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Warner finally delivers with terrific Black Scorpion DVD
on November 2, 2003
After disappointing DVD releases, virtually barren of extras, of some of the finest SF/horror films in their catalog (Them, Thing from Another World, Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula), Warner Video finally redeems themselves somewhat with this excellent package (and concurrent releases of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Valley of Gwangi). While the extras are not exactly generous, they're of great interest to B-movie and stop-motion animation fans. I have to place Black Scorpion in my top three Big Bug movies, along with Tarantula and Beginning of the End. Fans of Them will probably consider this heresy, but frankly, as fine a film as Them is overall, those big head-nodder ant props just never engendered much suspension of disbelief, let alone horror, in me, even as a kid. In contrast, Black Scorpion inverts the situation, with a pedestrian B-movie scenario framing some of the creepiest, scariest, and convincing Big Bug special effects footage of the era.
A volcano in Mexico releases a horde of giant scorpions that roam the countryside, destroying and killing, grabbing people with their pincers and jabbing them with their stinger tails. Several beautifully animated stop-motion set pieces are featured, including the sequence in which the scientists descend into the volcano crater to explore the scorpions' underground lair and encounter cool and creepy wormlike and spiderlike creatures; the scene of the scorpions destroying a train and feasting on the screaming passengers, then battling a supergiant "king" scorpion; and the king scorpion's last stand inside a sports stadium, where it scoops up military vehicles like marbles and plucks helicopters out of the sky, slamming them to the ground, while the military bombards it mercilessly. Black Scorpion was the last monster epic supervised by Willis O'Brien, the legendary stop-motion pioneer (The Lost World, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, etc.), though the hands-on animation was done primarily by Pete Peterson, who proves himself a close second if not equal to Ray Harryhausen in terms of technical skill. His scorpions, in contrast to most other 1950s movie monsters, are realistic, quick-moving, bloodthirsty, and relentless. Unfortunately, someone had the really bad idea to keep cutting to inserts of a laughable, drooling, life-size scorpion head prop that distracts from and somewhat undermines the otherwise stunning stop-motion animation of the scorpions and other bugs. The "black" scorpion of the title is occasionally shown as an empty black matte silhouette, apparently because they ran out of money, and the special effects scenes also suffer at times from from matting and process work with poorly matched contrast. But when the scorpions are darting around, killing with their spiked tails, there are few 1950s SF creatures that can equal them for pure repulsive horror. The human leads are familiar B-movie stalwarts Richard Denning (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Target Earth, Day the World Ended, etc.), playboy model Mara Corday (Tarantula, The Giant Claw), and Carlos Rivas (Beast of Hollow Mountain). Director Edward Ludwig had previously directed mostly B-westerns and exotica such as Smuggler's Island and Jivaro, and must have seemed like a logical choice to the producers of this monster flick set in the Mexican desert. The story is pretty generic, but moves along reasonably well, and it's really just an excuse for the monster sequences anyway, so pop some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy.
Warner's DVD finally gives fans and collectors reason for praise rather than griping. The movie is presented in 1.33:1 full frame, open matte so you can enlarge it to its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio on a 16x9 TV, and looks simply fabulous, with terrific black level, contrast, grayscale, detail, and sharpness. There is some nearly unavoidable very light speckling and spotting, but overall the print is stunning. The extras (!!) include trailers (Black Scorpion, Gwangi, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and Clash of the Titans); a three-minute featurette with Ray Harryhausen (talking about seeing King Kong as a child, meeting Willis O'Brien, and working with him on Mighty Joe Young) that's interesting and informative as far as it goes but much too brief; and the long-sought (by animation fans) and little-seen 10-minute dinosaur sequence from Irwin Allen's Animal World, apparently presented here for no other reason than Warner's had it and felt (uncharacteristically) like throwing us a bone. And last, but for me the jewels of the set, are two short (4:00 and :40) animation tests by Pete Peterson for proposed or aborted projects. The first is called The Las Vegas Monster and features a cool outsized astro-mutated baboon demolishing a house and tangling with a truck left over from Mighty Joe Young. The second, Beetlemen, is a clip of an army of walking insectoid creatures that's unfortunately in very poor condition and tantalizingly brief but still amazing and effortlessly beautiful. A comparison of Peterson's animation in these tests and The Black Scorpion with the Animal World footage (and more so Harryhausen's later films) demonstrates that while Peterson was close to Ray on a technical level, Harryhausen's creations project a "life" and "personality" that is noticeably absent in Peterson's otherwise impressive work. It really reinforces for me the true artistry of Ray Harryhausen's achievements (no slight to Peterson intended). I'm amazed that Warner bothered to include these rare tests (lost for years and discovered in a trunk) given their past track record. The only thing to complain about here are the cheap snap-case covers that Warner is still packaging their DVDs in, giving them a second-class, low-budget appearance, and leaving them more susceptible to dust, etc. But that minor grievance aside, this is a really fine release (especially for Warner Video) and needs to be in the collection of every 1950s SF or stop-motion animation fan.