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REVIEW | Black Scorpion (1995) & Black Scorpion 2: Aftershock (1996)

21 Aug 2017

What happens when Roger Corman invents a superhero and gets the writer of his Fantastic Four movie to pen the screenplay?


Black Scorpion (1995)


Country: USA | Runtime: 92mins | Director: Jonathan Winfrey

Starring: Joan Severance, Bruce Abbott, Garrett Morris, Terri J. Vaughn, Rick Rossovich



SPOILT PLOT: Angel City, 1975, a little girl misses her dead mother. The father, Walker (Rossovich), is a cop who accidentally shoots and kills an innocent doctor. 18 years later and the seven-year-old American girl is now a 40-year-old English woman. She is Darcy (Severance), a dedicated cop partnered with Michael (Abbott). Walker, now retired and drunk, is unexpectedly murdered just as Darcy is kicked off the force for some reason. She decides to become a superhero, and calls on car thief Argyle (Morris) to be her sidekick. A mysterious supervillain named Breathtaker (Ed Gilbert) plans to poison the citizens of Angel City. As both herself and her new alter ego, Black Scorpion, Darcy makes several failed attempts to seduce Michael. Breathtaker reveals himself to be the (supposedly dead) doctor shot by Walker in the opening scene. He is confined to a mechanical breathing apparatus thanks to his injuries, and, so he reveals to Black Scorpion, wants everyone else to suffer as he does. They fight, she wins.


Unusually for a superhero, Black Scorpion was initially conceived as a live action character and only adapted for comics once she had proved herself reasonably popular on television. Created by Roger Corman and his associate Craig J. Nevius (who was writing Corman's unreleased Fantastic Four movie at the same time as this), she feels like a cynical attempt to design the most commercially appealing superhero possible without (quite) infringing on any existing copyright. Everything about her is derivative of something better, and endless genre clichés are tossed lazily at the screen throughout the movie: she needs a superhero costume so suddenly she has one; she needs a sidekick so suddenly she has one; she needs a nemesis so suddenly she has one. This stuff just happens because... supahero moovee. ​​



"There she is now, the white black scorpion!"​​


Some elements are so spectacularly stupid you can't quite get past them. For example: Argyle. We're introduced to him in a police station shortly after he's been busted, and meet him again later when Darcy seeks his help in fixing her car. They hardly know each other and live on opposite sides of the criminal divide, but for some reason she abruptly reveals her secret identity to him. Luckily it turns out Argyle hates crime (unusual for an habitual car thief who runs a chop shop), and is a technical genius, so he decides to pimp her ride. In goes a state-of-the-art AI computer system, a laser heads up display, some sort of super-engine and an experimental military system that can 'change atoms at a molecular level' (turn her car into a superheromobile) at the flick of a switch. We're not told how some scumbag street hustler has access to technology the government doesn't even know about. Or why he'd give it all to an ex-cop who didn't ask for it. The moovee doesn't have enough respect for us to explain. I could be getting sidetracked a little by Argyle, but he's such a catastrophe it's hard not to be fascinated by the guy. 


 Tip for undercover cops: when on your secret radio, don't hold the earpiece and look at  the guy you're talking to.



The emotional punch packed by Black Scorpion is perhaps best described as meagre. Nevius (who takes sole credit for the script) and director Jonathan Winfrey know the emotional beats a movie like this needs, but don't seem to know how to achieve them. We're meant to feel sorry for child Darcy in the opening scene as she talks about her dead mother, but we're just confused as to why a light-hearted action movie would open on the misery of a child. When her father is killed in front of her, it isn't until we cut to Severance (emoting for all she's worth) that we remember we're meant to feel something. None of the groundwork is laid, but we're expected to respond to events as if it had been. And what we're supposed to make of the dumpster fire that is the central love affair is beyond me. Michael resists repeated attempts to seduce him by both Darcy and Black Scorpion, until eventually the latter pulls his trousers down and mounts him without consent. Halfway through sex she suddenly tasers him unconscious and leaves. It's absolutely baffling. I think we're meant to be witness to the tentative early stages of a dynamic romance, but it's more like watching a simpleton being subjected to an array of ruthless sex crimes. At the end of the movie Michael can't forgive her for what she's done, so she drugs him to wipe his memory and starts coming on to him again! If Batman pulled that shit he'd be locked up in Arkham's sex offenders wing.  



"You Jackbooted thug, it is not I who will surrender to you but you who will surrender to me."


The acting is uniformly weak, but in a variety of fun ways. Severance gives it her all, she just doesn't have the skills to carry a movie like this. And whenever an actor of limited means throws themselves wholeheartedly into such poor material, you know it's going to be funny. Abbott takes the opposite approach and looks like he's only on set because a court order is compelling him. He's like a poor man's Treat Williams (who himself is only a poor man's Bill Pullman) and boasts all the charisma of a diazepam overdose. Argyle is unspeakable in every conceivable way: there's no consistency to his persona; his comic relief bits are badly timed and flat; he doesn't convince as a car thief or tech wizard; and he constantly stumbles over his lines – even though he usually appears to have a script taped to whatever he's meant to be looking at. But the most incongruous performance comes from Ed Gilbert as the miscreant Breathtaker. Black Scorpion isn't exactly a gritty movie, but it's set in the real world, seemingly bound by real physics (the stupid bloody car not withstanding), and uninterested in the more colourful comic book archetypes. Except when it comes to Breathtaker. He doesn't feature in the movie's first half, he just appears, resplendent in a costume that's part Mr Freeze, part Ram-Man from Masters of the Universe, and hams it up to such an extent it's as if a rogue Power Rangers villain infiltrated the set. Perhaps the character's limited screen time encouraged voice actor (nobody bothered crediting the physical presence) Ed Gilbert to turn it up to 11.



Ignoring the strange decisions isn't an option (Severance is a stunningly beautiful woman, but she does not look 25), and nor is ignoring the offensive ones (there are two black characters in the movie: a car thief and a prostitute). But if you can let the nonsense wash over you, Black Scorpion is worthwhile. Just don't plan to take it any more seriously than a superhero invented by Roger Corman should be taken.







WHAT?: 6








Black Scorpion 2: Aftershock (1996)



Country: USA | Runtime: 92mins | Director: Jonathan Winfrey

Starring: Joan Severance, Bruce Abbott, Garrett Morris, Terri J. Vaughn, Rick Rossovich



SPOILT PLOT: Darcy is back on the force and considered a hero after taking credit for the defeat of Breathtaker. A new supervillain, The Gangster Prankster (Jackson) is doing crime in Angel City, so Black Scorpion captures him. Darcy's former partner Michael is no more, so her new partner Rick (Hubley) is now the target of her constant sexual aggression. Corrupt mayor Artie Worth (Matt Roe) is concerned that Prof. Undershaft's (Rose) new anti-earthquake machine will impact on his dodgy construction business so has it sabotaged, which somehow turns Undershaft into another supervillain. As her new alter ego, Aftershock, Undershaft breaks Gangster Prankster out of jail so he can steal what is now called the Scorpionmobile. Aftershock plans to destroy the city with a giant earthquake using a substance called vibranium, a 'high frequency' metal. Black Scorpion takes care of Gangster Prankster and then confronts Aftershock, revealing her true identity in the process. Aftershock decides to be good again and sacrifices herself to save the city.  


With the previous movie's producer, writer, director and star all returning for this rapidly composed sequel, audiences might have expected more of the same. Instead, somewhere in the pre-production process, a decision was made to go full stupid. If the first movie occasionally splashed us from the camp shallows, this one drags us screaming into the depths and pins us beneath the waves. Aftershock is essentially the 1960s Batman TV series re-tooled for an adult audience, which means Dutch angles, primary colours and tits. 



"Somebody get me out of here, there's a great big testicle in my cell!"


A concerted effort is made to wrong-foot us right from the start. Moody Latin choral music plays over abstract imagery as the credits stumble by. A noirish, almost gothic opening scene reminiscent of Batman Returns follows, and then we're at a police station having our senses assaulted by Looney Tunes sound effects and close-ups so close they're in danger of injuring the cast. In the first five minutes we cycle through three radically different tones. In the next five we're bludgeoned by all three at once when they're combined into a single, merciless aesthetic. The improvement this approach represents can't be overstated; it feels like the first movie was under constant scrutiny by strict parents, while this one feels like it was left home alone for the first time and immediately raided the drinks cabinet.



"I don't understand, you spent your whole life trying to prevent earthquakes, why did you start creating them?"


Surprisingly, Aftershock benefits from many of the same advantages enjoyed by proper superhero sequels. With no need to cram in an interminable origin story, the crucial elements are allowed space to breath, particularly the villains. And, having seen how dull original peripheral characters like Walker were, fun ones like the sleaze-bag mayor ('Artie Party') have been introduced in their stead. Most importantly, Michael, the dour partner of the first movie, has been replaced by the more ebullient Rick (he's called Rick throughout but named Michael in the credits and on the IMDb, an anomaly I can't figure out). We're even given some perfunctory background that explains where the name Black Scorpion comes from, something the first movie couldn't be bothered with. It might not make any sense (apparently Darcy's father once told her a story about a scorpion... however it was the media who came up with the name, not Darcy), but at least they tried. 



"Shut up giggles, get your hands up!"


Most superheroes are presented as certified social guardians, even if they nibble at the moral line behind which violent vigilantes dwell. Black Scorpion is different. She devours the moral line then vomits it all over legitimate crime fighters. At one point, while being pursued by the police, she instigates a horrible, fiery collision that ends the lives of at least two officers, before cracking a joke about it. Argyle, the car thief-cum-sidekick, has much less screen time this time around (another thing this movie gets right), but is revealed as a recent partner in crime of The Gangster Prankster, suggesting depths to his criminality that have yet to be exposed or punished. And Black Scorpion's routinely explosive conduct should have raised the issue of superhero accountability 20 years before Batman v Superman defecated on it. In short, the morality of these characters, and therefore the movie, is one big cluster-fuck of contradictory ideologies and nonsensical ethics. But in a good way.








WHAT?: 8




Video: Black Scorpion vs Black Scorpion 2: Aftershock

They're a little bit different in tone.

 Concorde-New Horizons/Showtime Networks/Buena Vista Home Entertainment







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