Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Friday, July 10, 2009

So close to Heaven: MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1952)

Spider women, Poverty Row little person mainstay Angelo Rossitto, Ed Wood regular Dolores Fuller, Jackie 'Uncle Fester' Coogan: add them together with random disregard for audience sanity and whadda you got? The Mesa of Lost Women! A film by the amazing Ron Ormond, whose tentacles, the Astounding B-Monster notes: "tap into everything from 'adult' sex-dramas, like Please Don't Touch Me, to a string of Lash LaRue westerns released by PRC in the late forties," I've seen Mesa millions of times and don't remember a single thing about it, except that it rocks, like the flat-topped tower of stone from which it gets its name. I forget the writer, but someone wrote of the Rolling Stones' 1972 album, Exile on Main Street: "It kicks ass though it can barely stand." Mesa of the Lost Women is like that: it can't walk, though it has eight legs; it's got no bite, yet oozes tasty venom.

The Image DVD is apparently sourced from the film's only surviving print, one laden with aesthetically pleasing emulsion damage, jarring "missing scene" scotch tape splices, jumps and scratches at a level of near-Brakhage abstraction. Am I giving too much credit to a film with a score consisting of the same few seconds of Spanish guitar and dissonant piano mashes looped over and over?

No. And fuck you for even asking. George, you better tell them.

That crazy Godardian stop-start score is just perfect, my brother, for it mirrors the film. The piano "music" was seemingly recorded in a different era from the guitar, and spliced in with enough random atonal frisson to make even John Cage cry ├ža suffit. The "music" is so pervasive, so repetitive, and so grating, it got the attention of Ed Wood,who revived it for Jail Bait (1954). Is Mesa bad-brilliant or just bad-bad? Mesa of Lost Women needs no justification! Idiote! C'est un meisterwerke!

So... a dehydrated couple found wandering in the scorching El Muerte desert while the piano mashes accrue. A "we dont need no stinkin' badges"-style Mexican stereotype brings them into police headquarters where they relate a tragic saga that begins, oddly enough, with the arrival of Dr. Leland (Hammon Stevens)--alone and unwitnessed by said couple--at the mesa of the mysterious Dr. Aranya (Jackie Coogan), though how they could describe those scenes is a mystery. Now right there you're in heaven--not just because Coogan was in The Addams Family--because he was the "H" dealer in High School Confidential.

Years or days later, Dr. Leland escapes the Mexican insane asylum he's been residing at, and gets a very clean drink at a local cantina where a spider woman named Tarantella (Tandra Quinn) does the "Tarantella" for agog patrons. Leland shoots her, interrupting her performance and leaving the audience aghast --though no one makes a move to help her, and she dies lonely and forlorn while actors stand around and the director presumably sways drunkenly in a corner, trying to remember if it's a rehearsal or they're really shooting. It doesn't matter. This is art.

Why is Leland hostile to black-haired beauties with gigantic finger nails? Was he mad that the film, for a few brief minutes, was actually genuinely fascinating, thanks to Aranya's undulations? What's this weird guy's deal? Michael Weldon calls him "a lobotomized scientist doing a weird Elmer Fudd impersonation." It's not really a Fudd impersonation, but having read and re-read the review many times as a kid before actually seeing the film, it's tough to think of Leland any other way.

Fudd/Leland also becomes the dispassionate existential core of the film, enunciating his words in such a bizarre way the dancing dwarf in Twin Peaks would probably take one look at him and shrug like a Parisian waiter endeavoring to understand your half-assed attempt at ordering cuisses de grenouilles. One mis-accentuated Leland quote which always pops into my head at odd moments: "Now we will all fly!" This being of course when he hijacks Allan Nixon's plane, which comes replete with bored millionaire, trophy wife, Asian houseboy, and sanitarium worker George (George Barrows), who runs around making sure no one tries to take the gun from "dangerous maniac" even though they have plenty of easy opportunities.

While in the air, Leland's eerily vacant grin never waivers as he looks at the clouds and notes "So beautiful... so close to heav... en." Once crash landed on the mesa, the gang all have a stiff drink (which when you're drinking alone while watching at five AM is a great cheery moment), then they wait around by the fire, exploring strange screams in the darkness, going out to investigate one at a time, so they can get killed off by mismatched cutaway shots of leering little people, a giant leaping tarantula, and blank-eyed beauties culled from the dustiest of Burbank casting offices. Every time someone else dies the survivors return to the fire and drink some more. Each time it is a great cheery moment to drink along.  The dwindling survivors wish they had some food, and Leland seems to think he's still at the hospital with a tray of dinner due to arrive any time soon:

"George will bring it. (with existential weariness
He always does."

One of the finger-nailed beauties on the mesa is allegedly Ed Wood girl Dolores Fuller though I can never find her, and I've seen this film at least 20 times. George Barrows is played by the same heroic guy who trudged all over Bronson canyon in a weighty gorilla suit and diving helmet for Robot Monster, made the same year! What a man. Lyle Talbot is even on hand as the doctor who tends the surviving couple and narrates. A good day's work for a bottle to sleep it off in. See it at least four times in one evening for proper effect, alternating with Spider Baby and Plan Nine. And remember: Now we will all fly!

See also my NIGHT OF THE GHOULS piece on Bright Lights
and the Cinema Styles Ed Wood roster here


  1. Oh, man I actually own this one. It's painfully bad. I can only take it in small doses.

  2. It helps to be very, very, very drunk. I know what you mean about small doses, Mark. I've been gradually making my way through Antonioni's THE PASSENGER for almost a year now.

  3. Oh My God. I am ashamed to say I haven't seen this film yet. Lyle Talbot and Delores Fuller? What a magnifient pedigree! Needless to say, you have insired me to hop on over to Amazon and get the Image edition. Thanks. Thanks a million. And don't worry, I have the very, very drunk part covered in spades (thanks for the viewing guidelines)!

    By the way, skip The Passenger. The price of the ticket isn't worth the ride, if you know what I mean. -- Mykal

  4. Thanks for the tip, Mykal. The PASSENGER will stay unboarded for now. Another one for the dry docks is LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD.

  5. The last 8 minutes, alone, of THE PASSENGER is worth "the price of the ticket" - one of the greatest long takes in le histoire du cinema.

  6. Mr. Kuntner! We're going to have to agree to disagree on this one! -- Mykal