by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
When we finally got in a movie I picked out the next disc in sequence in the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 downloads: The Black Scorpion, a not-bad 1957 monster movie set in Mexico and filmed there with Richard Denning heading a (mostly) Mexican supporting cast and at least two quite important talents from the 1930’s behind the scenes: the director is Edward Ludwig, a Universal hack who got to make one truly great film, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head; and the special effects are handled by Willis H. O’Brien, inventor of the stop-motion animation process and best known for the superlative (and still amazingly convincing) model and process work in King Kong.
Alas, O’Brien’s post-Kong career was both professionally and personally frustrating; in 1933, right after the completion of the sequel Son of Kong, his estranged wife Hazel Collette shot and killed their two sons and then tried to kill herself (she survived, but died shortly thereafter of cancer and tuberculosis — might her madness have come about from whatever drugs were then used to treat those diseases?), and his professional projects didn’t fare much better (at least he remarried and stayed with his second wife, Darlyne Prenett, until his death), among them a fascinating tale called War Eagles (a zoological expedition discovers giant eagles encased in ice at the North Pole, thaws them out and revives them — and they come in handy when the U.S. is attacked by an enemy with a ray gun that disintegrates metal, rendering conventional airplanes useless and thereby leading the U.S. government to press the war eagles into service as combat aircraft because, as living things instead of mechanical contraptions, they’re not vulnerable to the ray) that would probably make a great movie now.
By the 1950’s, while his former assistant and protégé Ray Harryhausen was working at major studios on color extravangazae like Jason and the Argonauts and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (Harryhausen used one of the original Kong armatures, which O’Brien had given him, for the Cyclops), O’Brien was reduced to whatever jobs he could get for cheapie producers like Jack Dietz and Frank Melford, who ran out of money before O’Brien could stage the final attack of the scorpion on Mexico City (an obvious plot knockoff of the finales of O’Brien’s greatest films, the 1925 The Lost World and the 1933 King Kong) — with the result that it’s represented merely by a shadow of the scorpion’s arm (or limb, or whatever) superimposed on the live action.
The conceit behind this film is that a huge network of caves exists under Mexico where giant-sized insects live, and a sudden volcanic eruption and the earthquakes it causes bring some of these creatures to the surface near the small Mexican town of San Lorenzo. The effects of the scorpions in motion (there’s more than one of them, along with a creature that looks like a giant-sized tick that goes after the obligatory over-cute kid in these productions, Mario “Juanito” Navarro, but alas is killed by the adult humans before it can eat him), especially when they’re fighting each other (which they do a lot), are excellent; but the shots of the volcano erupting look like a nine-year-old’s school science project (so liberally padded out with stock footage that the MST3K crew made a joke that the eruption had to end when their stock footage ran out) and the scorpion’s face looks like a particularly well-decorated jack-o’lantern and drools white muck from its mouth in an effect more gross than genuinely frightening (though modern-day horror-film makers have utterly erased the distinction between gross and frightening).
Aside from that, The Black Scorpion — written by Robert Blees (a name I remember vaguely from better movies than this) and David Duncan from a story by Paul Yawitz — is the usual monster-movie sludge, with a better-than-average introduction of the female lead (she’s shown riding across the range on horseback and Denning and his Mexican buddy, Carlos Rivas, spy her through their binoculars — only by the time Rivas passes the binocs to Denning she’s fallen off the horse and all Denning sees is the horse) and a nicely understated relationship between them, but the usual gang of idiots in the supporting cast standing around and acting so stupidly they almost seem to be waving to the giant scorpions and calling out to them, “Hey! Eat me! Eat me!” The MST3K crew called it “The San Lorenzo Milling-Around Festival” — a series of running gags that marked their best work in the film (that and a surprised cry, “It’s Mrs. Butterworth!,” as our two young lovebirds palmed that obnoxious kid off on a grandmotherly figure who did indeed look like the maple-syrup advertising icon) — and the film has a false climax (the Mexican army bombs the volcano and thinks they’ve sealed up all the giant insects back in their underground warrens, but it turns out there’s another “fissure” in the earth through which they escape again) before the real one (the final giant black scorpion is fricasseed via an electric charge in the middle of a Mexican soccer stadium) as well as the usual assortment of Mexicans speaking badly accented English (though since most of the actors were Mexican the bad English accents were probably their real ones) instead of unaccented Spanish. Warner Bros. handled the U.S. release of this piece of cheese, though as monster movies of the period go it’s actually not too bad — too much sluggish exposition before the action starts, but then that’s endemic to the genre — and in a way it’s kind of fun (and I’m sure Charles and I had seen it at least once before in “straight” form).
I ran us one of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episodes he’d just downloaded, from the start of the second Comedy Central season with Joel Hodgson in a green jump suit this time and different versions of the interstital “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” logo. The film was something called Ring of Terror, though I felt it should have been called “Film of Boredom” because it was almost unspeakably dull throughout. Made in 1962 by a cheapie company called Playstar — which sounds a good deal more like a toy manufacturer than a movie studio — the film was directed by Clark Paylow (whose last name probably describes the salary he got — or didn’t get — for making it) from a script by Lewis Simeon and G. J. Zinnerman about a group of medical students (played by a bunch of actors you never heard of who were each about a decade or two too old to convincingly impersonate students, even graduate students) who are being hazed by a fraternity and made to do outrageous things to get in.
The film opens in a cemetery, where a human narrator is chasing his cat Puma — who, showing by far more intelligence than any human connected with this film on either side of the camera, keeps trying to get away — before pointing out a particular tombstone with the name of the film’s protagonist (you can’t really call him a “hero” because he, like everybody else in the movie, doesn’t actually do anything) and the birth and death dates, 1933 to 1955. (Incidentally, the narrator — unidentified in imdb.com’s cast list, though I think it’s Austin Green, who’s billed second but not listed with a character name — is so doggedly uncharismatic that Criswell’s contribution to Plan Nine from Outer Space sounds like Olivier or Welles by comparison.) The film then flashes back to the life of said protagonist, Lewis B. Moffitt (George E. Mather), his boring life as a student and his even more boring relationship with his girlfriend Betty Crawford (Esther Furst), with whom he’s necking one night at one of the local parking spots when a rattlesnake sneaks into their car and menaces both of them.
Aside from that — staged by Paylow in a way determined to drain all the possible suspense and terror out of it and make it seem as matter-of-fact and dull as the rest of the movie — nothing really happens until about five minutes before the end, when Lewis receives word that his initiation into this psycho fraternity is going to be to spend the night in a mausoleum with a newly dead and dissected corpse. (How a corpse of an unidentified person that was released to a medical school for dissection precisely because no family members claimed it ended up in a mausoleum is actually one of the less bothersome idiocies of the Simeon/Zinnerman script.) We’re told that this is particularly horrific to him because way back in his childhood he came home one day to find his father’s body, his dad having suddenly died while he was out at school (or wherever), and indeed he ends up literally scared to death — and we’re reminded that the 1947 film of that name, however awful it may be in its own right (saddled with Runnycolor and a plot that made utterly no sense), looks like a masterpiece in comparison with this!
The MST3K crew did their best with this one — most of their jokes centered around the vast gulf between the ages of the characters and the real-life ages of the actors attempting to play them (when one of them joked that the actor playing Moffitt is obviously older than Moffitt’s age at his death, I pointed out that when he made the Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea, Kevin Spacey was older than Darin had been when he died, but he made a great movie anyway) — and when they filled out the show’s length (Ring of Terror is only 71 minutes long) with an episode (the third) of the 1939 Universal serial The Phantom Creeps, a really silly production starring Bela Lugosi as Dr. Zurka, a mad scientist with a yen to conquer the world (mind you that Adolf Hitler was alive, well and close to the peak of his power just then, so megalomaniacs interested in conquering the world weren’t the sort of creatures of science fiction they are today), their relief at having something they could sink their teeth into was as palpable as ours, even though the print of The Phantom Creeps (attributed to something called “Commonwealth Films” which must have bought the rights from Universal for reissue or TV) was lousy and made it almost impossible to see what was going on (not that much was going on since Lugosi had rendered himself invisible through most of this episode) and the movie is pretty tacky, complete with the detail anybody who remembers The Phantom Creeps immediately thinks of when the film is mentioned: the 12-foot-tall robot Lugosi has supposedly built, whose craggy facial features make it look like a cross between an automobile hood ornament and an Easter Island statue. — 7/21/08