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The Black Scorpion (1957)

 

Narrator: For centuries, the prayers of Mexico’s peasants have been their only shield against the devastating furies that have wrecked their homes and destroyed their lives. And so today, again they kneel, terrified and helpless, as a new volcano is created by the mysterious and rebellious forces of nature. The Earth has split a thousand times. Whole acres of rich farmlands have cracked and dropped from sight. And millions of tons of molten lava are roaring down the slopes, in a quake recorded on the seismograph of the University of Mexico as the most violent of modern times. To the benighted citizenry of this remote countryside, the most alarming aspect of the phenomenon is the fact that its unabated hourly growth is without precedence, having reached a towering height of nine thousand feet within a few days. And with each added foot, it spreads its evil onslaught into a wider circumference. But what is now most feared is that rescue work will be severely hampered by the hazardous inaccessibility of the terrain.

 

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As we enter into The Black Scorpion, we’re greeted with the above narration, giving no clues to the future horror in which we will soon behold. The premise is basic and strangely different from a majority of sci-fi movies during this very Cold era. A volcano erupts in a little hamlet near Mexico City and the local villagers and animals, mostly cattle, are vanishing. The corpses that have been found are infected with a strange wound and a puzzling poison, biological, natural, and otherworldly found within their bloodstream.

As the story progresses, American geologist Hank Scott, played by well-known sci-fi actor Richard Denning (who looks a hell-of-a-lot like Kenneth Tobey from The Thing from Another World), and his local partner Dr. Artur Ramos (Carlos Rivas), travel to the sight of the temperamental volcano to conduct research and investigate why the sleeping giant has decided to wake. Their investigations lead them into an odd series of findings that eventually reveal the true source of the disappearances of locals and cattle. On their initial venture, they stumble upon a small pueblo that has been completely decimated. They find only one survivor, an infant. The only other person the duo happen upon is the missing constable, eyes frozen in terror and an eerie puncture wound on the back of his neck.

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Team Hank then travel to San Lorenzo, which seems nearly overrun with panicked villagers who believe the disappearances and the destruction of their homes are the cause of a demon bull. Hank and Artur seem un-phased by the frenzy or by Major Cosio’s pleading for them to remain in San Lorenzo, not for the safety of the scientists, but so that if something were to happen to them, the Mexican army would not be forced to waste their time in a rescue mission instead of working where they are needed more, with the scared and frightened villagers. Hank simply laughs and continues on with his expedition, which to me seemed odd. They haven’t specified if he was there to investigate the vanishing people and cattle, only that they were there to survey and study the volcano.

Well, this wouldn’t be a quasi-American 1950s sci-fi movie without at least one damsel in distress. For this role, we’re given the lovely Sunset Boulevard showgirl, Playboy Playmate (1958) Mara Corday who plays cattle ranch owner Teresa Alvarez. No stranger to cult sci-fi movies, Mara has been in a few well-known classics, including Tarantula, The Giant Claw, and a number of spaghetti westerns, such as A Day of Fury and The Man from Bitter Ridge, to name a few. Teresa is thrown from her white horse and as one might expect, Hank comes to her rescue. The two seem to fall in love at first sight (barf) and are invited back to her ranch for…well, more than tea I imagine. Before venturing off, Dr. Artur discovers a strange volcanic rock and takes it back with them to the ranch.

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At this point, if you’re still watching the film, you might be wondering, where are the giant bugs? And I would agree with you because this is what I was gripping about when I screened the movie late last night. Everything thus far has been “setup, setup, setup,” with little to no release. We’re given a little tease at the beginning, an eerie ringing off screen, but nothing satiable. Don’t worry. The movie is about to pick up the pace.

At the ranch, while Hank and Teresa nauseously flirt, Dr. Artur, after splitting open the rock, discovers what he originally thought to be a fossilized scorpion, is actually alive and scurrying about on the pool table. Here we can almost feel the mood of the film change, slightly. How can a scorpion survive being capsulated in a rock inside a volcano? It doesn’t make sense. It breaks the laws of nature as we know it. Soon after, Teresa makes contact with her phone repairmen who are suddenly attacked by the true villains of all these bizarre disappearances of people and cattle. Giant black scorpions strike and kill the repair men. Special effects guru Willis O’Brien, who created the stop-motion effects for the original King Kong, gave his talents to the creature of these creatures. And let me say, here and now, without his work, this movie would have absolutely flopped.

Why?

Well, for many reasons actually. The script was the oddest mod podge of traditional ‘50s sci-fi (think Atomic-age, mad science), western, horror, and a mix (rip off) of Them! and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Most of the acting was great, but there were cringe worthy moments when you’re going, “Did they really just say that?” Case in point, when Hank and Artur are with a local laboratory scientist, Dr. Velazco, the very “mad” looking fellow asks his assistant for alcohol, distilled water, salt solution, and tequila before conducting his experiment on the poison he found in the blood system of one of the found victims of the scorpions. Hank asks, “Well, the alcohol, the distilled water, the salt solution – I can understand that, but what’s the tequila for?” And, right on cue, the good doctor says, “Well, in your country I believe they call it a coffee break” (enter drum roll here).

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The mood of the movie is hard to place. Something strange is going on in the story. People are being horrifyingly eaten alive by giant freaking scorpions. Whole towns are vanishing. Cattle are being devoured. And when you see the scorpions on screen, it is insanely terrifying. O’Brien really did a phenomenal job. Stop-motion has certain qualia about it that get under my skin, especially when used with horror. But the cast seems nonchalant about it all. Hank and Artur venture into the subterranean realm of these beasts, discovering a variety of forgotten species, a very Jules Verne Journey to the Center of the Earth type place, made up mostly of only insects, making it even creepier. But still, these scientists don’t seem all that scared. They’re cool. Too cool.

The ending was even more scandalous. After discovering that the all the creatures were not destroyed with the cave-in, they watch as the “granddaddy” scorpion straight up murders the smaller scorpions, making him king scorpion, as if he wasn’t already. The witty humans lure the uber-giant scorpion into an arena, away from civilians. While the Mexican army batters the beast with tanks and gunfire, Hank manages to finish it off by using an electric cable attached to a spear, of which he somehow was able to thrust into the scorpion’s throat, it’s only vulnerable spot. Finally, electrocuted, the monster is slain.

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As the scorpion lays there, smoldering, Hank begins to walk away. Artur and Velasco beckon him to stop so that they can conduct research on the creature. And, I shit you not, in more or fewer words, Hank takes the voluptuous Teresa across her hips and smiles, “I’ve got my own research to do,” or something like that, and the two rush away for what we assume to be…well…you know, while the remaining cast and crew grin in that stupid way people did back in the day when something funny was said.

Ugh!

Okay, my tone is probably giving away more of my feeling of the film then needs warranting. And yes, mentioning again the fantastic work of special effects master Willis O’Brien, and how the scorpions on screen really were disturbing, especially that scene with the phone repairmen, truly horrifying. The rest of the movie though seemed short on talent. I’m not saying it was the fault of the actors, most were really good, despite laughing to myself as it seems a habit of Hollywood to cast Anglo-American in roles that ought to belong to someone else. Also, the use of the ringing effect with the scorpions was (lets no dance around it) a total rip off of Them! Not to mention the whole idea of a prehistoric species surviving and returning to the present day is very reminiscent of The Gillman movies.

The upside to all these failings eventually leads the movie to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in the early 1990s. So…there’s that. Overall, The Black Scorpion is mildly entertaining. Not the best of what the ‘50s had to offer in sci-fi; not the worst either.

My Rating: 3/5 

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Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character-driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò. His paranormal-thriller series, The Subdue Books, including Dwelling, Emerging, and Conceiving, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can check out his work on the altar of Amazon here.

Before you go, Thomas has a new book out he’d like to mention. Conceiving (Subdue Book 3) will release on 11/29. Preorders are available now on Amazon for those looking for eBooks. Paperbacks coming soon. If you haven’t read Subdue Books 1 & 2 (Dwelling and Emerging), no problem. While sure, this news may bring a tear to the author’s eye, he has ensured us that new readers can follow the story easily without having read Dwelling or Emerging. You can preorder YOUR copy of Conceiving here.

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Krampus (2015): movie in review

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December, the same for many of you I’m sure, is one of the busiest times of the year. With all the shopping and family functions, the gift wrapping and long distance phone calls, and Santa visits over at the mall, and festive Christmas lights or Hanukkah, depending on your jam, and Zoo Lights or whatever you’re local county folks do, and eggnog and TV specials…well, if feels almost impossible to fit everything in those special 24 days till Christmas. For me, even more so now that some of my publishing exploits have picked up pace since my start in 2014 and with the release of two new books in the same month, interviews and book tours…etc etc, well, it can all feel overwhelming. To keep from frying a circuit, its a good practice to unplug once and awhile from those blinking little tablets and cellphones and computer screens and traffic jams and enjoy the simple pleasures of going to the movies. And as chance would have it, I was able to venture out to the theater this past Saturday for the next to last showing of Krampus.  And I’m so glad I did!

Krampus is interesting. Not just the movie, but how this year it seems to be a rather proper resurgence of a very old folk story from Germany, where it is in fact celebrated still, once a year, in Christmas parades. I’d hate to make certain ties to our current political situation…but it seems (if this Krampus popularity is any indication) people are tired of all the hoopla. The media blitz. The Black Friday, ruin Thanksgiving shopping. The non stop ads (this recent season of South Park with PC Principle could also be a indication of this). Why else would a guy like Trump hold such popularity as a Presidential candidate? Jesus, I’d hate to think it was because people actually wanted him as president. Retaining my optimism with the human race, I’d wager Trump’s popularity was more about the overall attitudes with American politics nowadays. “Nothing ever changes” blah blah blah, or so people say, If nothing ever changes then why take anything seriously anymore? I think I’m getting off topic here, so let me rein it back in. What I’m getting at is perhaps this new found interest with Krampus is our “tiredness” with ignoring certain holiday traditions, as Krampus is the oldest of holiday traditions, it seems plausible. But this is all conjecture and maybe myself overthinking things, as I tend to do. Lets get back to the movie, shall we?

Here is a quick fire synopsis:

When his dysfunctional family clashes over the holidays, young Max (Emjay Anthony) is disillusioned and turns his back on Christmas. Little does he know, this lack of festive spirit has unleashed the wrath of Krampus: a demonic force of ancient evil intent on punishing non-believers. All hell breaks loose as beloved holiday icons take on a monstrous life of their own, laying siege to the fractured family’s home and forcing them to fight for each other if they hope to survive.

To be honest, I had little notions of what I was walking into last Saturday. I knew I would probably enjoy the movie, but I think in the back of my head I was expecting a little more dumb and a lot less smart; however, it seems the opposite to be true. Krampus is actually a very smart movie, but not over-the-top, despite the “black comedy” jive. The film opens perfectly. Bing Crosby or some other Christmas classic is playing. Everything is in slow-mo as we watch what we’ve all seen on YouTube, Black Friday shoppers duking it out over random unless objects. From teddy bears to rocking horses to TVs to popcorn tins to crying children with black-eyes to store security guards tazing would-be shoppers with a look of absolute glee. Your attention is not really on what these people are fighting over, its the expressions on their faces as the film is slowed down to a crawl, whilst some homely comfortable cheer is playing in the background. Its a fantastic opening and sets the mood for the entire movie with both hilarity and repulsion. If watching this beginning is any indication, perhaps the return of Krampus to America is long overdue!

I’d like to give my honest review without any spoilers, so I shall not mention too many things. The ending is off limits, but I will say that it was great…which is surprising, cause these kind of movies typically fall flat at the end. The ending so very much like the entire movie, where certain expectations are shot down for something otherly unexpected. One of my favorite scenes is when grandma Omi Engel (played by the very talented Krista Stadler) , who only speaks English once, here during a little flashback to her childhood, while in the rest of the movie she’s speaking in German. I loved this part. The movie has little to no exposition moments, which is great. This scene with Omi is fantastic. With things are getting pretty strange and an explanation of what the cause or causes may be, she steps in and offers her family and us a little more information on what Krampus really is. Her memory is told in a very creepy paper styled cartoon which reminded me very much of something Tim Burton would do. Surrounding this much younger Omi, a bombarded village, assuming this to be a German town just after WWII ended. People are desperate and forget the “meaning for the season,” as they say. Krampus visits the town and takes everyone away, all but for young Omi. She fears Krampus has returned. And as the family is picked off one by one, they soon believe her tale. But this begs the question: can they fight back? Can they survive Krampus and his minions?

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There are a few other “great” scenes, truly haunting ones and comedic as well. Whatever that thing was in the snow was pretty creepy. And the snowmen, while you never really see them move, somehow they slowly surround the house. Each time Max looks out the window, there’s a new one grinning back at him, more twisted then the last. The gun jokes and political humor gave me a good chuckle. And the death count was very surprising. Much like Gremlins (a movie many are comparing Krampus to), the death counts in many blockbuster holiday themed movies are typically low. Not in Krampus. Expect death. Lots of it.

Like I said before. I had certain expectations with Krampus. Those being a complete dumb movie, but a fun dumb movie, were altogether shot out of the water. This movie was smart as well as entertaining and fun. Krampus certainly does not take itself too seriously, while also giving us some serious moments. As far as labeling this as a “black comedy,” I think the comedy was actually more lite then most “black comedies.” This was a horror story, no doubt about it. And comedy has a special relationship with terror. Each blended marvelously. Krampus will no doubt be one of those movie that become tradition in the years to come, much like Die Hard or Silent Night, Deadly Night has.

My Review: 5/5