Friday, September 4, 2009

Mesa of Lost Women (Howco International, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was Mesa of Lost Women, one of the legendarily bad movies of the early 1950’s — so legendarily bad, in fact, it was a surprise that the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew never gave it the “treatment.” In fact, I looked in vain for an MST3K version of the film before finally running it “straight,” courtesy of a download from It’s essentially a blatant ripoff of The Island of Dr. Moreau, though instead of an island it takes place on an isolated mesa in Mexico, separated from civilization by a long arid stretch called the “Muerto Desert” and accessible only by plane — the desert’s name offering a warning the people in the movie, of course, ignore — and deals with a mad scientist named Dr. Aranya (Jackie Coogan — in case you ever wondered what he did between The Kid and The Addams Family!) who is hiding in the desert because he wants to do transfers of genetic material between humans and tarantulas — which has resulted in one giant tarantula (though we don’t see it until the very end of the movie) and several women who have “spidery” claws and habits, including killing their mates right after having sex with them.

Aranya has worked on male spiders too, though since the male spider is considerably smaller and weaker than the female and his only purpose in life is to impregnate the female and then be eaten by her to give her the strength to nourish the kids, Aranya’s male spider-people are considerably smaller and weaker than his spider-women. In fact they’re so small that they’re played by midgets, including the marvelous Angelo Rossitto as head of the clan and the only one (it seems) who has any brains. The film opens with the two survivors of the expedition through the Muerto Desert, Dan Mulcahey (Richard Travis) and Doreen Culbertson (Mary Hill), arriving at an oil exploration camp and telling the story in flashback — though much of it has already been set up by an unseen narrator (Lyle Talbot, who in this one at least didn’t have the embarrassment of having to show his face the way he did in his films for Ed Wood!) who delivers reams and reams of expositions, probably to cover up lacunae in the footage. Also in their party when they set out to visit Aranya (whose name means “spider” in Spanish) are Grant Phillips (Robert Knapp), the rich man Culbertson plans to marry for gold-digging purposes; fellow scientist Dr. Leland J. Masterson (the entire performance is credited to actor Harmon Stevens but it appears as if more than one actor appeared in the role, since his appearance, height, build, facial makeup and voice change dramatically in mid-movie); and cynical jeep driver Pepe (Chris-Pin Martin), who spends the entire movie unhelpfully pointing out to his passengers what the name “Muerto” means.

Aranya’s star creation is Tarantella (Tandra Quinn), a dancer at a local cantina (when Doreen sees the place for the first time she goes, “What a dump!,” in quite good mimickry of Bette Davis’s famous line in Beyond the Forest). The name is an in-joke; not only is “tarantella” the Italian name for “tarantula,” it’s also a dance performed in Italy that was supposedly an attempt to duplicate the seizures one would go into when fatally bitten by a tarantula. (Throughout the movie the fellow scientists talk about Aranya’s experiments on “hexapods,” meaning six-legged insects; actually tarantulas are spiders, and therefore have eight legs instead of six.) Anyway, after various pieces of skullduggery involving both the spider-born and human-born characters, Masterson sacrifices his own life to blow up Aranya and all his creations, and Dan and Doreen are the only humans who manage to escape — though when Dan is found he’d babbling (seemingly) insanely like Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and in particular expressing the fear that “they” may have scattered, in which case the human race will for the rest of its days be menaced by giant spiders and spider-people and won’t be able to get rid of them definitively since they’ll no longer be in the same place where they can be killed at once.

Mesa of Lost Women is a movie that began with some genuine talent involved on both ends of the camera — the star had been a child actor who made a movie with Charlie Chaplin (indeed, Jackie Coogan wasn’t the only cast member who’d played a part as a boy with Chaplin — one of the supporting players was Dean Riesner, who as “Dinky Dean” played the obnoxious kid in The Pilgrim and later grew up to co-write the script for Dirty Harry) and at least part of the film was photographed by the great Karl Struss (who also worked with Chaplin — as cinematographer on The Great Dictator). The film began as a production by one Herbert Tevos, who both wrote the script and directed, but apparently it was abandoned in mid-shoot, partly because Tevos ran out of money and partly because the cast and crew members couldn’t stand working for him — and the footage lay fallow until another grade-Z director, Ron Ormond, bought it, shot enough new footage to complete a semi-coherent movie and released it through Joy Houck’s Howco International company.

It’s hard to judge a movie that’s the product of two different filmmakers with two different agendas — in this case, what that really means is it’s hard to know whom to blame — because Mesa of Lost Women is a sorry mess, a film that systematically blows every possibility of terror or suspense that its story offers. Coogan’s Fester-esque performance is over-the-top and so alien from anything resembling normal human behavior that compared to him, Marlon Brando’s playing in the most recent “official” version of The Island of Dr. Moreau looks positively understated by comparison. Richard Travis is acceptably hunky but the rest of the cast leaves a lot to be desired — and the cinematography is enviably clear and ungrainy, and actually gives a bit of dignity to the Mexican desert locations on occasion, but that’s irrelevant because neither director has given us much of anything we particularly want to watch. But what really makes this film a so-bad-it’s-good classic is the awful music by Hoyt S. Curtin, Jr. — he used only two instruments, guitar and piano, having the guitar play rolling flamenco chords (apparently inspired by the Mexican setting) while the piano pounds away in the background, only intermittently in the same key as the guitar. Edward D. Wood, Jr. bought this score and put it into his second film as a director, Jail Bait — did he actually think it was good?