificent Seven.
Veteran director Edward Ludwig knows where to put a camera but the performances still seem by-the-numbers. Richard Denning and Mara Corday make an effort in romantic scenes, to no avail — we can only imagine that the lovely Ms. Corday is thinking, ‘well, this guy’s much better than John Agar.’ The kissing couple only keeps the audience from what it came to see — giant rampaging scorpions.
Not helping is a script that delays the entrance of the scorpions for a full half-hour, as crowds of anonymous refugees flee from volcano eruptions. Not until a ‘normal’ scorpion freed from an ancient piece of amber turns out to be alive, do the big monsters even make an appearance. The rest of the dramatic scenes are just place holders between the four Big Bug set pieces.
An attack on a ranch has some effective moments and good animation, especially the opening when a monster gobbles up two telephone linemen. Next comes an exciting journey into a subterranean nest of slimy-crawly arachnids, which can be considered either a repeat of the Kong spider pit, or a dry-land version of the diving bell scene from Harryhausen’s The Beast. Living in the caverns are strange prehistoric worm-things and a trap-door spider that pursues the little stowaway Mario Navarro. To our dismay, the damn kid escapes.
The great third act opener is a chilling midnight attack on a passenger train. A scorpion big enough to derail a locomotive straddles the tracks like a toreador facing off against a bull. This variation on the famous El-train wreck in King Kong has a nightmarish tinge: the scurrying scorpions use their claws like chopsticks, and snap up hapless survivors as if they were grains of rice. A scorpion holds one squirming man up to the moonlight before chowing down on him, an horrific variation on the New York cop who becomes a breakfast snack for the producers’ The Beast.
The finale in a Mexico City stadium pulls out all the stops. Having thoughtfully killed all the other scorpion monsters, the surviving giant battles trucks, tanks and helicopters. The camera movement in this scene is superb, panning and tilting with the action. The animation is ambitious and grandiose, with as many as three scorpions on screen at a time, moving their 24 legs and six claws in staccato steps. The scorpion and the armored vehicles are in constant motion, with superimposed explosions working as well. It must have been a major stop-motion headache, and our admiration for key technician Pete Peterson is made greater by the knowledge that he was said to suffer from arthritis. You can bet that later stop-motion animators studied this sequence closely.
Real scorpions are lightning-quick, aggressive horrors, and The Black Scorpion exploits them fairly well. The ugly bugs seem angry and ferocious, but they just don’t have personalities. Making matters worse is the ridiculous big rubber scorpion face that is thrust at us drooling and screaming in dozens of unwelcome cuts, not for a moment matching anything in the animation. Its hairy mouth looks like the grille of a 1953 Corvette. Did the time and money run out? It is sad to think of O’Brien and Peterson being forced to intercut the insert puppet with their otherwise excellent effects shots.
There’s a lot of stop-motion in the movie. The editors multiply the monster footage by recycling shots as optical blowups. It doesn’t take a sharp eye to see the same identical action recurring only a few seconds later, only larger and more grainy. The same superimposed explosions are repeated, suggesting that they were animated onto the original camera negative. One shot of a trio of scorpions exiting a cave is repeated six or seven times, in two different scenes.
Contemporary reviewers of The Black Scorpion were fairly kind. Daily Variety admitted that it ‘manages some high degree of excitement and a chilling windup’ and that the special effects ‘are particularly well-handled.’ But they also called it ‘haphazardly put together,’ and faulted a tedious first half. The reviewers also complained about the print being so dark that drive-in movie patrons might not be able to see what’s going on. The movie does have its share of dark night scenes, but the HD transfer lessens the gloom, pulling extra detail out of Lionel Lindon’s B&W photography.
Richard Denning is a solid hero-type; actors in his bracket couldn’t afford to turn down assignments that promised top billing. Mara Corday elevated every movie she appeared in and is still a ’50s fave genre actress. She must have been thoroughly discouraged after this unrewarding show and the embarrassing The Giant Claw. That epic about a flying super-turkey is less impressive than the average birthday piñata. And it came out just a season before Scorpion in July of 1957, possibly making our dream girl Mara the most-abused contract player of the decade.
Carlos Rivas is a likeable sidekick, and the Mexican professors and military men are portrayed with respect. Except, that is, for a poor dope who picks up an electrified harpoon while the circuit is still closed. As for young Mario Navarro, you just want to hit the brat with a shovel: “I want to hee-elp yew!” – – – CLANG!
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Black Scorpion is an impressive widescreen scan of this very special monster show for the legions of stop-motion fans. The new scan really brings those killer bugs to life; the result looks far better than the earlier DVDs, both Warners’ flat release (2003) and the WAC’s widescreen edition (2015). The film element transferred is clearly different — there’s more detail in the dark areas of the frame, and less film damage. The visual appearance is much better than any of the images used to illustrate this review. Even the optical blow-ups look better than ever.
We likely watch this movie now to admire the artisanship in its elaborate stop-motion effects; this sharp HD transfer gives us a lot more to see. O’Brien, Peterson and his animation assistants chose dynamic angles that cut together well. We now notice more of what’s going on in the busy animation scenes. The new transfer also clears up a mystery from earlier releases, where a number of animation shots in the cavern sequence were less distinct, and heavily scratched. It’s all back to prime quality now, indicating that the earlier film source had some replacement footage of lesser quality. The images throughout are now consistently pristine.
Something very notable happens in the 54th minute, after a close shot of a cavern scorpion walking right to left. Why it has a wire loop under its belly, I couldn’t say. In the next cut the scorpion grapples with one of those clawed worm monsters. On the old DVD transfers, as he turns the worm upside-down, a visible BLIP of something goes by. Isolating the frame reveals the blip as a large position gauge to aid the animator. He just forgot to remove it for the one frame. On the old DVD discs it’s very noticeable, even at 24fps. But it’s not present on this Blu-ray.
(Please note that this low-grade photo from a monitor doesn’t reflect the excellent disc quality.)
Did someone in the remastering process skip that particular frame? Either that, or the frame had already been removed on this better-quality film source. I’ve learned that when errors like this occurred during stop-motion filming, the animator might re-shoot the frame and continue. He’d leave a note for the editor to cut out the offending ‘mistake’ frame.
[A tangent on animation position gauges: the late effects artisan Dave Allen once told Randall W. Cook that he had rented a Budget Films 16mm print of the 1951 stop-motion picture Lost Continent to examine the animation. He found out that most of the LC animation was shot ‘on twos,’ which explains why it looks so rough. While rolling the projector at half-speed, he noted that a carpenter’s claw hammer popped in for two frames. The poor animator didn’t have anything better to serve as a position gauge.]
Animation fans don’t mind finding these mini-errors. They want to see the shows as they were, with flaws intact. We love the imperfections for what they teach us about the process. Almost every shot in Black Scorpion has ‘interesting’ things happening. Areas of light and dark on the miniatures pop on and off, as if the animator didn’t realize he was blocking one of his own lights. On this better transfer we can occasionally see various ‘solid’ parts of miniatures, etc., shift about. The animators must have had to do their work very quickly. Although I’m told that the scorpion puppets were rather large, perhaps the tabletop setups barely gave them enough elbow room to reach in and move them without bumping into things.
The improved image also gives us a better look at the various composite shots, where model volcanoes are split-screened into Mexican landscapes. What’s interesting about this is that the volcano part of the image is double-printed to slow down the smoke. O’Brien didn’t fully duplicate his disciple Ray Harryhausen’s Dynamation ‘reality sandwich’ method of putting monsters into live-action settings. He instead uses the older technique of projecting human figures from behind, into glass paintings (we can see reflections from time to time). Some cavern shots are real but many angles are elaborate miniatures, as are the large miniature sets to represent the cavern, the landscape around the arroyo, the wall to the Rancho Miraflores, the site of the train wreck and the stadium. If a human figure appears, it’s most often another animation puppet (as in the photo just below).
The Black Scorpion instead uses plenty of standard rear projection, where the foreground actors look at monsters in the background. In one underground scene, Hank and Artur watch as some big bugs exit screen left. They follow and a cut to a new shot shows them moving into a different position to observe. The shots are of course filmed on the same studio RP screen, with a slight change of angle. A foreground boulder has been swapped out for a different stalagmite rock, but the line of rocks at the bottom of the frame is exactly the same in both shots, even though they’re supposed to be different locations.
Reviewers and knowledgeable genre critics keep talking about traveling mattes, when the show doesn’t have any. The late Bill Warren spread the assumption that the overused, unconvincing silhouette scorpions in the final reel are ’empty mattes’ where the scorpion images were meant to be printed-in. There are no opticals of that kind in any of the animation sequences; whether by choice or budgetary haste, the producers just opted to animate the silhouettes, with the idea that they were night scenes, and full animation wasn’t necessary. They are the weakest shots in the movie — excepting the big drooling scorpion heads.
[Another tangent: in the late 1980s The Black Scorpion wasn’t easy to see, at least in the Los Angeles area. When ILM was doing effects for a particular movie (maybe Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), Rocco Gioffre asked me if I had it in my 3/4 video collection, because the animator wanted to study it. I did, and sent along a copy.]
Warners again repeats its earlier extras, which remain in Standard Definition. First up is a pair of audition reels by animator Pete Peterson. The Las Vegas Monster test is a couple of minutes of an unpleasant-looking creature shambling around miniature settings from The Black Scorpion. The second item The Beetlemen is just a fragment, one strange deteriorated color shot of exo-skeletoned men crawling about (on a rooftop?).
The third extra is the entire prehistoric sequence animated by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen for Irwin Allen’s docu The Animal World. The transfer is flat 1:37. I must have owned three copies of the View-Master 3-D slide set of this sequence. It’s great to see the rare footage, even though the technique returns both animators back to the concept level of 1925’s The Lost World. The seriousness of Irwin Allen’s intentions is signaled by a typical voiceover line: “This was millions of years before man came along, but if he were there…”, followed by a sloppy shot of a caveman being eaten by a dino. The dinosaurs don’t look that good and the animation isn’t that hot either, but the scenes are colorful and attractive.
Incidentally, the disc’s The Black Scorpion trailer ballyhoos it as the next step in horror to follow The Beast and Them!, both of which were big hits for Warners. In the trailer is a shot of Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus stomping around New York that I don’t recognize from the original film.
I met star Carlos Rivas on a TV commercial shoot around 1985. He was a great raconteur and was not upset in the least that I asked him about The Black Scorpion and Madmen of Mandoras, directed by my UCLA professor David Bradley. Even as a senior citizen Rivas looked like lady-bait… a 1950s Jimmy Smits and Antonio Banderas combined.
The chintzy cover art was a good sales angle for the film’s theatrical release, although why the pictured female thinks the goofy horror-head is sexy, I couldn’t say. Mara Corday stays in Ranchera outfits through most of the movie. That’s a shame — her Playboy pinup from October 1958 is hot, hot stuff.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Black Scorpion
Movie: Good, but Excellent for stop motion fans.
Supplements: Stop Motion Masters, The Animal World dinosaur sequence, “Las Vegas Monster”
and “The Beetlemen” test footage, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 22, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Visit CineSavant’s Main Column Page
Glenn Erickson answers most reader mail: email@example.com
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Joe Dante on O’Brien’s stop-motion thriller: