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The Black Scorpion (1957)

Written by David Duncan and Robert Blees
Directed by Edward Ludwig

Giant critters were a staple of the drive-in fare of the late 1950s. “Tarantula”, “Them!”, “The Beginning of the End”, and so many others — the genre consisted largely of forced perspective filming, footage of animals super-imposed over actors, and the occasional puppet. In these standard techniques “The Black Scorpion” falls squarely on its drooling face. Where it excels is in the superb use of stop motion animation for the majority of its creature effects.

The film opens on stock clips of volcanos and earthquakes as a narrator ponderously explains the setup. He tells us that before forces that are “the most violent of modern times”, the people of Mexico can only pray. (Cue prayer footage.) A new volcano is formed, he tells us, and it grows 9000 feet in only a few days!

No one will be seated during the rather bland opening credits.

No one will be seated during the rather bland opening credits.

When the opening credits end, we see a jeep hauling a small trailer through the wasted landscape. The vehicle stops, and our male leads climb out to drop some exposition. Hank Scott is an American, visiting Mexico through the courtesy of Professor Artur Ramos. They are geologists who’ve driven through the destruction for three days to reach the new volcano. Amid all the waste lies a literal sign of life: a road marker which (if somehow still close to its standing position) indicates that they are 117K from Mexico City1 and only 12K from San Lorenzo. There are also indications that at least one other vehicle has been through here recently.

Continuing their journey, Ramos and Scott come upon workers repairing phone lines. These men affirm that San Lorenzo is near but haven’t heard how the town has fared in the wake of the disaster. The bridges might be out, they warn. A police car that headed that way never came back, though, so it’s possible that the route is clear2. The geologists thank them and continue their thrill-a-minute drive.

They locate the police car in a tiny deserted village. The car, and pretty much everything nearby, has been demolished. They can’t tell by what, but it may be related to that buzzing sound… Scott and Ramos find one survivor (a baby) and one victim (the police officer). They use the police radio to call in their discoveries then continue on to San Lorenzo, where military assistance should arrive the following day.

A crowd greets them in San Lorenzo, and after handing the baby to a nearby woman our heroes join Father Delgado for some dinner and expository dialog. It seems that in the aftermath of the eruption there have been other disappearances and unusual destruction. When victims have been found, their bodies are bloodless and their faces frozen in fear. Largely fueled by rumors from local caballeros, the masses believe it to be the work of a demon bull3.

Of course, none of this dissuades our intrepid duo from heading ever closer into danger. The following day, against the advice of Major Corsio (head of the newly arrived army unit), our action geologists continue driving toward the new volcano. They meet up with Teresa Alvarez, owner of the Alvarez ranch (whose cattle herders have fled, fearing the demon bull). Ramos discovers a sheet of unearthed shale, and after a lot more exposition and a meal the plot finally lurches begins in lugubrious earnest.

If you think I didn’t care for this movie, you’re partially correct. The pacing is atrocious, the plot meandering, and the direction tepid. I’ve seen far worse, but on a scale of “Unwatchable” to “Play It Again Now!” I would give it an honest “Well I’ve Seen That Now”… except. Ah, except for the wonderful, animated scenes of giant scorpions and other critters!

The great Willis H. O’Brien (“King Kong”, 1933) designed and supervised the effects, and his protegé Peter Peterson handled the actual animation. There are a few major set pieces, and they are a joy to behold: the lost underground world, the train tracks, and the stadium. The scenes at the train and stadium feature a lot of giant scorpion on vehicle violence and even the grisly demise of a few animated people. They’re a fun treat for fans of stop motion animation.

The reason I’m writing about this movie is what happens deep underground. Amid all the seismic activity of the eruption, an entrance opened on a world that had been sealed underground since pre-history — an enormous set of caverns in which monsters live brutal lives. It’s down here that Juanito meets a trap-door spider roughly the size of a brown bear.4

Wait. Six legs? We found the spider that everyone in "Camel Spiders" kept talking about!

Wait. Six legs? We found the spider that everyone in “Camel Spiders” kept talking about!

“Wait”, you cry. “Who’s Juanito?”

Remember Teresa Alvarez, whose caballeros believed in a demon bull? Juanito is a servant boy on her ranch, and it is truly unfortunate that he stuck around. Whenever he’s told to stay put, he immediately sneaks off to run straight toward the scorpions. It’s amazing to me that nobody ever thought to tie Juanito down.

Naturally, when Ramos and Scott decide to descend into the crater via a lowered cage, Juanito tags along. This, immediately after being discovered hiding in the jeep, whereupon he had once again been told to stay the hell put. Somehow, two scientists fail to detect the child during a twenty-minute descent in a cage the size of a closet. Once they reach the bottom, the men tramp off, leaving Juanito to find some danger — which he does with a quickness!

Juanito leaves the safety of the cage and wanders directly to the lair of a big damn spider. This kid is so determined to die that he actually tugs at the spider’s trap door! Naturally, Ramos and Scott must rush over to save him. Mercifully the action soon moves to Mexico City, and the plot is no longer propelled by Juanito’s self-destructive urges.

This spider is an odd one. For one thing, it only has six legs. That’s assuming that the front appendages with pincers are pedipalps, which they would be on a scorpion. Additionally it doesn’t exactly leap out of its tunnel, which sadly allows Juanito plenty of time to get running. If we’re to assume any attempt at historical accuracy it could be that this arachnid is from a lost family of the sub-order Mesothelae, but it seems unlikely that much thought went into it.

With limited time and budget O’Brien and Peterson put the main effort into the scorpion models, which are excellent. The spider and another creature (a sort of worm with arms) are left over from O’Brien’s work on King Kong! They were two of the monsters at the bottom of a ravine, in one of the most famous cut scenes in the history of cinema. It’s neat that they were pressed into service again a quarter of a century later, but their design esthetic does not sit well alongside the more modern work.

Budget is the enemy of many films, but its lack is painfully visible here. The super-imposing process of the 1950s was labor intensive, and there was just too much to do. The result is a number of scenes that show the silhouette of a scorpion over running crowds. This is the matte over which the animation was to be placed, and it doesn’t look good on its own.

The other thing that looks bad is the scorpion head used for close-up shots. O’Brien supposedly supervised all of the effects, but he must have been looking elsewhere when this puppet was made. All of the realism and artistry of the animation models is completely absent here. It has a goofy, gaping maw that’s constantly drooling and googly eyes, and it looks nothing like the creatures taking apart trains and pulling helicopters out of the sky.

Hampered by a meandering script and budgetary constraints, “The Black Scorpion” nonetheless marks a high-point in arachnid cinematic effects. Far superior to most puppets and better than low-budget CGI, it’s a shame they weren’t part of a worthier movie.

FOOTNOTES

1. It is actually far from ludicrous to imagine a volcano appearing so near Mexico City. The city lies in the path of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, which forms a roughly latitudinal line across the country. There is even an active volcano only 40-some miles away. I will not speculate as to the odds of the spontaneous generation of such a massive new volcano in the region, but I think that the side effects of such an event would be catastrophic enough without adding giant prehistoric scorpions into the equation.

2. Whenever a character thinks that someone never returning is a good sign, I can only marvel at their innocence. If I go two hours without hearing from someone, I assume they’ve been eaten by dingoes.

3. Sadly, the legend of the demon bull is largely glossed over. It seemed far more plausible than the actual danger presented.

4. Nope. I’m not invoking the scorpions-are-arachnids clause to justify including this movie in the Big Damn Spider canon, although scorpions are way closer to spiders than whatever the heck this creature is. It only has 6 legs, so maybe it’s an escapee from “Camel Spiders”.

Dragonquest (2009)

Writers: Brian Brinkman and Micho Rutare
Director: Mark Atkins

When you find yourself watching an Asylum film, you have two options: set the bar low, or go wash the dishes. There was something fermenting under all the tableware in the sink, so I chose to keep watching “Dragonquest”. Besides, I’d been assured that the fantasy adventure contained a big damn spider for no damn reason.

As it turns out, there’s no reason for most of what happens in “Dragonquest”, but I’ll get to that later. First, there was a rocky outcropping…

Technically, it's more of a Dragon Field Trip.

Technically, it’s more of a Dragon Field Trip.

The movie opens with some long aerial shots of terrain, then settles on a ledge high on a barren cliff. Here, a hooded figure (Brian Thompson, recognizable to any fan of “The X-Files” as the alien bounty hunter) squeezes a large gem until blood pours out. His name is Kirill, and his ritual summons a crap CGI dragon made of crap CGI shadows.

From this ominous beginning, the story shifts to an idyllic rustic village, where an idyllic young peeping tom uses a spyglass to see what an idyllic young maiden has under her blouse. Sadly, this sexual-predator in the rough is our hero.

His name is Arkadi, and he lives with Grandfather, the kind of wise old man who always winds up watching over orphaned protagonists in hiding. He is not amused by Arkadi’s antics — chasing girls and smoking what appears to be fairy dust. The little pervert probably keeps Tinkerbell locked in a chest with his dirty scrolls.

Sensing the coming of plot, Grandfather gives Arkadi an amulet. It’s very shiny for an artifact that has been hidden away, and it’s shaped like a cross between a knot and a honeycomb. Our hero is sent several inches away so that Grandfather may confer not at all secretly with another villager.

It seems that Arkadi is destined to succeed where Grandfather has failed. We’re left to imagine that this most be something important, but not for long. The shadow dragon arrives and starts burning everything in sight. Grandfather, of course, dies sending the dragon away. He did manage to send his friend to warn the King.

As for Arkadi, he is sent to find Maxim (about whom he knows nothing). The fate of the partially disrobed village girl is not known.

Grandfather’s pal goes to the King’s castle and tells everyone he meets about Arkadi before admonishing them against telling anyone else. One of the King’s men promptly hies himself to Kirill to spill everything.

There follows an epic battle between the forces of good and evil, represented by about five dudes taking turns falling down. Arkadi stumbles on this scene, and he talks briefly with the King before his majesty gets flambéd by Kirill’s dragon.

In what becomes a recurring theme, Arkadi stumbles blindly away from the action.

It is telling that some of the only dark-skinned actors in the movie are the bandits who jump Arkadi as he wanders toward his destiny1. It is also telling that the only reason for this attack is to introduce Katya, a warrior trained in the arts of applying make-up and fighting in corsets. She rescues Arkadi and leads him to Maxim — portrayed by Marc Singer as a growling land-pirate — who finally puts the plot train back on the rails.

It seems that Maxim, Kirill, and Grandfather were all part of an organization called the Brotherhood. Their purpose is unclear, but it somehow involves continually hiding a bunch of gems that represent virtues and getting people to collect them again. Grandfather got all of them but one — humility — and apparently after some time limit was exceeded the gems were taken away from him and re-hidden. I’m speculating here, but no reason is ever given for why they all have to be found again.

The amulet that was given to Arkadi is for turning the gems into one amazingly gaudy bauble. For some unclear reason, Grandfather believed that Arkadi was possessed of the necessary virtues to collect them all — meaning that there must be gems for lechery, laziness, and generally being a doofus. It’s hard to know for sure, as after an initial, rapid rundown most of the virtues are never again mentioned. Regardless, Arkadi is now the Keeper, and it’s his job to prevent the quaffle from passing through his goal hoops. Or to prove himself virtuous enough to create his own crap dragon, whichever.

From here, the story settles into the titular quest, and we see Arkadi blunder from one pointless challenge to another as he wanders toward his inevitable, unearned victory.

Typical of these challenges to his virtue is what I call the Challenge of Pretending There’s a Big Damn Spider. Arkadi has been sent off on his own while Maxim and Katya go somewhere else (hopefully to call their agents). Seeing a cave, our hero decides to poke around in it. He finds himself in an improbably well-lit tunnel, where he stands as a giant spider saunters past him. Then he looks down and sees a gem.

There may as well not have been a spider at all. Or a cave, really.

Arkadi demonstrates the Virtue of Invisibility to Arachnids.

Arkadi demonstrates the virtue of Invisibility to Arachnids.

Every now and then you can see some slim connection to a virtue (chastity, represented by not immediately rubbing parts with a stranger), but none of it is particularly challenging or proves much of anything unusual in his character. That’s the really frustrating thing about the movie; Arkadi’s rewards feel like prizes for participation, not a proof of his superior inner qualities.

Asylum has a reputation for churning out low-budget genre films with generic plots and slumming B-list actors. The surprising thing about “Dragonquest” is that the familiar fantasy elements are thrown together into a completely incoherent mess. Nothing fits together except for the constant refrain of collecting the Stones of Virtue, which activity is so random and non-challenging as to suggest divine intervention.

That could explain why the spider’s legs disappear at certain points in its ambling. Or maybe it’s just that nobody really cared enough to put forth any kind of effort for an Asylum feature.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

  • It was awfully nice of Kirill to wait until Arkadi got the amulet before launching his attack.
  • I honestly couldn’t tell if the King put himself out of his misery or stabbed at the dragon as he burned to death.
  • I need to watch a good movie soon.
  • Unsurprisingly, this is the first screen-writing credit for both of the writers, Brian Brinkman and Micho Rutare.

FOOTNOTES

1. If the only black actors in your modern movie are bandits, you should probably take a sensitivity course. I mean, yay for breaking up the blinding glare of paleness, but would it kill you to spread people around?