The Bad Movie Report

Mesa of Lost Women

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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 (MaryHere, Grant wonders where his cap went. 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 "And does she eat her mate afterwards?"underground laboratory, because he's seriously jazzed about Aranya's theories. When he finds out that Aranya (Jackie AIIEEE!  GIANT SPIDER PUPPET!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 Gawd, I hate interpretive dance.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... There's nothin' like a catfight... spider fight... WHATEVER!!!!of 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 "Is it... atomic?"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. The end.

"Dr. Aranya?  Ay, chihuahua!"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 "I like to watch."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 "I like to watch."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.

Spider babe.Leering dwarf face.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) among them.

I STILL hate interpretive dance.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 Ed Wood.



I Can't Believe It's Not Ed Wood!™

- March 15, 1998