Friday 29 July 2011

The Black Scorpion (1957)

Director: Edward Ludwig
Stars: Richard Denning, Mara Corday, Carlos Rivas and Mario Navarro
Celebrating the 50's Monster Mash blogathon organised by Nathanael Hood at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear.

Mara Corday made two very different monster movies in 1957: The Giant Claw for Columbia and The Black Scorpion for Warner Brothers. The former saw her take on what has often been called the most ludicrous monster ever to disgrace a creature feature, La Carcagne, something like a zombie chicken version of Big Bird with a mohawk. Imagine how bad that description could look like at battleship size and then take my word that the actual creature looks worse. On the other hand, the latter saw her face off instead against effects supervised by Willis O'Brien, the original master of stop motion animation, though he wasn't working with apes or dinosaurs for a change. To assist him is Pete Peterson, who had cut his teeth on Mighty Joe Young, O'Brien's previous film. He would work with him again on Behemoth, the Sea Monster. When we see the the creature's ugly drooling face head on it's truly awful, but the animation is enjoyable throughout.

The film starts as it means to go on with the destruction of wide swathes of Mexico through a volcanic eruption and a subsequent earthquake. Driving to the remote village of San Lorenzo to take a look are Dr Henry 'Hank' Scott and Dr Artur Ramos. Scott is a geologist played by Richard Denning, a couple of years after Creature with the Atom Brain and three since Creature from the Black Lagoon. Ramos is Carlos Rivas, Texan born but of Mexican heritage and so believable as Dr Scott's local equivalent, a professor of geology from Mexico City. He's certainly much better here than in The Madmen of Mandoras, which later became They Saved Hitler's Brain. What the pair find, a couple of miles south of the village, is weird damage, certainly not natural. A police car that preceded them in by a couple of hours is mangled and its occupants gone. They find a baby in its crib. They find the corpse of Sgt Baker, propped up in a corner with an empty gun.

The padre in San Lorenzo talks of a demon bull that the townsfolk are afraid of. People are dying all over, steers too. He doesn't believe it, or at least so he says, but his congregation do. Heading up towards the crater, against the will of the army, Scott and Ramos find Teresa Alvarez, thrown from her horse and in need of rescue, but who otherwise seems to be capable enough. She's played by Mara Corday, who obviously relishes a role she can get her teeth into. Teresa is a real go getter, especially when compared to her equivalent part in Tarantula. She's run a ranch up on the hills ever since her father died and she has enough firm leadership and respect from her men to call them back to work during such a time of chaos. She does switch into a stereotypical naysayer mode on occasion but it means an intriguing character balance: half of her is as tough as her father; the other half is a sappy romantic lead. The two halves fight it out throughout.
Surely Corday's best genre role, Teresa Alvarez isn't everything she should be but she's much more dynamic than usual. Corday does a solid job in good company. Denning was a capable and experienced leading man, close to the end of a prolific career with 85 movies behind him in only two decades and only five more to come. He doesn't dominate here, because the scorpions lead the way but he keeps our attention on the side of humanity. Carlos Rivas is a decent sidekick but while he plays well off Denning he gets little opportunity to shine otherwise. Carlos Múzquiz gets little screen time but still impresses as the very matter of fact Dr Velazco. Unfortunately there's also a child actor in the film, the powerfully sincere Mario Navarro as Juanito, who latches onto Hank at the Alvarez ranch and proves a capable stowaway who's impossible to shake loose. He's seven and a half but he can ride and shoot and who knows what else. He's annoying.

The first scorpion we see is at the Alvarez ranch too, broken out of obsidian by Dr Ramos. It's only a little thing but amazingly it comes out alive. After this, it doesn't take long for us to see his giant kin, as the title promises. There's much to praise. The creatures aren't man made here like in Tarantula or of mysterious alien origin like The Giant Claw; instead they escape from vast underground tunnels opened to the surface by the volcano. There are many of them, not just one, though the Black Scorpion of the title is bigger and more dominant than the rest. Willis O'Brien and his assistant give them a great finishing move too, a powerful stab downward with the stinger, which can't help but elicit a positive reaction from the audience. 'Scorpion! Finish him! Fatality!' The disasters keep on adding up too, these rural Mexicans having a tough time of it: first a volcano, then an earthquake, ensuing giant scorpions, even a cattle stampede. Then to finish the scorpions off Dr Velazco in Mexico City wants to take them down with poison gas.
The story is better than many of its competitors and I don't just mean The Giant Claw. It's hardly groundbreaking stuff, let me be clear, but scriptwriters David Duncan and Robert Blees, working from Paul Yawitz's story, know what they're doing and they do it capably enough. I can certainly see myself coming back to this one a lot more often than most of these creature features, but to be fair the biggest reason would be Willis O'Brien's animation work, which really dominates the film. Not all the effects are solid: the scorpions look awful in facial close ups and the budget ran out before everything could be completed, so a few scenes have the giant scorpions appear in silhouette form because only the backing had been completed at that time. Fortunately much of the work had been done and there are two setpieces in particular to praise, plus a shorter scene in which an army of scorpions take on a toy train.

The first is a very traditional one, staged underground inside a huge cave in the volcano, into which Drs Scott and Ramos descend to investigate. They find old school stop motion animation, scenes that could easily have been shot thirty years earlier for more classic movies. There's that army of scorpions again, plus a giant tick and a thirty foot worm that I thought was a caterpillar. The critters fight each other too in odd prehistoric battles, one on one, two on one, whatever. These scenes are awesome fun, though the rear projection is far from pristine and there's Juanito to deal with as a stowaway, an annoying distraction from a gloriously retro war of the monsters. The second comes at the finalé, inside a large stadium in Mexico City. It's a gladiatorial orgy of monster violence with the black scorpion taking on all comers, including a helicopter. This stop motion work is joyous and it makes me smile just to remember it. It's what this genre was about.


Aubyn said...

This was a great review. Fun, informative and enthusiastic. I love the idea of Mara Corday as a tough rancher even if she does slide into damsel mode. And I really liked your description of the stop-motion scenes.

Poor scorpions. They always get a bad rap in movies.

Nathanael Hood said...

It's funny how a good monster and decent effects can save or damn a film. On the one hand, they can make films like "The Black Scorpion" fun and entertaining. On the other hand, they can ruin a film like "The Giant Claw." Of course, sometimes they can be SO bad that they make a film an instant classic like "Robot Monster."

Great review! I'm glad that you were able to participate, my friend!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I agree with you, Hal -- this is one of my favorite Mara Corday performances, so I'm glad you played that up in your excellent review. I'd definitely watch Scorpion before the ludicrous The Giant Claw any day of the week.

Thomas Duke said...

You turkeys better stop hating on The Giant Claw...oh wait...:P

I need to check this out. I've been meaning to for years it seems like.

My Giant Claw review is up, if you wanna check it out.

Grand Old Movies said...

Great review with terrific writing; love your descriptions of the animation, especially of the "gladiatorial" combat at the finale. And I deeply appreciate your succinct comment on the child actor ("He's annoying"). I suppose he was stuck in there to appeal to younger audiences, though I would think that even the kids would get impatient with him. But the scorpions are superb. I really liked the worm; had no idea what he was doing there, but he definitely added to the atmosphere.

As you point out, it was an interesting role for Mara Corday, who plays a female character both tough and feminine. I liked it when she joined the guys on the scorpion hunt, letting them know that she can shoot with the best of them. The poster art you chose was fascinating, particularly the ones showing a leering monster face and, tucked away in a corner, a half-dressed young lady. Seems a rather half-baked design; either give us a monster menacing the dame, or just give us the monster. My guess is that anyone who liked that poster would also have liked the presence of little Juanito.

Kevin Deany said...

The sequence where they descend into the cave is one of my favorite sequences from the 1950s giant creature genre.

KC said...

As fascinating as the animated elements sounds, I don't know if I could stomach these particular movie monsters. Thanks for the great review. It may be the closest I ever get to this movie!