Over the last decade or so, Baby-Boomer genre fans and collectors have welcomed a resurgence of science fiction and horror films of the 1950s in the form of standard and blu-ray DVD releases. The packaging and availability, however, differs wildly. There are some incredible bargains, such as the four-pack Icons of Horror: Sam Katzman boxset that collects The Giant Claw, Creature with the Atom Brain, Zombies of Mora Tau, and The Werewolf for the price of a single blu-ray disk. We’re not talking low-quality public domain films here, shoddily transferred from a blurry VHS tape recorded off television; these are crisp black-and-white prints as watchable now as when the viewer was 10- or 12-years old.
A number of until-recently-inaccessible films have received a (theoretical) upgrade to blu-ray format in either single or double-feature releases. Among those are some classics – Forbidden Planet and Them!, for example – and some less-than classic, such as The Neanderthal Man. And last, and not quite least, are the few titles held closely by production companies and released only in DVR format. The Black Scorpion, available on-demand from the Warner Bros. Archive Collection, is one of those titles. It is very doubtful that we’ll ever see a blu-ray version of this fun little picture, but… never say never.
The Black Scorpion carries a serious pedigree – it is the last feature film associated with the legendary Willis H. O’Brien, or OBie in genre vernacular. O’Brien is arguably the most famous of stop-motion film effect creators, at least until the emergence of Ray Harryhausen, and Harryhausen was O’Brien’s protégé. O’Brien developed the technology behind King Kong (1933), Son of Kong (1933; uncredited), and the original Mighty Joe Young (1949). The mantle of superior achievement in stop-motion technology passed on to Harryhausen in 1958, with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Received industry knowledge indicates that The Black Scorpion film emerged from test footage of a stop-motion scorpion created by O’Brien and his assistant, Pete Peterson. Warner Bros. producers, intrigued by the possibility of a money-making successor to Them! (1954), hired O’Brien and Peterson to follow-up and expand the test footage into a marketable film. As it turned out, The Black Scorpion was released with a simplistic story and a weak script, but the effects are so diverse and bizarre they carry the film.
The Black Scorpion is somewhat of a rarity among the Big Critter films of the 1950s in that the titular monster derives from volcanic activity rather than the common radiation mutation. Principal location cinematography in Mexico adds additional verisimilitude to the story – the terrain is sufficiently rugged, remote, and an active volcano is certainly not out of the question. The volcano opens a cavern from which several giant scorpions emerge to terrorize the rural countryside. But the special effects team serves up additional visual treats – in addition to the “regular” giant scorpions, there is a gigantic scorpion that preys on its own, and anything else that gets in the way, and assorted large insects lurking in the cavern.
Richard Denning plays Hank Scott, an American geologist sent to Mexico to do science on the volcano, but also help authorities with relocation of villagers cut off by earthquakes and landslides. And there he meets wealthy rancher, Teresa Alvarez, as played by the gorgeous Mara Corday, just as the scorpions begin their ravaging. Both actors were not strangers to genre films in 1957. Denning was a very visible semi-heavy in the widely acclaimed Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and lesser vehicles such as Target: Earth (1954), Roger Corman’s post-apocalyptic “thriller” Day the World Ended (1955), and Creature with the Atom Brain (1955). He also was a TV stalwart both before and after this particular film, probably most widely known as Governor Paul Jameson in the long-running Hawaii Five-O (1968 – 1980). Mara Corday was a B-movie star with just a few TV credits. The Black Scorpion was the last of her three genre films, but the other two are memorable for different reasons – Tarantula (1955) is a highly-regarded Big Bug films, while The Giant Claw (1957) is considered to be one of the silliest of 50s black-white monster movies. Arguably, Corday was at the peak of her profession when The Black Scorpion was released. In January of that year, she married TV personality Richard Long, a union that lasted 17 years until his death in 1974. In October, 1958, she was Playboy’s co-Playmate of the Month. And a friendship kindled with Clint Eastwood on the set of Tarantula led to appearances in four of his films.
The Black Scorpion certainly can’t be considered as a classic in its genre. Production problems led to some cutbacks on special effect expenses that are very evident in the film. When the scorpion of the title has (conveniently) eaten all of his brethren and set sights toward Mexico City, what viewers see are imposed negatives of the beast rather than the complete stop-motion critter. The Black Scorpion is very, very black. But given all the associated problems, The Black Scorpion remains one of the most enjoyable of genre films. Special effects carry it almost completely, at least up to the suburbs of Mexico City.