Mesa of Lost Women (1953)
Part of the Weird Cinema DVD Box Set.
I’d like to suggest a more accurate title. Mesa of Knowing Glances. Here’s another. Mesa of Stupid Cutaways. At a conservative estimate, this movie is about 50% close-ups of people looking at things that couldn’t possibly be there and scrunching up their faces in a vain attempt to convey an emotion. Plenty of low-budget sci-fi/horror flicks have explosive and even oblique titles meant to draw curiosity-seekers in. The title, often one of several depending on the release market, at least has something to do with the plot most of the time. In the case of Mesa of Lost Women (1953), I had no idea what to expect. My initial assumption?This was one of those island movies where some strapping explorers get shipwrecked and discover a utopia entirely populated by scantily-clad women. Sexy problems ensue. Nope. Even taking into account the original title, Lost Women of Zarpa, there is a shocking disparity between title and movie. Oh, don’t get me wrong. There’s a mesa. There are even some women. And some folks definitely get lost. The comparisons end there. Let’s crawl our way into this tangled web of a movie, shall we?
Prolific Oscar-nominated writer Orville H. Hampton (One Potato, Two Potato. 1964) goes uncredited for the original story, which sounds like a somewhat intriguing plot involving a homicidal maniac kidnapping a rich couple and the pilot who saves them. The credited screenwriter, one Herbert Tevos, also making his directorial debut according to everyone but him, shot the film in 1951. A big inconsistency is that Tevos is listed with a ‘written for the screen’ credit, but since there's no source material or story credit, it makes no sense. I get a strong Tommy Wiseau or Claudio Fragasso vibe off of Tevos’ background. He claims to have been a major filmmaker in Germany, yet has no other credits besides this one. Much later down the road, Tevos’ son revealed that his father did work for a film manufacturer but was not, in fact, a director.
There’s an old joke in Italian cinema that if you pass someone in Italy, you get a writing credit. This is why writing credits tend to be cluttered in Italian films. For years. Tevos insisted that he'd directed Josef Von Sternberg’s star-making Marlene Dietrich vehicle The Blue Angel (1930), but except for a recorded correspondence with one of the film’s writers (Karl Vollmoller), this was never substantiated and is likely a major stretching of the truth, if not a downright lie. Still, Tevos did shoot Lost Women of Zarpa, but like Fragasso and Wiseau, had big problems with the rest of the cast and crew. This is unfair, but I do think that some directors who lack talent try to make up for it with arrogance and misplaced confidence. Deemed unreleasable, the movie would sit on the shelf for a couple of years until forgotten B-movie writer/director Ron Ormond (Son of a Badman 1949), writer only) bought the footage, shot some stuff with a sleep-walking Jackie Coogan and unleashed it onto an unsuspecting public as Mesa of Lost Women. Armed with this knowledge, the movie should make more sense, but this is one of those films where a bunch of stuff happens while almost nothing happens at the same time. People do stuff. Then they do some other stuff. Why? Fuck you, that’s why.
Location-appropriate flamenco music plays over the credits and you’d better get used to it because that’s all you’re gonna get. For a while, it’s not really a problem. But, as the story progresses, you realize that not only has the guitar refused to cease, but there’s no tension in any scenes because the music is the same throughout. Lyle Talbot provides the surprisingly snide narration which purports that man is not long for this world and once gone, the hexapods will be the only living creatures left. Since I expected a ‘mesa of lost women,’ I was pleasantly surprised to hear of the existence of monsters. Hexapods are insects with six legs, which seems like it would be a problem since spiders tend to have eight, but who am I to question science? A pair of ragged figures stumble around the desert before being rescued and brought to “Amer-Exico Field Hospital,” an oddly named spot that sounds like it also dispenses gasoline. Of course, cue the flashback, meaning another wraparound, meaning we already know who survives, meaning absolutely no suspense. Moving on…
The newly-shot footage is pretty much legendary child actor Jackie Coogan, who is the proto-typical Macauley Culkin when it comes to adults stealing his money, doing experiments in a cave with nobody but female assistants and little people. Even as a non-Spanish speaking person, I could figure out pretty quick that his character’s name, Dr. Aranya, had something to do with spiders. He also has only one eye, which is never talked about. The women say nothing but there are awkward glances galore as famous scientist Leland Masterson (Harmon Stevens, saddled with a difficult role he is nowhere near qualified for) checks out Aranya’s set-up. The doctor has found a way to create giant spiders and transfer their abilities to women. These abilities include regenerating limbs, which we never see, much longer life (never substantiated), and weird-ass interpretive finger dancing, which we most definitely will see a little later on. Men, on the other hand, have not fared as well, mutating into dwarves, one of which is played by Master-Blaster himself, Angelo Rossitto. The doctor even casually talks about taking over the world, which doesn’t seem to phase Masterson in the least. But mention giant spiders, that’s a different story. Aranya’s crown jewel is Tarantella (Tandra Quinn, a Tevos protégée), whose silent performance mainly consists of sensual dancing and serious eyebrow acting. Masterson is understandably aghast, particularly by the giant spider. His reaction is not exactly one of shock, but more akin to how someone would react if they took a huge shit on the floor. Unfortunately, this isn’t going to work for Aranya, but he has some dumb-dumb drugs that he injects Masterson with, turning him into a simpleton, I guess.
Even though he’s a dullard now, Masterson wanders off (maybe he saw something shiny), ending up in a sanitarium. This guy is a goddamn Houdini because he busts out of there too. An attendant, played by famous gorilla costume actor and Ro-Man George Barrows, is hot on his heels. Providing his own retractable glass, Masterson orders some scotch at a local Mexican watering hole and spies rich couple Jan van Croft (Niko Lek) and Doreen Culbertson (Paula Hill) who are waiting for their private plane to be fixed. They’re hard to miss since they’re immediately brought to the “best” table in the house after the maître d’ literally forces some locals to vacate the table. White people get all the perks. Fellow American Masterson joins them and we’re treated to the sexy finger dancing from Tarantella. Prior to this, we’ve been seeing lots of unspoken exchanges between her, Masterson, and Croft’s manservant Wu (Samuel Wu, must’ve been quite an effort to come up with that character name). For a minute, it seems as though Tarantella and Masterson are telepathically linked and she’s transferring her consciousness to him, but this doesn’t seem to be the case and he suddenly pops up and plugs her with a gun he got…somewhere. I’ll admit, Harmon Stevens is terrible in the role, but some of the childlike looks he gives are kind of creepy. He ‘likes’ Doreen and as George arrives, he kidnaps all of them and uses George’s car to get away. The cops are called but never seen and Tarantella recovers due to her spider abilities. By the way, when I step on a spider, it doesn’t get back up. And if spiders could straight-up regenerate after being killed, I’d pull an E.G. Marshall and lock myself in a clean room, a la Creepshow.
What follows may be the most chill kidnapping ever captured on film. There’s never any attempt to disarm Masterson and the pilot, Captain Grant Phillips (Robert Knapp, although I prefer Tom Hanks on the boat to this guy) insists that the plane shouldn’t fly. We really don’t know what Masterson wants or where they’re going. I could use a little Lyle Talbot narration here. Plus, the hostages feel free to walk away and barely even notice the gun. Regardless of safety, they get the plane into the air, in a scene consisting of close-ups in total darkness and then during their crash, a horrible jump cut from a group shot to another group shot a couple feet to the right.
They crash on a mesa (ah, it’s all making sense now) and Phillips sends up a flare. This is stupid since they don’t see any other planes coming and it’s literally a shot in the dark. In the original story, this flare alerts the Mexican authorities and they’re saved later, but since Tevos was apparently off making his next cinematic masterpiece, it’s merely something that happens and then is forgotten about. George wanders off with a dinky little flashlight and we get a spider-related death, though offscreen. To their credit, they decide to investigate and form a line so they won’t get separated. More movies should employ this tactic. There’s a cut to Coogan that’s clunky and meaningless, likely only there to remind you that he’s in the movie, and for a brief, beautiful moment, the flamenco guitar fades out. Then, almost immediately, it starts up again, and I’ve slit my wrists. They find George’s body with huge bite marks in his neck. Instead of hunkering down inside the plane, they decide to sleep outside, proving that Masterson isn’t the only idiot around here.
The movie also decides that it can’t just have people walking around doing nothing, so we find out Doreen is a gold-digger who only wants Croft for his money. It’s REALLY late for a romance here, but she ends up falling for Captain Phillips and begs him not to sail near Somalia. OK, that second thing doesn’t happen. They hear a noise, but ignore it. Have these people been LOBOTOMIZED?! Is Doreen really Frances Farmer?! George got killed by something! Don’t ignore strange noises! The weird spider women and the little guys have been watching the whole time but do nothing.
Wu makes it back to Dr. Aranya, revealing that he’s been in on the plot (there’s a plot?) the whole time to get Masterson back. It’s actually amusing that Aranya senses Wu’s hesitation in betraying the group. He’s set upon by the spider women. Croft goes mad and gets killed by the giant spider in the one onscreen attack. It looks terrible. I was a spider once for Halloween. My mother sewed a black velvet costume and when I lifted my arms, webs came out. I got a goddamn gift certificate to KB Toys for that outfit and it was a hundred times better than this stupid spider.
Finally, something actually happens and the group ends up in Aranya’s lair. Masterson must be really important, because he’s injected with some smart juice and suddenly he’s back to normal. Aranya tries to partner up again, but Masterson has a better idea. With very little resistance, he mixes up a quick potion and blows up the lair. Captain Phillips and Doreen escape and we get the wraparound bit where he’s just finished telling his story to ‘Senor Medico.’ Nobody believes him but then we see a single spider woman hanging out on the mountain. The end. Or, since Tevos must have been a classy dude, 'Fin.'
It seems like there was a ton of crossover in the B-movie community. The film features two Edward D. Wood Jr. actors, including Dolores Fuller, an appearance by Dean Riesner, director of Bill and Coo (1948), and even the future star of The Wild World of Batwoman (1966). The movie is barely tolerable, but it’s fun to play name that actor while you suffer your way through this dreck.