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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
The best part in being a horror fanatic is the large pool of horror a nerd like myself can dip his toes into. When asked, “whats your favorite scary movie?” how can I give but one answer. If the jerk from Scream called my cell, we’d be talking for hours. There are genre’s within genre’s in the horror genre. “Whats my favorite scary movie? Umm…which genre? There’s slashers, there are indies, there are supernatural stories, there are zombie flicks, there are monster B movies, there are comedy-horror movies, psychological thrillers, possession-demonic-religious horror movies, sci-fi horror, action-horror, Universal Studios monster movies, silent film era horror, splatter-grindhouse movies, vampire (not bloody Twilight), and last but not least, there are foreign horror movies. This is what makes being a horror aficionado so exciting; there are so many different avenues to take.
With all this being said regarding the enthusiastic world of horror, foreign horror has been weighing on my mind recently. To be honest, only within the last eight or so years has foreign horror been worth watching. This, of course, is my own opinion; you might have been watching foreign horror for decades and i’m just now jumping on the bus. But maybe not, maybe its true and no ones has really been paying much attention overseas, not until at least within the last 8-10 years or so. The last time foreign horror was so popular was when all there was was foreign horror, i.e. the silent film era with Metropolis and Nosferatu. But once directors started flooding over here from Europe during the span between 1920 through the 1940’s (most escaping Nazi Germany) American silent horror, like The Phantom of the Opera and other Lon Chaney films, started to flourish. Only until recently, at the dawn of the new millennium, have macabre seekers sought out, once again, tales of terror from abroad. But why?
Perhaps this new found enthusiasm has something to do with a desire for originality. Lets face it folks, American horror has been suffering for some time now regarding this issue. Reboots are nice when done sparingly, but it seems that’s all we have to offer anymore. Nothings original. No ones taking risks. And so, we’re pushing past what we’ve already seen and looking into new dark corners for fresh new stories. What really turned me on to foreign horror was the Ju-on series. Dang, just when you thought supernatural flicks have all but dried up, Ju-on gives new life…or death, depending on how you look at it. With simple traditional methods, Ju-on terrifies and keeps you wanting more. After watching this, I started to give other foreign films a fairer shake. If your interested in looking for a new avenue in horror, consider the following five movies:
If you’re going to start anywhere, start with the film series that hooked me into foreign horror. Released back in 2000 as a direct to video movie, director Takashi Shimizu takes audiences deep into a twisted story about an angry husband, his wife, son and family cat and their house. Shimizu ties several stories together, connecting each of them to the house and the family that once lived there. The graphics are subtle but effective. After watching the entire franchise, it feels like the entire island of Japan will one day be killed off by this ghost. If you’re starting out or haven’t seen it, give this movie a go, you will not be disappointed.
At some point, you’ll need to watch what began it all. Released in 1922, Nosferatu is one of the most celebrated movies in horror, and for good reason. Despite having anti-Semitic undertones (see German cinema between 1919-1945), Nosferatu is the pinnacle of German expressionist films. At the dawn of cinematic horror, Nosferatu plays with shadowy atmospherics to bring home the frights and some of the most creepiest hands you’ll ever see in a movie. This image of the count is so much better than Stoker’s vision. The only vampire movie that comes close to the coolness of Count Orlok is 30 Days of Night and….
3, Let the Right One In
The movie that won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature and many other acclaims, Let the Right One In was, as you might have guessed, an amazing movie. As another foreign vampire flick, the violence was actually rather spread out and subtle. I wont give away any of the plot, but my favorite scene has to be during the swimming pool act when young Oskar is being bullied during a late night swim. Leave it to the Swedes to do a modern vampire movie right. The recent American rendition of this film comes no where close to the sheer awesomeness of the original. If you’re not into Japanese supernatural flicks, give this more recent foreign horror film a go! You can watch it on Netflix instant streaming.
2. Dead Snow
I’m not a huge fan of spoof zombie flicks. Call me a snob if you will, but I prefer Romero styled undead. However, a friend talked me into watching this and since it was already on Netflix instant, I gave it a shot. Dead Snow actually turned out to be a lot of fun and despite its satire, there are a few scares to be found and plenty of gore to go around. The film centers around a group of stereotypical students having some naughty fun up in the mountains, the same mountains, unfortunately, where a bunch of Nazi zombies live. The premise of the film is based off the draugr from Scandinavian folklore concerning the undead greedily protecting its treasures (and probably, but not confirmed, still pissed of Norwegians wanting a little cinema payback for the Nazis invading their country during Operation Weserübung in 1940). If you’re looking for a good laugh and to watch teenagers, and Nazis alike, die in horrible ways, give Dead Snow a chance, you might not be disappointed.
1. The Devils Backbone
Back before Guillermo del Toro was mainstream, the Mexican born director produced some of the best in supernatural horror with vivid imagination. Released in 2001, during the onslaught of American reboots on beloved franchises, The Devils Backbone is an original story based on the classic haunting motif. As folks back home were getting hammered with hyper-violence in American cinema, del Toro used the less-is-more approach to win audiences. The Devils Backbone was my first Mexican-Spanish horror film and it wont be my last. Guillermo del Toro is a unique storyteller with the ability to create memorable horror. The movie was both elegant in its presentation and dreadful in its atmosphere. There is little doubt why this film made my number spot for best in foreign horror.
UPDATE (August 6, 2013):
Gotta love the edit option on these blog websites! Can’t believe I left off my horrible mention in best of foreign horror. And its a good one too! This particular movie didn’t make the numerical list because I never finished watching it, but at the same time, because of the fact I couldn’t finish watching, and also because I would never recommend in good company to ever watch this movie, The Human Centipede deserves some recognition. Why couldn’t I finish watching this movie? Well…it wasn’t the production value; the acting and camera shots were professional enough, The Human Centipede wasn’t B-movie-ish; I’ve watched and enjoyed many a B-movie without complaint. The real reason why I never finished this movie was because it was completely loathsome, and also perhaps because my first screening of the film was with my wife; we had both entertained the idea of watching it simple because of all the rumors we’ve heard regarding its…unique cinematography; its hardcoreness. And the rumors were true…oh so very true. We stopped right after the “surgery.” Leave it to the Dutch to come up with something so sickening! I’ve seen plenty of gore movies, I’ve screened my share of savage cinema, but there was just something about this movie, the degradation of the people in it made me cringe. There was something very real about this. So, in light of how nauseous this movie made me, The Human Centipede deserves horrible mention, but as I said before, I’m not recommending you watch it.