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The Black Scorpion

After 1953's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms kicked off the Giant Carnivorous Critter craze, it wasn't long before giganormous octopi, gila monsters, spiders, caterpillars, grasshoppers, praying mantises, and other beasties gulped down unlucky bystanders and toppled toy trucks with apocalyptic abandon. Modern fans of the subgenre rank its numerous entries on strict scales of quality and entertainment value. The title on hand here is not regarded as the Citizen Kane of the bunch, or even the Krush Groove. It does, though, possess one element of historical-technical interest to special-effects enthusiasts.

1957's The Black Scorpion is a white-label knockoff of Them! that replaces giant ants with immense salivating, roaring (!) scorpions. Volcanic eruptions in Mexico release this swarm of subterranean terrors, freeing them to stalk the countryside snacking on cattle and humans as they go. The usual central-casting quota of Handsome Scientist, Pretty Girl, Unhandsome Scientist, Very Annoying Child, and Ineffectual Military Personnel lead us to a climactic showdown with the title arachnid (apparently the "Who's Your Daddy?" of the horde) in a Mexico City bullfight stadium. But not before a telephone lineman meets his icky-grisly demise, a toy train filled with passengers gets soundly derailed, military helicopters are pulled from their wires, and spacesuited humans descend into the creatures' cavernous lair. Horror movie aficionados will recognize "Dr. Hank Scott" as Richard Denning (The Creature From the Black Lagoon).

The Black Scorpion is a drive-in programmer that's run-of-the-mill even by period B-flick standards. What makes it noteworthy is this — the monsters were stop-motion animated by Willis O'Brien, the special-effects master whose King Kong in 1933 set the standard for all subsequent model animation. So they're more interesting than the average man-in-a-rubber-suit hokum. A repeated close-up of a slavering, bellowing scorpion "face" looks more like early Roger Corman, thus providing a convenient compare-contrast between the two monster-making approaches.

All the same, The Black Scorpion is as cheap-looking as they come, and the scorpions manifest no personality (although scorpions are inherently creepy-looking even at normal size), so it's a bit disheartening to see how the man who gave us Kong 24 years before (not to mention The Lost World eight years before that) was getting by in his later years. Fortunately, he had already passed his torch to his protégé Ray Harryhausen, whose more memorable 20 Million Miles to Earth also premiered in '57. Except for O'Brien completists, we recommend the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version.

*          *          *

Warner Brothers understands that a good DVD edition of a bottom-shelf cataloguer like The Black Scorpion can be an item worth our attention if it delivers two things: (1) a good, solid print that shows some grain but is clear and reasonably clean with only minor wear plus good DD 1.0 audio (check!); (2) a cool collection of extras for students of stop-motion arcana (check! again).

The Black Scorpion arrives with a trio of new (2003) well-made mini-featurettes designed for those whose interest in the main feature goes beyond the MST3K level. In the first, Stop-Motion Masters (3 mins.), Ray Harryhausen tells us about the life-altering influence King Kong had on him and how it led to his introduction, via a classmate, to Willis O'Brien, who invited the young animator-to-be to his studio at MGM. Eventually Harryhausen's "dream come true" arrived when O'Brien hired him to assist on Mighty Joe Young.

In The Animal World (11½ mins.), Harryhausen introduces a clip from a 1956 documentary by Irwin Allen, who hired O'Brien and Harryhausen to create the dinosaur-filled "Prehistoric Sequence." Assorted dinos forage, hatch, attack, and grapple to the death before fiery geological cataclysms doom them to extinction. Shot under a restrictive budget, the tabletop model work is crude even for the O'Brien-Harryhausen oeuvre of the time, but this clip is still a fascinating archival piece. The color footage is very well preserved and sports fine DD 2.0 audio.

Thirdly, one of O'Brien's other assistants gets some attention with Las Vegas Monster and Beetlemen Test Footage (4½ mins.). These stop-motion trials from the 1950s were posthumously discovered in a trunk and salvaged by some of Hollywood's renowned animators. The "Las Vegas Monster" is described in a text intro as a baboon mutated after being used in an experimental rocket launch. Kong-sized and sporting a pair of weird facial appendages, it attacks what seems to be a farmhouse before turning its malevolent attention to a truck. "The Beetlemen" is only 40 seconds long and in poor shape, but its view of astronauts mutated into spindly insect-like creatures makes for a surreal sight. Both clips are enhanced with effective musical scoring.

The disc closes with amusingly overbaked vintage trailers for The Black Scorpion, The Valley of Gwangi, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and Clash of the Titans. Snap-case.

—Mark Bourne

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