For many years there
was an (admittedly) minor furor over this movie; rumor had it that Mesa
of Lost Women was clandestinely written, if not actually directed,
by the great Ed Wood, Jr. Some folk who actually worked on Mesa
came forward and put that legend to rest, but as we shall see, it is
a very easy mistake to make.
We begin our filmic odyssey
with a couple lost in the nonexistant Mexican Muerto Desert. We shall
soon come to know and despise them as Grant the pilot (Robert Knapp)
and Doreen (Mary
Hill). Fortunately for the pair, they are found by an American oil surveyor
and his "superstitious native" helper, Pepe (Chris Pin Martin).
Immediately, we are striken by the many Woodian nuances apparent in
the opening alone: first, Grant's pilot cap keeps vanishing and reappearing.
Most telling of all, however, is that the sequence is not allowed to
play out silently, with appropriate music; no, we are treated to a voiceover
narration that tells us what we seeing, and eventually ventures into
the cosmic, musing on the miraculous. The narrator is also helpful and
educational, never missing an opportunity to inform us in a hushed whisper
that Muerto Desert means "The Desert - of Death!" This could
easily have been read by Wood icon Criswell, but is instead entoned
(and probably better done) by Lyle Talbot, himself no stranger to Woodphiles.
And speaking of appropriate
music (which I was a couple of fractured sentences ago), we must perforce
speak of the music of Mesa of Lost Women: it is the very same
Hoyt Curtin guitar-and- piano music later employed in Wood's Jailbait,
thus adding more fuel to the fire. It's more appropriate here, but
still endlessly repetitive, with every dramatic moment underscored by
the same Spanish guitar riff.
Once in the hospital,
Grant regains conciousness and begins insisting that an oil tanker be
sent to the mesa to "burn them all... before they scatter!"
and drops the name Dr. Aranya, causing a reaction in Pepe. Grant begins
to tell his tale, but the camera zooms in to Pepe, as the narrator starts
speaking again... this time to Pepe! Pepe's people, we are told,
know the truth about Dr. Aranya, but that will have to wait as we begin
a flashback - not to Grant's tale, but to another tale which will
provide the backstory for Grant's tale.
This is another clue
that we are not guided by the Hand of Wood. Eddy's storylines may have
lacked ideal cohesion, but they were more-or-less linear affairs,
like the Hollywood films he admired. He would not have structured his
tale so radically.
Our backstory concerns
Dr. Masterson, who journeys to the Mesa and Dr. Aranya's underground
laboratory, because he's seriously jazzed about Aranya's theories. When
he finds out that Aranya (Jackie Coogan)
is breeding a race of indestructible super spider women (and dwarvish
spider men), he seems not terribly concerned; it's when he finds that
Aranya is also breeding giant spider puppets that he goes off the deep
end. Literally, as Aranya and his devil dames do something terrible
to him, and when he somehow escapes, Masterson is quite insane, and
is sent to the Muerto State Asylum. Sadly, by this time, the narrator
has left us to our own devices, and there is no one to tell us that
this means "the Asylum... of Death!"
Masterson escapes and
winds up in some sleazy cantina, dressed to the nines and acting like
a genial idiot. Also cropping up is millionaire industrialist Jan van
something-or-other (Niko Lek) and Doreen, his bride-to-be (Doreen, upon
entering, promptly sneers "What a dump!" in her best bad drag-queen
Bette Davis). Seems their airplane broke down on the edge of town. Masterson
takes a shine
to Doreen. They are also joined by George (John Martin, I think),
Masterson's nurse. A sexy maid starts dancing to THAT! DAMNED! GUITAR!
MUSIC! Masterson recognizes her as Tarantella (Tandra Quinn),
Aranya's biggest and best spider lady, and shoots her. He then takes
Jan, Doreen and George hostage, eventually hijacking the half-repaired
plane, and therefore Grant. At last, we are back on track.
Of course, trouble once
again develops in the plane engine... and someone has tampered with
the gyrocompass, necessitating a landing on the titular mesa. That night,
George wanders off for no good reason and is chomped by the spider puppet.
Doreen loses a haircomb Jan gave her, and being a bourgeoise pig, he
orders his manservant Wu (Samuel Wu) into the woods to find it, sparking
a bit of class-oriented disgust in Doreen and Grant. Wu, however, is
the saboteur, working in league with Aranya to get Masterson back (and
a very complicated, Mission Impossible scheme it is, too). For
his trouble, Aranya hands Wu over to his spider bitches.
After finding Wu's body,
Jan is stricken by guilt and runs into the waiting arms ....or something...
the spider puppet. The rest of the spider gang jump the survivors and
take them to Aranya. Ever mindful of the audience members who never
shared a room with a high school Spanish textbook, our hero informs
us, "Aranya! That's Spanish for spider!" as Aranya injects
Masterson with something that will make him "perfectly sane."
At last, you think, we're coming to the meat of the movie.
Not quite, as the now-sane Masterson mixes some chemicals
together to make a time bomb, holding Aranya and company at bay with
the bubbling beaker while Grant and Doreen escape. Boom! It's
a tremendous amount of buildup to a denouement that races right past
you - which is not to say that it isn't hilarious, it just seems like
the last shot of the day and everyone wanted to go home.
Naturally, no one believes
Grant. The narrator returns from lunch to inform us just how far-fetched
the story is as we fade on a surviving spider babe lounging on the Mesa.
Oh, where to begin, where to begin?
We could start with the character of Pepe, my favorite. You know he's
Mexican because he's wearing a sombrero. He looks like Mel Blanc doing
the "Si - Cy - Sue" bit on the old Jack Benny Show.
So this guy I like. Masterson, while he is
a homicidal loony, reminds one of an untrained high school thespian
trying to do Peter Sellers in Being There. Jackie Coogan as Aranya,
Mesa's major claim to infamy, is jarringly low-key. He looks
great - disfigured eye, wart, beard, and the uniform of the Mad Scientist
- lab coat and tie. Unfortunately, to the
modern viewer, that's still Uncle Fester's voice coming from the villain.
All of which is too bad, as the movie could only have benefitted from
more Aranya. Coogan couldn't have been on the set more than a day.
Past that, the actors
are a motley bunch - Wu is execrable (the fact that he is allowed to
only speak in pseudo-oriental homilies does not help), Jan is only a
little more tolerable, and Grant and Doreen have a truly painful scene
which ends with her impulsively kissing the pilot, then lighting a cigarette.
Woo. The sexual tension is palpable. Or something.
Leering dwarf faces keep intercutting
at inappropriate times, producing an effect not unlike the subliminals
in Terror in the Haunted House. The spider women, with the notable
exception of Tarantella, all dress like extras in She. Adding
to the Woodian confusion, if you look quickly enough, you will see Mona
McKinnon (Plan 9) and Dolores Fuller (Glen or Glenda?, Jailbait)
Interestingly, while the cantina
scene was unspooling, my wife opined that this looked like a low-budget
version of From Dusk Till
Dawn. Then Tarantella began her seductive (I'm being charitable)
dance, and I saw she was right. But writer Herbert Tevos is no Tarantino,
and director Ron Ormond no Rodriguez.
Hell, they're not even