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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Mesa of Lost Women

This movie is commonly labeled one of the worst films ever. It seems to annoy all but the most ardent fans of 50s sci-fi B movies. Granted, it's no lite-entertainment piece. Mesa of Lost Women (MOLW) is disjointed, oddly acted or just too obtuse for most viewers. Despite all that, there really are still some points of interest.

In essence, the story line is similar to H.G. Wells' "Island of Dr. Moreau," but it is not a direct film adaptation, such as Island of Lost Souls (1933). MOLW takes the same theme of a rogue scientist creating humans from animals but adds its several of its own twists and skips others. What adds confusion is that the screenplay is structured as a double flashback. More on that in the Notes section. There are enough holes in the plot, non-sequetors and loose threads that MOLW frustrates the average viewer. This may be due to heavy-handed editing and/or the movie's murky parentage. More on that in the Notes section too.

Quick Plot Synopsis
MOLW opens with a man and woman found wandering through the desert. The flashbacks tell their tale (and the larger story too). Dr. Aranya (Jackie Coogan) has a lab on remote Zarpa Mesa in a Mexican desert. On the mesa, he swaps growth hormones between humans and spiders in an effort to produce a race of super humans. (Supposedly, spiders have an invincibility to them which he's trying to impart to humans.) With these invulnerable humans, he plans to rule the world. Spider hormones make beautiful women "special", but turns men into distorted dwarves. Human hormones in a spider create a huge "intellegent" spider. Dr. Aranya is able to communicate with his mute creations telepathically. Dr. Aranya lures a Dr. Leland Masterson, "world's foremost organo-therapist", to Zarpa Mesa in hopes of having him join him in his work. Instead, Masterson is aghast and refuses. He is drugged, turning him into a mental patient. Later, a deranged Masterson shoots Aranya's best spider woman, Tarantella, then hijacks a rich American's entourage and their plane. The plane, carrying six people crashes on Zarpa mesa. Some are killed by spiders or spider women, but the pilot (Grant), girl (Doreen) and Masterson are taken to the lab within. Masterson comes out of his drug stupor and blows up the lab. Grant and Doreen escape. No one believes their tale. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
Okay, "fun" is probably not the word. MOLW is not an easy movie to watch, given it's many rough edges. It is fun to see Jackie Coogan ten years before (and many pounds lighter than) his "fame" as Uncle Fester on the 60s Addam's Family TV series. There is also an element of the "Lost Women" archetype which is interesting. It doesn't quite follow the norm for that genre, adding some femme fatale twists. There is also a couple of threads of good-vs-evil theme which fade in and out. Other odd bits are fun to puzzle over.

A bit of trivia fun for watchers of old sci-fi is Dr. Aranya has in his lab the control panel and view scope "machine" that Vultura had on planet Atoma in the Captain Video serial. It was fun to spot an old prop getting some work.

Cold War Angle
There's none, really. This is good ol' fashioned evil scientist stuff.

Hijacked flashbacks -- What throws many viewers, is the layered flashback structure. The story starts out as if being told by Grant, but shifts to Pepe, the oil company's jeep driver, before Grant's flashback really gets started. Pepe's flashback is not a personal account (which confuses some people) but is a sort of collective account of what his people have heard or know of Dr. Aranya. All that is set-up or back story for the cantina scene where the Americans pick up the story. The 'extra' flashback really isn't all that bad. It's just atypical.

One "hit" wonder -- Herbert Tevos is credited for the screenplay. Somewhat mysteriously, he never wrote anything before or after. Tevos is said to have started filming a project for Howco Productions tentatively entitled "Tarantula", doing the directing himself. The project was halted because Tevos was too difficult to work with. Howco later had director Ron Ormond pick up the project, adding some footage to finish the project. It's been said that the Dr. Aranya footage is what Ormond added. Aranya is so pivotal to the plot, however, that he must have been in the original screenplay and not added later. Tevos is no Wells or Bradbury, but he clearly had some artistic vision in his head, though was too inexperienced to get that vision onto film clearly. Ormond didn't help much, but the project may have been too far along, or too little budgeted to fix.

Good vs. Evil -- Tarantella (Tandra Quinn) is Aranya's sensual creation. The other spider women are stoic. Tarantella represents the dark, "animal" side of female. Masterson, in his drug-induced derangement, proclaims Tarantella to be evil. He quotes from the Old Testament (2 Kings 9:33) about the death of evil queen Jezebel. Masterson also pronounces Doreen to be "good." Doreen, with shorter blond hair and modest suit dress, represents the virtuous woman. Then too, Aranya himself represents the dark side of science, while Masterson represents the moral and heroic side.

Loose Ends Theories -- 
-- What's up with Wu? It is significant that Wu and Tarantella know each other (nodding to each other in cantina). My guess is that Aranya used drugs to make human minions to do his bidding in the outside world. (including the mute women who drove Masterson to Zarpa) The drug did not make Wu mute (as it did the others) but did make him talk only in Chinese proverbs. (odd) The control-drug made Masterson demented rather than compliant. Wu eventually resists Aranya's will (moral objections) and gets killed for it. Wu's rebellion helps set up Masterson's. Wu, as Jan van Croft's valet, appears to have been assigned to bring Doreen to Zarpa. Wu tampered with the plane's compass. Apparently, the Wu/Doreen thread explains how Aranya gets 20-something white women to experiment upon.

-- What's with the lost comb? Yes, it's obtuse, but it's a symbolism thing that tips the love triangle. We start out with young Doreen engaged to old Jan van Croft. She doesn't "love" him but is marrying for security. She and Grant don't hit it off well at first, but during the crisis, he's heroic and caring, while van Croft is selfish. His obsession over the lost "heirloom" comb (and not for Doreen or anyone else) symbolizes his materialism. This negates him as a worthy mate and sends Doreen into Grant's arms.

-- Why is Tarantella different from the other spider-babes? She is like Dr. Moreau's panther woman -- a special project, pushing the envelope of the essence of woman-ness. All the other spider women are white (acquired like Doreen almost was), whereas Tarantella seems more of a local girl. White girls make stoic spider-women. Latinas make sensual ones. Tarantella appears to develop feelings for Masterson. How else to explain her being many miles from Zarpa, in the town Masterson was hospitalized in? Then there is her sensual "spider" dance for him in the cantina. The dance seemed to come as a response to Masterson fawning over Doreen. His ultimate rejection (he shoots her) is actually a deeper commentary on civilization-morality confronting (rejecting) animal-sensuality.

Bottom line? MOLW will be a difficult movie to watch, particularly for the heavy-handed musical score of flamenco guitar and piano. Sure, at a superficial level, MOLW seems like just another exploitation film, promising audiences some cheesecake, like Prehistoric Women ('50) and Wild Women ('51). It's not a "lite" flick, but despite its hack production and poor acting is actually a deeper film too cheaply done. It is not simply a "bad" one. For fans of 50s sci-fi, it's still worth watching.
The notes above give some suggestions for the case that MOLW is not total junk, but an odd spin on the Dr. Moreau theme. MOLW isn't a great film by any stretch, it's still worth watching.


thingmaker said...

I never tried to analyze this one. It is watchable, but to me, it's like a fever dream.

Anonymous said...

great post