Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Friday, July 10, 2009

So close to Heaven: MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1953)

Spider women, Poverty Row little person mainstay Angelo Rossitto, Ed Wood regular Dolores Fuller, Jackie 'Uncle Fester' Coogan, and a hot Latin dancer with lovely big dancer legs doing the tarantella: add them together with random disregard for audience sanity and if you're lucky, you get The Mesa of Lost Women! A film by the amazing Ron and Mrs. 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," and evangelical films too. I've seen none of those but have seen Mesa millions of times and love it more every time. And Idon'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. It's up there with the greats. When I was drinking, I used to watch it over and over, on a 6-hour VHS tape I made that ran as follows: Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, Spider Baby, Mesa of Lost Women, Cat Women of the Moon - the best 6 hour tape ever! rewind - hit it again, laddie, and open another bottle of bourbon, another six hours of spider women, cat women, crazy women... life was so good.  Well, it's still good, even sober. The high is insane. You have to be ready for it. Let it sweep you up in its wobegotten web.

The Image DVD I have is apparently sourced from the film's only surviving print, one laden with aesthetically pleasing emulsion damage, jarring 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 drunken Spanish guitar scales and ominous piano mashes looped over and over? Senior, could the Ormonds not even try to find some royalty-free library music ala say Night of the Living Dead? 

No. So what? As it is, it's perhaps the wildest and most instantly iconic scores ranking with Elmer Bernstein's Robot Monster and that weird refrain that accompanies Bela Lugosi through all nine of his Monogram films.

You see, amigo... there's a frisson in such repetitions. It's artsy enough make even John Cage cry "ça suffit!" The "music" is in fact so pervasive, so repetitive, and so grating, it got the attention of Ed Wood, who revived it for his opus Jail Bait (1954). I could listen to it all my life. And it's just  one example of how we needn't ask if Mesa is bad-brilliant or just bad. Mesa of Lost Women needs no justification! IdioteC'est un chef-d'œuvre parfumé del maldorous! By which, senior, I mean: it's terrible good. The French creates subliminal associations with Cahier du Cinema and helps you recontexutalize Mesa as an art film - I'm not (just) being pretentious, senior.

PLOT -Some oil company prospectors pick up a dehydrated couple they find wandering in the scorching El Muerte desert. Lyle Talbot delivers a stirring voiceover about its perils.  At the oil company office, the girl, Doreen (Paula Hill) sacks out on the couch and the man relates their incredible story to no less a personage than Lyle Talbot (in a pith helmet) and Pepe (Chris Pin Martin), who is the only one who believes him after his tale is told ("si, es verdad / That's the truth!").

But Talbot decides to flash us back even farther, for the whole tragic saga of endocrinolotist Dr. Leland (Hammon Stevens) and his arrival at the mesa of the mysterious Dr. Aranya (Jackie Coogan). Deep in the middle of La Muerte, Aranya has transplanted glandular secretions and made spiders into hot babes and little men (because in the arachnid family the males are weaklings --often eaten after sex). Leland is brought in to help but he's horrified. He also seems like an idiot, as when he reads the spine of one of Aranya's books aloud: "the Lives of In... sects."

Now right there you're in heaven--not just because Coogan was in The Addams Family--but because he was the "H" dealer in High School Confidential, and there's something familiar too about the omnipresent narration, Talbot is having a blast and so are we, addressing Pepe, the Mexican stereotype who rescues the couple, and Pepe looks up as if he hears someone talking, someone only he, Pepe, can hear. Do you hear voiceovers, Pepe? Si?

Years or minutes later, Dr. Leland escapes the Mexican insane asylum he's been residing at, somehow (I like to think it's the same one SUSANA escapes from) and gets a very clean drink at a local cantina where a spider woman named Tarantella (Tandra Quinn) does her namesake dance for agog patrons. She's pretty damn good at it, and has big toned legs like a real dancer. Leland shoots her, however, while saying a bible quote, and leaving the audience onscreen aghast, but not us as we recognize her from Aranya's lair. Tarantella dies lonely and forlorn while horrified patrons stand around, not helping her, and George (George Barrows), Leland's handler, tells everyone not to rush him as he's a dangerous loon.

In Psychotronic, Michael Weldon calls Leland "a lobotomized scientist doing a weird Elmer Fudd impersonation." It's not really a Fudd impersonation, but having read and re-read that sentence many times as a kid before actually seeing the film, it's tough to think of Leland any other way.

He also becomes the dispassionate existential core of the film, enunciating his strange messiah complex-meets-displaced personality disorder 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!" or "this is my order" or "the sick I shall heal!"
He hijacks handsome hero Allan Nixon's plane, which comes replete with bored millionaire, trophy wife, stoic Asian houseboy, and coming along too is George, who runs around making sure no one tries to take the gun from his patient, 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 from the airplane bottle, which ---when you're drinking alone while watching at five AM (the best way to see it) is a great cheery scene; then they wait around by the fire, exploring strange screams in the darkness, going out to investigate one at a time, or holding hands in a long kind of conga line reminiscent of the constant foreground walking in a row done by the astronauts in Cat Women of the Moon. 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 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 with.  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," Leland says 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 a hundred times. Barrows is the guy trudged all over Bronson canyon in a weighty gorilla suit and diving helmet for Robot Monster, made the same year and another favorite. Lyle Talbot is even on hand as the doctor who tends the surviving couple and narrates. I mentioned that already? Thing imdrunkdoyageorge? Bedder go. Suffice it to say, Mesa is the best movie never made: See it at least four times in one evening for proper effect, doing shots every time anyone drinks onscreen. If you're sober now, in AA, it's probably because you drank too much watching movies like this. So you'll be able to love it anyway. The sick it shall heal.  This is my order. NOW we will all fly.

For more Ed Wood Blogathan, dig also my NIGHT OF THE GHOULS piece on Bright Lights
The Cinema Styles Ed Wood roster is here
Post Script 3/11/16 - Just discovered Doug Bonner's great piece, w/ full movie streaming 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


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