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The Black Scorpion (1957)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE BLACK SCORPION (1957)

Starring: Richard Denning, Mara Corday, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, Carlos Muzquiz

Written By: Davi Duncan, Robert Blees, Paul Yawitz (story) Directed By: Edward Ludwig

The Short Version

The ultimate badass of the creepy-crawly variety gets super sized.

Treat The Black Scorpion as a Happy Meal, and you’ve got the right approach.

The wide shots of the scorpions are rather effective; the close-ups, not so much.

No one will ever accuse this movie of being socially progressive.

It you dig the old school monster drive-in, The Black Scorpion belongs on the tour.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEEZ-ITS.

Tasty but standard snack fare.


Pairs Well With...

TEQUILA.

“The alcohol, the distilled water, the salt solution…  I can understand that, but what’s the tequila for?”

“Well, in your country you call it a coffee break.”

“We're from Mexico City!  I say, we're from Mexico City!  We're scientists!  Is the mayor here?”


There are two reasons that you might pick up a copy of The Black Scorpion. 

First, you’ve mistaken it for the other Black Scorpion: the crime fighter flick that features Joan Severance in tight leather and fishnets and occasionally not even that.  Sorry, folks; no fishnets here, though there is a fully dressed Playboy Playmate on the cast list.  (She’d be one the following year, anyway.)

Second, you know exactly what the title scorpion really is, and you love cheesy, old school monster drive-in flicks.  You, I have better news for.  The Black Scorpion isn’t perfect by any means, but if you enjoy the genre for what it is, it’s still plenty of fun.

Our story begins in Mexico, where a volcanic eruption and the accompanying earthquakes have been playing hell with the countryside.  Where others see disaster, however, scientists see opportunities for study, and that’s exactly what American geologist Hank Scott (Richard Denning, who’d later play the Governor on “Hawaii Five-O”) and his Mexican counterpart, Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas, They Saved Hitler's Brain), aim to do.  That’s why they’ve loaded up their jeep and started off on the long haul to the volcano.  Along the way, they find an abandoned home with only a baby left alive, a crushed police car, and the cop who drove it dead a few feet away, with all the blood drained out of him.  Volcanoes and earthquakes do damage, sure, but they don’t drain blood… Whatever could have done that?

Quick: who’s read the title of the movie?  It might be relevant…

As a connoisseur of B-flicks and drive-in monster cinema, I’ve always been amazed at the lack of giant scorpion movies.  Seriously.  Zodiac cred alone should be worth a few picture deals, and in real life, pinching, stinging scorpions are the ultimate badasses of the creepy-crawly world.  You’d think that’d buy some Hollywood traction, too.  But while you’ll find countless spider flicks, bijou bats, cinema snakes, and even a small colony of ant movies, there’s only one giant scorpion picture.  Just one.  Sure, they’ve made a few guest appearances elsewhere, but as the stars of the show?  You’ve got The Black Scorpion, and that’s it.

So, how well does The Black Scorpion represent the ultimate armored arachnid?

Put simply, if you love old school giant creature flicks, then you’ve seen plenty better and you’ve seen plenty worse.

On the pro side, The Black Scorpion has the talents of stop motion guru Willis O’Brien going for it.  This is the guy who made King Kong look so good back in 1933, and who ended up being the mentor of some guy named Harryhausen.  Though his student’s name seems to linger better in present day memory, the teacher is no slouch; indeed, looking at O’Brien’s work, it’s sometimes easy to forget that it even is stop motion photography.  His wide shots of the scorpions are incredible, and there’s also a fun (and creepy) appearance made by a tentacle worm that he’d originally created for King Kong but hadn’t been able to use in that picture.

 Unfortunately, the quality of O’Brien’s work, while easily one of the film’s greatest strengths, also exposes one of its weaknesses: whenever the camera switches from O’Brien’s wider stop motion shots to a close up of the scorpion’s face, there’s just no comparison when it comes to the quality.  O’Brien’s wide shots look near-real.  The close ups look like a cheesy model made in a basement for a low-rent funhouse ride, and the silly drool gob just makes it worse.  Oops.

Compounding the problem, when I say that the camera switches to a close up of the scorpion's face, I mean it switches to a close up of the scorpion's face.  There’s just one; that’s it… and it gets used over and over and over again, to the point where even if it hadn’t already been a disappointing shot, it would have been by the end simply due to endless repetition.  Even O’Brien’s excellent (and thankfully more varied) shots are recycled many times over in very obvious fashion.  I know there’s a budget crunch with these movies, but still.  A little more effort to hide things, maybe?

The monster aside, The Black Scorpion is pretty standard 1950s drive-in fare, with all of the silly fun and not-so-fun silliness that label implies.  Starting with the silly fun, I admit that I giggled out loud when the “scientists” broke a fossil open only to have a live, millions-of-years-old scorpion come skittering out.  The test tube gag may be cheap, but it’s still a winner.  (See the quote off to the side.)  It also never ceases to amuse me how much anyone in these movies who says “I’m a scientist!” can get away with and be assumed to know.  So for the true genre fans, The Black Scorpion does have all of the usual amenities you’d expect, just like your favorite cheap hotel.

On the flip side, these films aren’t generally known for their multi-dimensional characters or their cultural progressiveness, and The Black Scorpion isn’t breaking any molds.  The hero played by Richard Denning is the standard “hero by default” model: he doesn’t actually do anything special or bring anything worthwhile to the table, instead just swaggering into a given situation and expecting everything to go his way, which by golly, it always does!  Unfortunately, in this film, that also carries some racial overtones: he’s not just the heroic man swaggering in, he’s the heroic white American man swaggering in.  Granted, the overtones are lighter than they could be, but they’re still there.  (Like, for example, when the Mexican professional soldier not only can’t shoot straight, but is also too stupid to handle a harpoon attached to a live wire and electrocutes himself.  Mr. White Guy, meanwhile, who is not a professional soldier, handles the harpoon expertly and shoots it perfectly the first time he tries.)  Worse to modern eyes, though, is how the female lead played by Mara Corday (who is so much better than what she’s given here) goes from strong woman who’d been running her own ranch and keeping a cadre of vaqueros in line for most of her life to suddenly melting into subservient goo as soon as the swaggering white guy shows up.  Oh, please…

But then again, this is where we remember that The Black Scorpion was made for its day, and not ours.

Flipping back to a positive note, the generally standard script does come up with one surprise: the movie could easily have ended fifteen minutes before it does, but the writers pull a fast one and give the audience an overall much more satisfying conclusion instead.  Nicely done, that.

At the end of the day, was I hoping for something better for my favorite arachnid?  Sure I was.  But for all of its faults, provided that one can accept the era for what it is, The Black Scorpion is still fun enough, and I’d happily sit through it again.

Bottom line, if you dig the old school monster drive-in, you’re pretty much required to see The Black Scorpion at least once, just because it’s the only real standard bearer for headlining scorpions out there.  But hey, I can think of worse chores for the “must do” list.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, June, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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