Friday, July 10, 2009

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

Spider women, giant spiders, Angelo Rossitto (and other little people), Dolores Fuller (supposedly), babes with mop wigs and antennae shooting people up with hypos at the telepathic command of Jackie 'Uncle Fester' Coogan (as the mysterious "Dr. Aranya"), a sexy barefoot Latin dancer with lovely big dancer legs doing the tarantella at a vividly-etched cantina: an escaped lunatic with messianic leanings who hijacks a rich man's private plane and--as Michael J. Weldon puts it, does a weird Elmer Fudd impersonation, and some good drinking moments, the sort that seem written by a  drinker, the way Hawks' movies are, (when these actors take a swig out of a bottle, they wince, shiver, and exhale in a gush of sudden medicinal warmth --the sort of shot-taking reactions one almost never sees in movies, alas); befitting the drunk/hungover (or 'drunkover', as in the 'hellevan' that comes with a long 'bingebender'), almost no outdoor scenes are shot outdoors (aside from the desert landing field and a few mesa exteriors), the 'mesa exterior itself is all on a big set which a crashed plane characters walk in and out of. Add these astounding elements together with random disregard for audience sanity and if you're lucky, you get The Mesa of Lost Women! It's 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 very few of those but seen Mesa millions of times and love it more every time. It rocks, like the flat-topped tower of stone from which it gets part of its crazy 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: Brain that Wouldn't Die (missing the first 20 minutes), 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; the cool night air of the desert is invigorating. You just need to use it only when needed, as it will get you through any crisis. Just listen to drunken Lyle Talbot's ominous narration and learn how miraculous it was that within the vast wasteland of the Muerto Desert you were found at all. Let the oil prospectors sweep you up into their jeep, give you some water and salt tablets, and hear you spin this woebegone web of a tall 'table land' tale. It's the best elements of both drinking and AA meetings rolled into one. 

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. Who knows if any scenes are missing? The music too has a kind of Burroughs-style random tape collage expermental accidental artiness: two-fisted piano bashes it out with a weirdly-miked Spanish guitar. They circle around each other in a mix of slowly giddy creeping around and pouncing on each other with a sudden lurch.  Also used in Wood's Jail Bait, it ranks with the ominous thunder chimes of Elmer Bernstein's Robot Monster score in its ability to trigger a medicinal rush of pleasure to any experienced Woodsman.  I could listen to it all my life, and have!  Though cited as 'bad' by some, it may be, in a lot of ways, just that but it is still worth watching a dozen times.

I could go into detail: 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 beloved drinking partner Lyle Talbot (in a pith helmet). It's the ragic 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 tall women and women into giant spiders. Leland is horrified. That's a shame for Leland. 

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 drink ("the very best") at a local cantina where a spider woman named Tarantella (Tandra Quinn) does her namesake dance for agog patrons. She has big toned legs like a real dancer and struts barefoot around in the sawdust, her moves corresponding tightly with the music -another rarity.) Leland shoots her. We're not as shocked as the others since he recognizes 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. And he lives up to and succeeds my years of expectations. With his endlessly off-kilter accentuation, Reid Fleming square nose and a mouth that freezes in a toothy smile in every scene he's in, he becomes the dispassionate existential core of the film. 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 makes a good contrast with the other, human, people in the plane: the handsome hero Allan Nixon, the bald older millionaire, bitchy trophy wife-to-be, aphorism-ridden Asian houseboy, and George ("I'm his nurse, miss.")

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 recesses of Burbank. 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." 

"He always does."

Suffice it to say, Mesa is the best. The sick it shall heal. 

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. Anonymous14 July, 2009

    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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