Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

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 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," 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. It's up there with the greats. I could--and have--watched it over and over (on a 6-hour VHS tape I made that ran as follows: Brain that Wouldn't Die, Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, Spider Baby, Mesa of Lost Women, Robot Monster - and I edited the kid and his dream out of Robot Monster out so it just goes from Ro-Man's leader destroying the earth to a big 'The End.' - Boom and then the tape ends, rewind - hit it again, laddie, and open another bottle of bourbon.

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 Spanish guitar and dissonant 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. And fuck you for even asking.

You see, amigo... there's a frisson in its 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).

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! Idiote!
C'est un chef-d'œuvre parfumé del maldorous!

So the story... a dehydrated couple found wandering in the scorching El Muerte desert while the piano mashes and flamenco stings accrue. A "we don't 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 someone they hadn't even met yet, a Dr. Leland (Hammon Stevens) at the mesa of the mysterious Dr. Aranya (Jackie Coogan). 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. And there's something familiar too about the omnipresent narration. Yesh, it's Lyle Talbot, the nervous gangster in all those WB 30s films, gone to rust but still able to deliver when it comes to narration.

Years or days later, Dr. Leland escapes the Mexican insane asylum he's been residing at, somehow 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, however, interrupting what was already the best part of the film and leaving the audience onscreen 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, either way, as long as someone's shooting someone or something...

We still don't know why it 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? 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, stoic 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 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. 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 and next on my old tape! Lyle Talbot is even on hand as the doctor who tends the surviving couple and narrates. I mentioned that already? Thing imdrunkdoyageorge? Mesa is the best movie never made: See it at least four times in one evening for proper effect.

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