“A mad scientist named Aranya is creating giant spiders and dwarfs in his lab on Zarpa Mesa in Mexico. He wants to create a master race of superwomen by injecting his female subjects with spider venom.” (courtesy IMDB)
This week’s endearing endurance test is set south of the border – not Melbourne but Mexico – where a scientist and his diminutive dwarves are super-sizing spiders in their spare time. The rest of the week he works towards creating a master race of superwomen by injecting his female subjects with spider venom – all in the name of mad science, of course, because there’s no sane reason you’d ever want do this. Mesa Of Lost Women (1953) is packed with everything you’d ever want in a vintage monster movie: giant spiders, dancing girls, mad scientists, dancing spider-girls, dancing mad scientists, flashbacks within flashbacks, escaped serial killers, square-jawed heroes, dated ethnic stereotypes and nonstop wall-to-wall flamenco guitar.
Speaking of which, the soundtrack will drive you insane as the same refrain is repeated again and again and again and, for variety, a cat walks across the piano keys once in a while. You may prefer to turn down the sound and say rude things – that’s what I do – and I’m presenting it! Featuring Jackie Coogan, George Barrows, Angelo Rossitto, Lyle Talbot, Dolores Fuller and a lot of other names that sound vaguely familiar, I’m virtually proud to discuss for your displeasure The Mesa Of Lost Women – not to be confused with The Plateau Of Perplexed Playgirls, or The Box Canyon Of Bewildered Babes, or The Frozen Tundra Of Bikini Blondes With No Sense Of Direction…
Back when most schlocky movies were only legends to be spoken about in hushed tones, or something to frighten children with, there was a rumour that Mesa Of Lost Women was actually an uncredited Ed Wood film. Eddie’s fingerprints are all over it. For instance, the narrator is Lyle Talbot, who insists on talking over what might loosely be described as the ‘action’ for minutes at a time. Down among the spider-women you’ll find both Mona McKinnon, future star of Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), and Dolores Fuller, who shared her wardrobe with Eddie at the time. Dolores went from dating the worst filmmaker in cinema history to writing hit songs for legendary entertainer and inventor of the deep-fried mutton milkshake, Elvis Presley. There’s also ‘Dinky’ Dean Riesner, a former child actor who grew up to marry actress Maila Nurmi aka Vampira. That didn’t work out so well, so he became Clint Eastwood‘s favourite screenwriter during the sixties and seventies, from Coogan’s Bluff (1968) to The Enforcer (1976).
There’s also that unforgettable piece of music composed by Hoyt Curtain that can also be heard throughout Eddie’s early opus Jail Bait (1954). It’s certainly one of the most effective pieces of music ever written – provided you consider the word ‘effective’ synonymous with ‘encouraging viewers to jam screwdrivers into their ears’. If you want more information about Jail Bait, just Google the title for your chance to win an intrusive visit from your local constabulary! Alas, the rumours of Ed Wood’s involvement were greatly exaggerated to the point of being completely wrong. The film was originally conceived by Herbert Tevos under the title Lost Women Of Zarpa but, due to a lack of funds and the fact that neither cast nor crew could get along with the director, the production was abandoned. A few years later Ron Ormond wasted good money buying the film, shot a few new scenes and released it as the montage you’re watching tonight.
Mad Doctor Aranya is played by mad Jackie Coogan, who was the highest-paid child actor of the twenties, and the lowest paid actor by his twenties. Bankrupt after a nasty lawsuit between himself and his parents and desperate for work, Jackie was forced to take parts in low-budget dreck like this film before his career finally recovered in the sixties, most notably as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family television series and, during the seventies, as America’s hardest working bowling ball model until Telly Savalas.
One of Doctor Aranya’s more successful experiments is the beautiful Tarantella, played by Tandra Quinn, whose turn-ons include shaking her booty performing the ‘Tarantula Dance’ at the local pub, wearing loose clothing, and lurking around the laboratory looking creepy. Turn-offs – well, nothing discernible, really. She can even be seen giving the furniture a sultry look, which makes this the earliest known film example of the syndrome known as Ikea-philia.
Harmon Stevens portrays Doctor Masterson, the scientist who loses his mind after seeing a giant spider – much like I did after seeing this movie. I used to keep my mind in a jar on the mantelpiece, until my old friend Orson Welles mistook it for a snow-globe. Anyway, Harmon only ever made a couple of film appearances, and this was his pinnacle performance. Sad, really. Anyone credited as ‘Pepe The Jeep Driver’ deserves a special mention, right? Actually, Chris-Pin Martin was a prolific character actor, appearing in over 130 films, almost exclusively portraying Mexican bit parts. By the way, the only time Pepe The Driver is seen with a jeep, he’s in the passenger seat. Nice work if you can get it.
George Barrows plays the imaginatively named George The Male Nurse. Yes, the one-and-only George ‘Ro-Man’ Barrows of Robot Monster (1953) infamy. You probably know the legend. The director of Robot Monster intended to utilise a more conventional robot suit for his science fiction opus, but that plan was felled by the low budget. Barrows, one of several men in Hollywood who earned a modest living playing apes in the then-popular jungle movies, came to the rescue. All he had to do was replace the fake gorilla head with a fake diving helmet and – viola! – credibility reels drunkenly from the room and has a nice lie-down. But that’s another story for another time.
Along with garnering scores of poor reviews, Mesa Of Lost Women can be found amongst The Fifty Worst Movies Ever Made and The Golden Turkey Awards. In fact, it’s so bad you have to ask yourself, is it actually evil? Did director Ron Ormond commit an evil or immoral act by unleashing such a cinematic abomination upon the world? Is this what makes it a truly horrific film? Scene after scene, Mesa Of Lost Women becomes ever more surreal until, by the end, you stop worrying which character is actually having a flashback and start worrying that you might be having one of your own. It’s so hopelessly muddled and misguided that I can’t help but feel affection for it, like an elderly relative that you can’t bear to put down. The cast and crew do their best with the confused script and tiny budget they’ve been given, and the tantalising Tarantula Dance is really something to behold, but the only reason to watch this film again is just to make sure you weren’t hallucinating the first time around. Speaking of which, it’s time for me to turn in, tune out and drop off, but don’t forget to tune in next week for another dose of nasty medicine from…Horror News! Toodles!