Mesa of Lost Women (1953) ***1/2
Runtime: 1h 10m
I had always assumed that Them! (1954) was the first giant bug movie and that The Black Scorpion (1957) was the first giant bug movie set in Mexico. Imagine my surprise when I discovered Mesa of Lost Women released a full year before Them! (1954) and taking place in the fictional Mexican Muerto desert (the desert of death). This film is of course not nearly as well known as the later entries into the sub-genre and for good reason, Mesa of Lost Women is not just bad, its so bad that it flirts with full anti-classic status. So bad indeed that I’m not surprised its contemporaries ignored it, and that connoisseurs of bad movies in later generations assumed the film was the work of Ed Wood (this was not the case). I see little in it that makes it less laughably inept than the more famous Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). Mesa of Lost women might lack some the irresistible enthusiasm and energy of the first order bad movies, but it lacks none of their ineptness.
We begin with a voice over narrator waxing poetic on man and his insignificant role in the cosmos. Such cut-rate Lovecraftian exposition should be familiar to any seasoned fan of bad 1950s movies. After my run-ins with Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) and The Creeping Terror (1964) I’ve come to recognize it as one of the sure signs a real stinker. Genuinely intelligent movies do not need to announce their philosophical underpinnings in a heavy-handed monologue before the title card even pops up. Fortunately the filmmakers who cobbled together Mesa of Lost Women are at least halfway competent, and were able to record their actors speaking, unlike the above examples. So the narrator will be leaving us once the story is in full swing, rather than hanging around to fill us in on what the characters are suppose to be saying.
Once the preamble about man’s insignificance when compared to the hexapods (oddly enough this film is about spiders-monsters, who are octopods) is over the film begins in its full befuddling glory. A man and a woman are found wondering through the Muerto Desert (The Desert of Death) by local oilmen. We will learn later that their names are Grant and Doreen respectively. It’s a lucky break for them, as the refinery seems like it’s the only place around for miles, as the name implies the Muerto Desert (The Desert of Death!) doesn’t get much in the way of foot traffic. When the man comes too he begins ranting and raving about strange monsters on the nearby mesa, saying that they have to go and destroy them all. Rather than showing us the story the man is telling the narrator pops up again to 1). Taunt one of the locals, an impossibly broad stereotype named Pepe, and 2). Inform the audience that the man doesn’t know what he’s talking about really, and that the real story begins much earlier.
Dr. Leland Masterson, “world famous specialist and researcher” is being chauffeured to the remote mountain hideaway of the brilliant but mad Dr. Araña by one of the Doctor’s numerous sexy/creepy female assistants. Masterson has long since admired Araña’s work on the endocrine system. Personally, I can’t imagine what would induce an otherwise sane individual to accept an invitation to an inaccessible plateau in the middle of the Muerto Desert (The Desert of Death!!!!) to visit a man whose name translates to Dr. Spider. Araña does have a lot of hot chicks (well, hot if you’re willing to ignore their goofy haircuts) hanging around the lab though, so maybe Masterson is just lonely. Araña doesn’t waste any time, he informs Masterson that he has already begun work on his project to splice together the genes of humans and spiders. The results of his work have been the scores of beautiful women and the creepy little dwarfs meandering all over the Mesa. Also, he has somehow managed to breed a massive, shoddily-made spider. Masterson is suitably horrified by this revelation and tries to high tail it off Zarpa Mesa. It’s too late though; the spider-women corner Masterson and inject him with some strange drug. When next we see him Masterson will be a raving lunatic locked away in an insane asylum. Our latter day Renfield is far too cunning to be held behind bars though, he easily escapes from his cell and proceeds into the filthy streets of the nearby town.
Now, we return to the story that the film’s characters were trying to tell before the narrator butted in. The man later found in the desert, Grant Phillips, is an airplane pilot who was chauffeuring the woman, Doreen Culbertson, and her fiancé Jan van Croft and van Croft’s Chinese servant Wu to Mexico City when the plan broke down forces them to land on the edge of the Muerto Desert (THE DESERT OF DEATH!!!!1!!). Doreen is an obvious gold-digger who still manages to look odious even in the company of her sniveling cowardly husband-to-be. Of the trio, only Wu comes across as at least passingly heroic. The lovebirds have settled into a bleak, filthy bar to have a drink and bicker incessantly. They are interrupted by a ridiculous dance number from Tarentella, the only one of Araña’s spider-chicks with a name. Why Araña sends one of his spider-woman out to shake her ass in a dinghy nightclub is left to the viewer’s imagination. Is there to entrap victims for the Dr’s nefarious experiments, earn money to fund his sinister research, or just to keep the audience awake with a semi-erotic dance?
The couple is then visited first by the now loony Masterson, and then by his nurse George who has been tracking him since he escaped from the asylum. George has come to fetch Masterson back to the asylum, and at first their conversation is about as amicable as you could hope given the circumstance. This all changes once Tarentella starts to approach Masterson, he goes even nuttier than he already is, pulls a gun and shoots her dead (at least that’s what it looks like). Masterson then decides that he and all his new friends are going to take a nice little trip together (he is especially fond of Doreen, who he lovingly insists he will kill last of all). So Masterson escorts George, Doreen, and can Croft back to the airplane which Wu and Grant have gotten mostly fixed. The emphasis being on the mostly, Grant would like to have a little while longer to make sure everything is running correctly but he’s in no position to argue with a gun-totting homicidal maniac like Masterson. So the whole company piles into the plane, and wouldn’t you know it, they crash right into Zarpa Mesa.
At this point everyone forgets that Masterson is 1). Insane, 2). Has a gun. For the next twenty minutes aside from a quick consideration by Grant and George, nobody will even suggest trying to take the gun away from him. Talk about too dumb to live. The next stunning display of what is either painful stupidity or a mass case of suicidal hysteria comes from George, who after drinking a few fingers of brandy with the rest of the characters wanders off into the woods. The audience doesn’t see what happens to him, but we do hear a sinister scream coming from off camera. The rest of the group leaps to attention and runs to help their endangered companion. Ha, just kidding, instead they link arms and spend the next ten minutes (all in real time, hey we have to get this thing up to 70 minutes somehow) carefully shuffling their way through the forest. Unsurprisingly they don’t make it in time to help George.
Then comes the real kicker, after they shuffle their way back to the campsite, van Croft discovers that Doreen has dropped the priceless family comb somewhere in the underbrush. Van Croft orders Wu to head back into the woods, the same place where George has just died, to find the stupid comb. Surprisingly, Wu is willing to go back and recover the comb, despite the apparently suicidal odds against him. Everyone, aside from van Croft, thinks this is the dumbest thing they’ve ever heard, and pleads with Wu not to go. Wu is not to be dissuaded, though he does accept Matherson’s gun so he’ll have some way to defend himself against whatever monsters are lurking in the forest. Matherson, the ostensible lunatic, is really the only one acting rationally here, not only has he given Wu a fighting chance, but he has also managed to disarm the dangerous lunatic (IE himself) something which the rest of the cast has long since forgotten about. However, Wu is no later day samurai, exercising a suicidal devotion to his master, instead he has been working for Araña the whole time. Once he leaves the campsite he makes a B-line directly to Araña’s layer where he informs the mad doctor about the state of his guests. Araña has plans for these victims too, at least Doreen, Grant, and Matherson; the rest (Wu included) are spider food.
At least part of Mesa of Lost Women’s enduring crappiness rests on the fact that it was assembled by a pair of directors, who were not working in collaboration with one another. The mysterious Herbert Tevos was a German confidence man who bluffed his way into the director’s chair by claiming to have directed several films in his homeland before emigrating. I’m guessing the studio realized what a stinker the Teutonic swindler had made on their dime so they called in a reliable B-movie workhorse, Ron Ormond (more than a decade away from his life-changing brush with death that induce him to make crappy Christian themed movies instead of crappy exploitation and western movies), to turn Mesa of Lost Women into something somebody might actually watch. Either Ormond wasn’t up to the challenge, or the script and footage that Tevos delivered were beyond salvaging. Either way, the work done by Ormond probably only made the film less comprehensible. The editing gets particularly bad in the movie’s last act: where shots of Araña and his spider-babes are spliced in, seemingly at random, with the footage of Grant and the others wandering around the mesa. In one notable instance we see a spider-babe crawl into Araña’s lab and approach the doctor but then the film cuts away, with nothing having happened to justify the scene’s existence.
More than just confusing editing though, there are some deep structural problems with Mesa of Lost Women. I have already mentioned the confusing double flashback at the film’s opening, but that is only the start of this movie’s issues. At the film’s climax Araña reveals that he still needs Matherson’s help to complete his experiment, but if that is the case then why did he drive him insane and then send him off to the asylum? Matherson was already Araña’s prisoner on the Mesa, there’s no reason to then lock him up in a state mental hospital and then lure him back to the Mesa. That raises another issue: How did Araña ensure that Matherson’s plane would crash exactly on the Mesa, and not say, 30 miles away near the oil refinery? Even supposing the Wu sabotaged it, there’s no way that he would be able to ensure the plane crashed when and where it did, particularly when the direction of the flight was determined by a mad-man. Also, when did Araña manage to recruit Wu to his cause? The servant couldn’t be one of his spider-abominations as he is not either 1). A hot chick with a goofy hairstyle, 2). A mute midget, or 3). A giant spider. It also seems like Wu has been in Von Croft’s employ for a very long, so why would Araña keep one of his agents working for a German aristocrat? I'm inclined to agree with Grant, who at the film's climax shouts out: “Who is he? What is this place?” Honestly, I have no idea.
A word has to be said about Mesa of Lost women’s soundtrack. Generally, crappy 1950s movies use stock “library music” to compose a score. When this is done carelessly it can lead to some pretty amusing thematic clashes where goofy music plays during horrific sequences, but generally this kind of soundtrack does not draw any attention to itself. Mesa of Lost Women goes the opposite route with its soundtrack: For the entire run-time of the movie a series of jarring atonal guitar and piano scales are played. It reminds me of nothing so much as Neil Young’s soundtrack to Dead Man (1995), had it been composed by someone who had only recently learned how to play the guitar. The music frequently ratchets up in intensity to the point where it becomes difficult to hear what characters and the narrator are saying. A completely original score that catches the audience’s attention sounds good in theory, but not if this is the result I would much rather have had the library music. After a full 70 minutes of this, interrupted only for Tarentella’s dance scene, most viewers will probably develop an acute headache. I know I did.