The Black Scorpion (1957) ***
Some years ago, I found myself staying up late one night, watching a documentary about scorpions on what must have been the Discovery Channel. It was one of the better-done nature shows Iíve seen, and it was especially heavy on the fiber-optic and miniature camera work, giving the impression of the camera existing on the same scalar plane as the scorpions. As I watched the show, it dawned on me that if scorpions were big-- say the size of a collie, for instance-- they would be the scariest things in the world. And lo and behold, it seems somebody had the very same idea more than 40 years ago, only they were able to talk someone else into letting them make a movie out of it. And that somebody wasnít content with collie-sized scorpions, either; The Black Scorpion exhibits that curious indifference to matters of scale which afflicts so many American giant monster movies, but at the very least, weíre talking about scorpions 30 feet long here (and a couple of shots suggest that the largest of them canít possibly be less than three times that big).
Believe it or not, these super-huge arachnids are not the result of an H-bomb test gone bad. Rather, they seem to have been around all along, but their extreme subterranean lifestyle kept us from ever noticing them. Then one day, a mighty geological catastrophe in Mexico sets them free. This stock-footage disaster seems to be a prodigious earthquake, accompanied by the simultaneous birth of a volcano, the latterís eruption so powerful that its cone rises to 9000 feet above sea level in just over a week. (Those of you who know a thing or two about geology will rightly snicker at the filmmakersí conflation of the very different processes that cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.) Two geologists, an American named Dr. Henry Scott (Creature from the Black Lagoonís Richard Denning) and his Mexican partner Dr. Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas of They Saved Hitlerís Brain), go to study the phenomenon, but they become distracted by some alarming discoveries they make on their way to the nearby town of San Lorenzo. As they drive through the desert at night, they first hear some very loud thing making the most hideous, unearthly sounds, and then stumble upon a ruined farmhouse the damage to which is all wrong for an earthquake. It looks as though something knocked a hole in one wall, and it seems as though whatever it was then turned its attention to a police car that happened upon the scene at precisely the wrong time. The last time I saw a car that looked like that was when the gigantic locusts ate the necking teenagers in the opening of The Beginning of the End. And the only people Scott and Ramos can find at the house are an abandoned baby and the exsanguinated body of the police carís driver.
The next day, the two geologists learn that the neighborhood of San Lorenzo has been positively plagued by strange goings-on of late. In addition to the destruction of houses and the disappearances of people, there have been wholesale slaughters of livestock and strange, inhuman cries in the night. The locals have begun circulating the story of a demon bull, apparently some sort of old Indian legend, and have been pestering their priest for divine assistance. Even the tough-as-nails vaqueros who work for local rancher Teresa Alvarez (Mara Corday, who also starred in such deathless classics as Tarantula and The Giant Claw) have run away from the ranch, leaving Alvarezís cattle to fend for themselves. Now, much to our relief, The Black Scorpion is not one of those movies that attempts futilely to keep you in ersatz suspense (for Christís sake, itís called The Black Scorpion-- itís not as though thereís some question as to what the monster will be!); it waits only half an hour before unleashing not one but at least several dozen mammoth scorpions on the Mexican countryside. The giant bugs eat a telephone repair crew out in the desert, and then come calling at Alvarezís ranch, Mira Flores. (I love Movie Spanish. The closest English rendering I can think of for Mira Flores would be, ďLook-- flowers!Ē) These are some seriously cool monsters, or at least they are half the time. The excessively anthropomorphic models that are used for close-ups of the scorpionsí faces are pretty fucking terrible (granted, I never made much headway on that entomology degree that I originally entered college aiming for, but I donít think scorpions drool, and Iím dead certain they lack eyebrows), but the stop-motion monsters by King Kong creator Willis OíBrien are top-notch-- they even move almost like real scorpions. Anyway, the scorpions tour Mira Flores handing out complimentary samples of eight-legged whoop-ass, and proving themselves invulnerable to small-arms fire in the process. Clearly, this is a job for the Proper Authorities!
In this case, the Proper Authorities are the Mexican army and a world-renowned entomologist named Velasco (Carlos Muzquiz). Scott and Ramos get to tag along because theyíre world-class spelunkers and the scorpions live in a huge cave below the volcano. Alvarez gets to tag along because she has huge, pointed 50ís boobs, and Juanito (a child whose relationship to Alvarez is unclear) gets to tag along because this is a monster movie, and heís an annoying little kid. The plan is for Scott and Ramos to descend into the cavern with Mexican army-issue nerve gas to poison the scorpions, and if that fails, to blow up the cavernís entrance, trapping the big bugs inside. The scene in the cave may well be the high-water mark of the movie. At the very least, it involves the most monster action, including a pair of scorpions killing and eating some colossal worm-thing, a beetle-like creature (originally created for King Kongís legendary, long-lost spider pit sequence) attempting to eat Juanito (it sadly fails), and several exciting battles between the scorpions themselves. In a textbook example of telegraphing future developments, the most intense scorpion fight introduces us to that really gargantuan scorpion I mentioned earlier, and reveals that the scorpions kill each other by aiming their stingers at a small vulnerable patch on the underside of the throat. (That isnít actually too far from the truth. Scorpions are intensely territorial cannibals, and the only meetings between them that donít end in violence occur when the scorpions in question are of opposite sexes, and both happen to be horny. Scorpions are so heavily armored, though, that the only way they can hurt each other is by wedging their stingers between the plates of their opponentsí carapaces.) Hmmm... Scott and Ramos discover a weak spot in the monstersí armor... what could this mean?
The cavern ends up being too deep for a gas attack to do any good, so the army proceeds with Plan B and dynamites the entrance to the cave. Of course, nothing is ever that simple in a monster movie, so obviously a few scorpions (including and especially the big one) manage to find their way to the surface, where they derail a train, go into a mako shark-like feeding frenzy over the wreckage, and start killing each other until only one (and which one do you think it is?) remains. The last scorpion then pays a little visit to Mexico City for a showdown with the noticeably ill-equipped army. Oh, did I mention that Velasco has a high-tech gadget? You can take it from here, I think.
If youíve come to The Black Scorpion looking for surprises, youíve come to the wrong place. But does any of us really expect to be surprised by anything we see in a 50ís monster movie? I didnít think so. No, we watch these things because we want to see shit get smashed by something huge, ugly, and made of rubber, and on that score, The Black Scorpion delivers. Besides, itís nice to see a huge monster attacking someplace other than Tokyo, New York, or Washington DC for a change, and I honestly canít think of another such film whose climax takes place in Mexico City. Thatís got to be worth something right?