Willis O'Brien (1886-1962) is considered the granddaddy of stop motion animation, having worked on the effects for the silent THE LOST WORLD and the landmark KING KONG. O'Brien was the mentor of Ray Harryhausen (who started as his assistant and eventually surpassed him career-wise) and even received a special Oscar for his work on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Still active in his 70s, THE BLACK SCORPION was one of the last films he worked on (though he was helped greatly here by assistant Pete Peterson, as Harryhausen was off on his own by this time). It's basically B-movie monster fare, with a conventional plot not unlike many other similar films of the period.
Definitely robbing a thing or two from 1954's THEM (also released by Warner Bros.), geologists Hank Scott (1950s sci-fi fixture Richard Denning, CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN) and Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas, THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN) are driving around Mexico in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption in the area. They first discover an empty house with a deserted baby (watch Denning pointing at the baby with his pistol!), a crushed police car, and a dead cop with the look of panic on his face. It seems that the eruption has caused giant-sized scorpions to emerge from underneath the Earth, and they are feeding on locals citizens and animals. Actually, the title refers to one really big scorpion, but there are dozens of the slightly-smaller buggers stomping about.
The script and execution are fairly routine, with blonde hero Denning falling for love interest Mara Corday (TARANTULA), and a typically cute kid named Juanito always in the way of danger. But the scenes of the scorpions are creepy and surprisingly violent. One of them plucks a telephone lineman from a pole and impales him with enormous stinger and destroys an oncoming passenger locomotive (remember KING KONG?) — great stuff! The best sequence is probably when our two geologist heroes are lowered into the underground nest, and barely escape from various-sized clashing scorpions, as well as spiders and worm creatures of oversized proportions. The stop motion effects are very good (there are stop motion human victims as well), but the scorpions also have to divide their time between a large model head (that looks nothing like its animated counterpart) which is repeatedly shown drooling, and a badly matted silhouette seen when a scorpion is trudging over the city.
Previously available on VHS and laserdisc, and then on full frame DVD, the Warner Archive Collection now presents THE BLACK SCORPION on made-on-demand DVD with a 1.85:1 transfer. As opposed to the previous DVD with its boxy, incorrect aspect ratio, the framing is now the way it should be, giving the film a proper, cinematic appearance. The black and white image is very crisp with rich detail, and there’s very little in the way of grain. There is some debris on the print source, and several shots display serious print damage, but these are luckily very brief. For a 1950s B movie, the mono audio is pretty solid. Optional English subtitles are included (a French language track could be found on the previous DVD, but it’s not present here, nor are there any other subtitle options).
The extras from the previous DVD have been carried over here. A featurette called “Stop Motion Masters” (3:18) has the late Harryhausen talking about his mentor O'Brien and how he came to meet him and the effect he had on his life. Also included is Harryhausen's and O'Brien's full animation sequence from Irwin Allen's THE ANIMAL WORLD (1956), a documentary feature showcasing different animal species. Introduced by Harryhausen himself, the sequence (10 minutes) depicts various dinosaurs in battle and eventually dying out. The quality on the sequence looks very nice here, and parts of this dinosaur segment were also used in the British horror film, TROG (1970). Also included are two bits of animation test footage shot by O'Brien assistant Pete Peterson in the 1950s; the first depicts a large mutated baboon ("The Las Vegas Monster") on a rampage, the second brief clip (in color) depicts a race of marching alien creatures ("Beetlemen"). Rounding out the extras are trailers for THE BLACK SCORPION (which actually compares it THEM and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS), VALLEY OF GWANGI, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and CLASH OF THE TITANS.
While it’s nice to finally have a proper widescreen anamorphic transfer of THE BLACK SCORPION, isn’t releasing this “upgrade” as a made-on-demand DVD a step backwards? We certainly hope Warner realizes that fans of these types of films are now looking for HD editions on Blu-ray disc, but the studio has been rather slow in releasing their classic genre titles to the format and rarely ever licenses them out to other boutique labels. Only time will tell, but we suggest you voice your opinion on the Warner Archive Collection Facebook page. (George R. Reis)
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