Film

Don't Open That Door! #4 - 'The Black Scorpion' (1957)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950's horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: things heat up south of the border in 1957's The Black Scorpion


The Black Scorpion

Director: Edward Ludwig
Cast: Richard Denning, Mara Corday, Carlos Rivas
US Release Date: 1957-10-11

Alternative title: The Really Really HUGE Carnivorous Blood-Slurping Scorpion Whose Color Is Pretty Much Irrelevant

POSITIVES:

Scorpions are cool

Tons of monster screen time

Kooky Mexican scientist has frightening hairpiece

World's dumbest soldier is put in charge of secret experimental weapon

Special effects supervised by Willis O'Brien, of King Kong fame

NEGATIVES:

Slow start

Stop-motion effects give way in city scenes to lame superimposed shadows

Cloying, annoying little kid. Why, God, why?

SUMMARY: Unprecendented earthquakes are raining destruction—not to mention ash and lava—down onto Mexico, and it's up to heroic geologists Dr. Scott (you can tell he's a scientist by his pipe) and Dr. Ramos to visit the benighted area and offer what help they can. Soon they start finding wrecked homes, smashed cars and dead bodies; the town of San Lorenzo is thick with rumors of devil bulls and missing people. Stranger still is the mysterious Senorita Alvarez, a planation owner whose Mexican accent keeps cropping up and then disappearing (and is gone completely after the first half hour). There's nothing to be done, of course, except to stand around wondering what the heck's going on, which everyone does for far too long. Especially once the little kid shows up.

After a while things start to get more interesting, in the form of an enormous scorpion who shows up to go rampaging through the town and environs, drooling all the while. (Memo to science editor: Do scorpions drool?) Hot on the heels of the rampaging monster comes Dr. Velasco—you can tell he's a doctor by his goatee—sent by the authorities to clean up this mess, pronto. Dr. Velasco tries to convince the others that the frog he has in a jar—or is it a turtle?—is actually a previously fossilized scorpion. (Memo to science editor: Do scorpions swim around in the water and have, like, shells?) Despite the skepticism of his colleagues, an ingenious plan is soon hatched: the geologists will descend into the crater of the currently-active volcano by means of a long, thin cable, and there they will try to smother an unknown number of gargantuan monsters with a camera and a fire extinguisher. Good luck, boys!

To the surprise of exactly nobody except maybe Dr. Velasco's turtle/frog-in-a-jar, this effort fails, though for a few exciting moments its looks like the annoying little kid Juanito might get turned to scorpion chow. In fact, all that happens as a result of this tense and lively underground sequence is that the grandaddy scorpion gets extra-annoyed and decides to take out his grief on the good citizens of Mexico City. As if they don't have enough to contend with already! Happily, the army is there and a secret weapon has been devised, although the soldier responsible for using it is stupid enough to get himself killed in the process (Memo to science editor—ahh, forget it). Fortunately for everyone, the square-jawed Anglo-Saxon Dr Scott is nearby to take things into his own hands.

Best line of dialogue: "I beg of you all not to lose your head—in any sense of the word."

What gets rent asunder: a house; a car; a police officer; various ranchers and cattle (by report); a couple of telephone line workers; a truck; pretty much the whole town of San Lorenzo; a number of creepy slug-things; a number of smaller, but also black, scorpions; the express train from Monterey; several dozen commuters; a bulldozer; several tanks; an incredibly stupid soldier; two helicopters; a heavily-drooling giant arthropod; my appetite.

What gets saved: The world's most annoying little kid. (Memo to science editor: See what you can do about this, okay?)

Moral of the story: Hey man, I don't think you should touch that.

Can you explain? All the police dispatchers and news announcers have American accents and sound like the narrator from Dragnet. I guess they have really good EFL teachers in San Lorenzo.

Somehow their careers survived: Richard Denning (Dr Scott) is best known to cheesy-movie aficianados for his role in The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), though his appearance alongside Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember (1957) is probably better known by your mom. Or your grandmom, depending. He also appeared in Roger Corman's debut masterpiece The Day the World Ended (1955). Mara Corday (Senorita Alvarez) hit a trifecta of giant-monster flicks, starring in both Tarantula (1956) and 1957's The Giant Claw. Astute viewers will have sussed out that she wasn't really Mexican. Carlos Rivas (Dr Ramos) would appear in They Saved Hitler's Brain (1964) and alongside John Wayne in 1968's True Grit. In 1956 he had appeared with Yul Brynner in The King and I. (Memo to science editor: He wasn't really from Thailand. Or Siam, as they called it back then.)

BOTTOM LINE: Them it ain't, but grit your teeth through the slow start and the second half pays off.

NEXT WEEK: El Vampiro aka The Vampire

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