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MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1953)
 
[aka Lost Women aka Lost Women Of Zarpa aka On The Mesa Of Lost Women]

“Araña! That’s Spanish for ‘spider’!”





  Director:
 
Herbert Tevos and Ron Ormond

  Starring: 
Jackie Coogan, Mary Hill, Robert Knapp, Harmon Stevens, Tandra Quinn, George Barrows, Samuel Wu, Allan Nixon, Nico Lek, Richard Travis, Chris-Pin Martin, John George, Lyle Talbot

  Screenplay: 
Herbert Tevos and Orville H. Hampton (uncredited)

Synopsis:  A surveyor for an American oil company finds a man and a woman stumbling helplessly through the Muerto Desert of Mexico. He takes them to his company’s field hospital, where Dr Tucker (Allan Nixon) and Dan Mulcahey (Richard Travis), the foreman, shake their heads over the possibility of the couple’s survival. When Dan wonders aloud what the pair could have been doing in such an isolated spot, Dr Tucker mentions a recent newspaper story of a missing plane. Pepe (Chris-Pin Martin), the surveyor’s assistant, comments that they picked the two up on the road to Zarpa Mesa. At that moment, the man regains consciousness. Hearing that he is at an oil company, he begins to speak wildly of “them”, demanding trucks loaded with oil so that “they” can be burnt out before they scatter; that fire is the only thing that scares them. As he continues to rave about “super-bugs” that can kill with one bite, the others assume that he is delirious, until the mention of a Dr Araña causes Pepe to react with shock. Dan continues to dismiss the story, but Tucker insists they at least hear him out. The man, Grant Phillips (Robert Knapp), explains that he was employed as a pilot for a wealthy man called Jan van Croft (Nico Lek), who was flying to Mexico City with his fiancée, Doreen Culbertson (Mary Hill), to be married, when their plane developed engine trouble.... As Grant talks, Pepe begins to reflect upon the stories told amongst the local people about Zarpa Mesa, and the mysterious Dr Araña; about the strange people seen upon the mesa; the women who do not die.... A car pulls up at the foot of Zarpa Mesa. It contains Dr Leland Masterson (Harmon Stevens), a famous scientist, who has travelled to this remote location to meet with the author of a series of brilliant scientific papers, one Dr Araña (Jackie Coogan). Masterton looks up at the mesa, and sees perched upon it strange, stunted men, and women clad in diaphanous robes. Masterton’s driver, a woman, leads him towards the mesa and silently points out to him an opening leading to its interior. Araña’s manservant (John George) shows Masterton into his master’s laboratory. Inside are a number of beautiful women, all of them, like the manservant, mute. Dr Araña introduces himself, and Masterson praises his papers on the effects of pituitary hormones on various living creatures, explaining that Araña’s theories were why he was so eager to meet him. Araña says sharply that they are no longer mere theories; that he has successfully proven each one. He explains that he has been experimenting not just with treating non-humans with pituitary hormone, but with transplanting the entire gland, with remarkable effects on tarantulas: the creatures grew as large as humans, developed the capacity to reason, and could communicate telepathically. Araña adds that he then transplanted the control centre of spiders into human subjects: the women gained extended life expectancies, and remarkable regenerative powers; the men, however, were diminished. Araña also tells Masterson that if his latest experiment is successful, he will have developed a super female spider; a thinking creature with the power to control the world – but under his orders....

Comments:  Back in the dawn of the Bad Movie Era, when most bad movies were only legends to be spoken about in hushed voices, or something to frighten children with if they wouldn’t turn off that damn Raffi record, there was a rumour – namely, that Mesa Of Lost Women was actually an uncredited Ed Wood film. It isn’t hard to see why this idea would take hold: Eddie’s fingerprints are all over this strange little film. Most prominently, its narrator is Lyle Talbot, whose unctuous tones wash over what we might loosely call “the action” for minutes at a time. Meanwhile, amongst the Spider-Women are both Mona McKinnon, future star [sic.] of Plan 9 From Outer Space, and Dolores Fuller, by that time Eddie’s main squeeze; while one of Araña’s “henchmen” is Dean Riesner. Riesner started out as a child actor under the name of “Dinky Dean” before becoming a prolific television writer and then ending up as Clint Eastwood’s screenwriter of choice (Coogan’s Bluff through The Enforcer). Somewhere in between, he married an actress called Maila Nurmi, and invented for her the stage-name “Vampira”. Finally, Mesa Of Lost Women features a certain unforgettable piece of music, a brief guitar-piano construct composed by Hoyt S. Curtain that plays here on an almost endless loop – as it would also throughout Eddie’s 1954 opus Jail Bait. It is not too much to say that this is one of the most effective pieces of music ever written....provided, that is, that you consider the term “effective” to be synonymous with “driving people to jam ice-picks into their eardrums”.

Well, duh.

But alas, it is not long before our hopes of true Woodian madness, raised by this strange coincidence of elements, are dashed. To be blunt, Mesa Of Lost Women is too damn boring to be an Ed Wood film; it’s more like one by Coleman Francis. (Beast Of Yucca Flats rather than Red Zone Cuba, though; feel free to interpret that as “compliment” or “warning” as you feel inclined.) Instead of the sustained lunacy that we expect from The Master, for every moment of inspired idiocy here – and there are a few, thankfully – there are at least five minutes of uninteresting people wandering aimlessly around the desert, or sitting silently in a cantina. Mesa Of Lost Women is bad, all right, but it is not one of The Great Bad Movies. In the end, it is tolerable only for the scenes involving Jackie Coogan, and for the opportunity to play “spot the Bad Movie star” (as opposed to “the bad Movie Star”): apart from those already mentioned, Mesa Of Lost Women features Angelo Rossitto as one of the Spider-Men, and Sherry Moreland, who was the blind Martian in Rocketship X-M, as another of the Spider-Women; marks the screen debut of Katherine Victor (billed as Katina Vea), who would go to become the favourite leading lady of the notorious Jerry Warren; and boasts an appearance by none other than Mr George Barrows, although (unfortunately) sans gorilla suit. The presence of so many Bad Movie notables amongst the cast lends this film a certain perverted cachet, which it very sorely needs.

Even with The Wood Theory debunked, the production history of Mesa Of Lost Women is fascinating; much more so than anything that happens in-film. (For most of this history we are indebted to the inestimable Tom Weaver, who succeeded in tracking down Tandra Quinn, the film’s leading “Spider-Woman”.) At the heart of the story stands the mysterious figure of Herbert Tevos, who arrived in Hollywood from nowhere in the early fifties, almost made a film, and then vanished as abruptly as he had appeared. Tevos was later remembered by George Barrows as, “Behaving like he thought he was von Stroheim”; an appropriate comparison, since Tevos was fond of claiming to be a “famous European director”; that, indeed, he had directed Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. (That must have come as quite a shock to Josef von Sternberg.) Upon meeting Tandra Quinn, then an aspiring actress rather cruelly cut from her contract at Fox after the higher-ups decided there was “something wrong with her face” (she had suffered burns in an accident as a baby), Tevos decided that she was to be the Trilby to his Svengali – and never mind that Miss Quinn herself had far other ideas on the subject. Such were Tevos' ambition and chutzpah - and lack of judgement - that he invested his savings in his independent production; although I hardly dare think how he managed to attract a cinematographer of the standing of Karl Struss to the project – the same year Struss shot Chaplin’s Limelight! It very soon became apparent to all concerned that the “famous European director” had little to no idea what he was doing. The production struggled through to completion, however, a wrap party was thrown, and – nothing. The footage was deemed unreleasable, and Herbert Tevos vanished into the shadows of movie history.

I guess someone recognised this film's main selling points.

A year later, the “unreleasable” material came to the attention of Ron Ormond, another of marginal film’s most significant figures. Ormond had started out as a vaudeville magician, but in the late 1940s he founded his own film production company, making a series of westerns starring Al “Lash” La Rue. From there he moved into outright exploitation, writing, directing and producing everything from a “frigid wife” sex-tease film to a gore film to rival (or even, inasmuch as it features real animal killing, outdo) the works of H.G. Lewis. Surviving a plane crash, Ormond then converted to Christianity, after which he started making....well, Christian gore films; I’m not sure what else to call them.

Deciding that he could do something with Herbert Tevos’ abandoned footage, Ormond rounded up the original cast of Mesa Of Lost Women and put them back to work. Unlike most cut-together movies, like, say, They Saved Hitler’s Brain, or any given Al Adamson production, you can’t tell visually which bits of the film were added in later. Our only real guide is that we know Ron Ormond hired an extra cast member: Jackie Coogan (and if he was on-set for more than one day, I’ll eat my hat). Incredibly, the Araña subplot seems not to have been part of Tevos’ film; heaven knows, then, what it was about. (Although the trailer footage and poster shots of shirtless men embracing and/or struggling with the Spider-Women suggests that it may have been more than a little interested in the, uh, mating habits of the creatures....) And since only Araña’s mad scientist scheming makes this film at all tolerable, we should all be grateful to Ron Ormond for his intervention. Well, perhaps we need to exclude Jackie Coogan from that generalisation: as Araña, he hides as best he can behind thick glasses, one “pulled-down” eye and The Wart From Hell; while the disinterested lethargy of his line-readings makes mad science seem about as exciting as celery soup.

I believe that's short for "How COULD you?"

As soon as the credits start, so does that damn music; brace yourselves! The credits fade, and as we watch the dishevelled figures of Grant Phillips and Doreen Culbertson stagger across the desert – Grant’s cap appearing and disappearing according to whether we’re in long-shot or close-up – Lyle Talbot, sounding for all the world like one of those smug, know-it-all, you’ll-find-out narrators from a Warner Bros. cartoon, begins to ramble about “puny bipeds” and how only “an utter fool” would bet against the insects in the war for survival. This monologue goes on for no less than two minutes and thirty-six seconds....and I have recorded every single word of it over in Immortal Dialogue, where it belongs. (Note particularly the interesting use of the word “trod”, and the intimation that this film will be about “the hexapods”.) While Lyle is chatting away in a tone somewhere between amicable and contemptuous, Grant and Doreen are spotted by a surveyor for an American oil concern and his assistant, and taken to the “Amer-exico Field Hospital”.

Mesa Of Lost Women is notorious for its flashbacks-inside-flashbacks structure, which might have been pinched from the film noir The Locket; although as I recall, The Locket never lost track of whose flashback it was dealing with at any given moment. When Grant Phillips regains consciousness, he starts babbling about “super-bugs, super-monsters”, and how they all have to be burnt out “before they scatter”. The oil company foreman, Dan Mulcahey, advances the opinion that wandering in the desert has, “Cooked their brains”, but Dr Tucker invites Grant to tell his story in full: “What have we got to lose?”

Just sixty-nine minutes of your life and a piece of your soul, doc. Like the rest of us.

So it finally happened, huh?

So Grant starts talking, explaining how he was employed as a pilot by Jan van Croft, a financier; and that engine trouble forced him to put the plane down just outside “this little Mexican town”.... But even as Grant begins what we assume will be our narrative, the camera moves away from him and across to Pepe, who has already reacted to Grant’s mention of Dr Araña with an exclamation of, “Ay, carumba!” (Yes, really.) But rather than allowing Pepe to tell his story, the narrator butts in again here, mentioning the tales told amongst Pepe’s people about Araña and the “grotesque, misshapen people” glimpsed out by Zarpa Mesa; and as he talks, the image wavers and we have a flashback to something that happened a year earlier – and of events that concerns none of those present.

A car glides across the Muerto Desert – the Desert of Death! – pulling up at the foot of Zarpa Mesa. From it emerge a silent woman (hello, Katherine Victor!) and a man dressed, in defiance of his surroundings, in the inevitable contemporary regalia of suit, tie and hat. This is Dr Leland Masterson, “world famous specialist and researcher”; man, I miss the fifties, when world famous scientists were a dime a dozen! Masterson is played by one Harmon Stevens, for whom this was the biggest role of his career (I know: sad, isn’t it?), and whose mannerisms and speech patterns – and hat; don’t forget the hat – have led more than one commentator to liken him to Elmer Fudd. Before long, Masterson will be driven out of his mind by his experiences on Zarpa Mesa; while Harmon Stevens will spend most of the rest of the film behaving and talking in a way intended to convey his character’s insanity. Unfortunately, most of those tics are present in Stevens’ performance right from its beginning, especially a goofy grin that is much more unnerving on someone who is supposed to be in his right mind.

"Ay, ay, ay can't believe I agreed to play a stereotype this broad!"

As Masterson gazes up at Zarpa Mesa, he is taken aback by the twin sights of a woman in a scanty robe (and heels) and a shorter man clambering up the rocks and vanishing. (The man, unnamed like all but one of Araña’s creations but billed as “Araña’s manservant”, is played by John George, who had a long and significant film career. I tend to remember him as Lon Chaney’s offsider in The Unknown.) Deciding – or having the narrator decide for him – that his eyes are playing tricks, Masterson obeys his guide as she silently points him towards an opening in the side of the mesa.

Inside the mesa, a ladder leads down into an anteroom where, most splendidly, a Spider-Woman sits gazing down a microscope. The manservant opens an internal door, and we are given our first look at Tandra Quinn. Like all good Dr Moreau wannabes, Araña has one “special project”; and this Spider-Woman alone has achieved the dignity of a name: Tarantella. Like her sisters, she is dumb, and therefore merely stands and stares as Masterson – not, evidently, seeing much out of the ordinary in his situation – introduces himself.

(There is an hilarious bit of business here, which may have been John George’s own invention. Shown to a chair, Masterson finally grows visibly nervous as the manservant sidles close and looks him up and down. Suddenly, Masterson thinks he knows what he wants: he offers his hat. The manservant continues simply to stare; and after an uncomfortable moment, Masterson takes his hat back again.)

Somewhere between "celebrated child star" and "beloved television star", there lies...

Masterson starts wandering around. He, and we, are treated to the sight of Spider-Women doing research. Creepily, Masterson tries to touch one of them; she understandably recoils. He then crosses to a desk, picking up a book (which sits next to a rack of test-tubes – SCIENCE!!) and reading aloud the title. “Ner-vous Sys-tems Of In-sects,” he says jerkily, as if dealing with words in an unmastered foreign language. Fortunately, Dr Araña then appears, to save us from any more of this world famous researcher’s difficulty with basic English.

Oh, dear. It’s hard to help feeling that Jackie Coogan was trying to disguise his participation in this film – and who could blame him? – but that the budget didn’t stretch that far. What we’re left with is a pretty sorry makeup job, which suggests that the good doctor has reasons other than the nature of his research for hiding out in the desert. (Still, he got off better than the Spider-Woman who Masterson tries to touch, whose wig looks like Bo Derek’s hair from 10, done for about fifty cents.)

The two scientists introduce themselves and shake hands; and Araña obliquely answers Masterson’s expressed surprise at the isolated and hidden location of the laboratory by making reference to “the sentimental human mind”. Of course, given that this place clearly has electricity and gas on tap at least, one does wonder exactly how and when the work was done. (Maybe it was a pre-fab. I can just picture the real estate ads: “Location, location, location! Uninterrupted desert views! Mental hospital adjacent!”) We then learn that Masterson became aware of Araña via his papers written about “the anterior lobe of the pituitary”, which he declares to be, “Quite the most remarkable endocrine series I’ve ever read!” Gloriously, someone seems to have taken the notion of “scientific papers” to mean, well, exactly that: as he speaks, Masterson takes from his pocket Araña’s brilliant publications, represented by a few pieces of folded notepaper!

Masterson gives his opinion of Araña’s research.

In the course of a mutually admiring conversation, we learn that Masterson is “the world’s leading organotherapist”, and that Araña’s theories are no longer merely theories; dear me, no; he quite takes offence at the idea! Rather, he has proven every point, and succeeded in producing via experimentation the creatures that Masterson describes using the highly technical scientific term, “things”. “So you see,” Araña concludes in a conversational tone, “why such work as this must be completed inside a mountaintop, amidst this desolation.” Masterson doesn’t bat an eyelid so, yeah, I guess he must.

Araña then invites Masterson to see the conclusion of “a most unusual experiment” – mwoo-ha-ha! – and the two move into the main laboratory, which is equipped with all the essentials: unidentifiable electronic equipment with flashing lights that makes zeep-zeep noises; Conical Flasks Filled With Mysterious Coloured Fluids; Bunsen burners; a skull on a shelf; and a comfy armchair. At the far end, on a surgical table, lies an unconscious woman, which seems to bother Masterson not one whit; although he does inquire into, “The nature of the, uh....” Araña then launches into an explanation [sic.] of his work, telling Masterson that he has isolated the growth hormone of the anterior pituitary.

Charmingly, someone – Orville Hampton, I would guess – must actually have bothered to open a book: everything that Araña says here about his “growth hormone” – he means somatotropin – is correct, albeit much simplified. I can hardly tell you, after three weeks of dealing with Jurassic Park, what a relief it is to be reviewing a film where the science is accurate!

I think I just found my new avatar.

Aww, I kid, I kid! – particularly since  Araña immediately goes on to explain that his first action after making this breakthrough discovery was to wonder what the effect would be of transferring the hormone – “Or a complete human pituitary” – into another living creature? The result of the ensuing “series of experiments” varied from complete failure to moderate success (however you measure that), until one day Araña just happened to think of trying it in....tarantulas! The results were spectacular, resulting in growth to “the size of human beings” and the development of “new reasoning powers” – including telepathy. And then it occurred to Araña to wonder what would happen if he transferred the control centre of a tarantula into a human being....

Araña then formally introduces Tarantella, who is described as having both “human beauty and intelligence”, plus the “instincts and capacities of a spider”.

Hmm. Perhaps Masterson should be grateful that, unlike Charles Laughton’s Dr Moreau, Araña doesn’t intend to try and find out just how perfect a (Spider) woman Tarantella really is....

Araña goes on to explain that Tarantella also has remarkable regenerative powers – “If she lost an arm or a leg, she could grow a new one” – and that he believes she may live for hundreds of years. Like, uh, spiders do.

SCIENCE!!

Masterson takes all of this pretty calmly – it doesn’t occur to him, for instance, to ask Araña where he’s getting his raw materials – but he does ask, “What about males?” Typical. There, it seems, Araña was disappointed: “In the insect world, the male is a puny, unimportant thing” – hence the dwarfish men.

(And yes, yes, I know: insect, hexapod, spider, it’s all the same thing, right?)

And then Araña’s experiment concludes. Play along, and see if you can make more sense of it than I can:

Araña peeks behind a screen in the corner of the lab, telling Masterson that if this experiment succeeds, it will result in a “super female spider”, a thinking, reasoning creature that – naturally – will one day, “Control the world! – subject to my will!” [Dramatic piano sting!!]

Oh, again with the “controlling the female monster” bit, huh? Let me know how that works out for you.

Tragically, Araña doesn’t bother to explain exactly how this will work, and of course Masterson, the clod, doesn’t ask. Araña then crosses back to the surgical table, where the woman sits up, stretching, while Araña massages her shoulders. Hey! – knock it off, touchy! The woman walks off, and then from behind the screen in the corner there emerges a single, enormous, hairy leg. Araña pulls the screen back to reveal---

SUPER-SPIDER!!!!

And I for one welcome our new hexapod overlords...

Masterson, cool, hardened professional that he is, reacts by pulling an EWWWW!!!!-face of extraordinary proportion. We note that the spider is bandaged, so I’m guessing that the spider and the woman swapped hormones, or “control centres” or something. Anyway, after having taken everything else pretty much in his stride, Masterson chooses this moment to freak out, letting fly with a classic denunciation:

“No! No! You can’t do these things! You’re tampering with the works of the Creator! You’re evil! This whole place is like--- You must be destroyed! You, and all the foul things you have created!”

Araña and Tarantella each react to this speech, the former by uttering contemptuously, “Gibberish!” – which he pronounces with a hard ‘g’ – and Tarantella by picking up a syringe and injecting Masterson with something or other. Araña gazes down at the unconscious Masterson and reflects philosophically, “I was hoping for a colleague....but at least we have another experimental subject.”

What happens next isn’t entirely clear. (As opposed to, uh....) A bewildered-looking Masterson has flashbacks to the things that just this minute happened (I love that, don’t you?), until a spinning newspaper whirls up and informs us, DOCTOR SAVED FROM DESERT DEATH Leland Masterson’s Mind Snaps Under Ordeal; Confined To Asylum.

The Muerto State Asylum, no less. Now there’s an encouraging name for a hospital.

An indeterminate time later, a male nurse – Mr George Barrows, ladies and gentlemen!! – brings Masterson some orange juice, only to find that he has resorted to the old bed-sheets-out-the-window bit. (Since Masterson is later revealed as a homicidal maniac, a tad more security than that provided by one unlockable shutter might have been called for.) The nurse, who is called “George” (no, really), bolts out to get help. 

"Wanna see her spinnerets?"

And thus endeth the agreeable part of Mesa Of Lost Women. I never thought I’d say this about any film, but what we needed here was more Ron Ormond. If this film had been entirely about Dr Araña and his mad science, his spiders and his spider-chicks, then it might have been an enjoyable piece of nonsense. But from here we cross over into the exceedingly dull world of Herbert Tevos, with its cantinas, its camp-fires, and – *shudder* – its interpretative dance.

And indeed, we cut now to a cantina, which is actually in the “small Mexican town” of Grant Phillips’ flashback. (Remember Grant Phillips? No? Okay.) Mercifully, that infamous guitar / piano score here gives way to....well, a slightly different guitar / piano score. Into the scene strolls everyone’s favourite escaped lunatic, Dr Leland Masterson. He makes his way to the bar where, after some schtick involving his personalised and collapsible shot-glass, he has a drink. And lordy, who else should be in the cantina but Tarantella? – smoking and drinking, no less. And who else else should wander in but a middle-aged man and a much younger woman? – the latter of whom we recognise as the woman from the beginning of the film, in somewhat less dishevelled condition. She looks around, and (as Mary Hill unwisely invites comparison between herself and a slightly better actress) utters, “What a dump!”

The management shows the couple to the “best” table, shooing away those already in possession. (I’d admire the detail of the stains on the tablecloth, if I didn’t have the horrid feeling they were real.) The woman, whose name is Doreen Culbertson, catches Masterson’s eye; by which I mean he opens his eyes as wide as he possibly can and stares at her while grinning like an idiot. (Yes, yes, “insane”, we get it.) 

Those that can, are Bette Davis. Those that can't, are Mary Hill.

Doreen, whose, ahem, redemption is theoretically one of the major themes of this epic, then establishes her character of gold-digger by nasaling her way through this summary of the proceedings:

“We had to come down in this flea-bitten border town! – and you would drag me to this dive! – this – un-upholstered sewer! If it wasn’t for that forced landing, we’d be in Mexico, getting married by now!”

And two people more in love you never will see.

Jan van Croft, who will be revealed anon as a snivelling coward and a bully, for all his wealth and (supposed) European charm, comes out of this scene looking more likeable than Doreen, taking his surroundings as he finds them, and pointing out calmly that he can hardly be blamed for the plane trouble. He also tells Doreen that, “Being able to adapt oneself to any situation is the mark of the true sophisticate,” which pretty much compels her to stop whinging. At this moment, Masterson wanders up and sits down next to them. Ignoring the bridling van Croft, he proceeds to tell Doreen that she is, “Beautiful! And good!” He then continues to stare fixedly at her with that same idiotic grin for about the next five minutes. A welcome distraction appears in the form of Wu, van Croft’s servant, who reports that the plane will not be fixed for some considerable time. He also exchanges a significant look with – gasp! – Tarantella! I do believe he’s being inscrutable!

And then it’s time for Mesa Of Lost Women’s most notorious sequence: Tarantella’s Spider-Dance!

This scene, which goes on and on and on, was recalled many years later by its star with a burst of laughter: “You don’t call that dancing, do you?” This good-sport attitude both invites ridicule of the scene, but disinclines me to take advantage. As a compromise---well, as they say, a thousand words....

Spider-Chick, Spider-Chick, doing whatever a Spider-Chick does...

Although the behaviour of the locals indicates that Tarantella’s dancing is the standard entertainment at this cantina, I may say that the film provides no explanation for why Tarantella spends her evenings like this, or how she gets to and from the mesa. Possibly she does it to lure new experimental subjects for Araña; or perhaps the good doctor funds his research from the proceeds.

While Tarantella is dancing, various other things happen. First, George the nurse comes wandering in and sits down next to Doreen. He and Masterson hold a friendly conversation about the latter’s “little trip”, but George takes no action, nor does he directly answer Doreen’s increasingly worried questions. Meanwhile, van Croft is staring at Tarantella and licking his chops, declaring her, “Very passionate, and fascinating! – as a dancer, of course,” he adds hurriedly, with a side-glance at Doreen. (Like she’d care.) Tarantella begins dancing at Masterson, whose expression is getting goofier by the moment. Then he gets all biblical on her – Jezebel, naturally – and draws a gun. Even now George, obviously a “Let’s see where this is going” kind of guy, does nothing beyond uttering softly, “No!” Masterson shoots Tarantella anyway.

The crowd, not panicked so much as mildly put out, begins to move towards the exit as George – rather belatedly, one would have to say – demands Masterson’s gun. He then yells at the departing cantina patrons, “Listen! This man is an insane killer! He’s loco! He’ll kill us all before we can reach him!”

Uh, yeah. That’s why you probably should have at least considered jumping him while he was sitting quietly and not brandishing a gun, Georgie.

Tarantella presses a hand to her side and then gazes in shock at her bloody fingers. Masterson warns George not to move, but also declares that Doreen is his friend: “No-one shall hurt her! I will kill her first!” Um. Okay. Tarantella looks up at Doreen. A high-pitched noise reaches Doreen alone, it seems, and she presses her hands to her ears. It stops as Tarantella finally collapses. Masterson orders his “friends” out at gunpoint. The cantina’s manager then rushes to the phone to report the shooting to the sheriff, only to hang up again when the “dead” woman gets up and leaves. 

Besides being the world's leading organotherapist, Dr Masterson was a devotee of the lively arts.

Outside, Masterson reacts to Doreen’s mention of the landing-field by ordering everyone into George’s car. With the plane are Wu and Grant Phillips. (Remember Grant Phillips? No? Okay.) Phillips – not blinking at the sight of a gun-wielding stranger – reports that one of the engines is still acting up, and that he won’t risk taking off. However, Masterson suddenly decides that he wants to fly, so that’s that. Everyone climbs on board obediently.

I may mention at this point that throughout the ensuing, um, “action”, no-one at any stage makes the slightest effort to disarm Masterson, even though much of the time he is simply holding the gun loosely to no particular purpose. They even let him sleep unmolested! I guess when this homicidal maniac told them that no-one would get hurt if they did as he said, they just took him at his word.

At first, all goes well with the forced flight – but then, Wu smiles inscrutably! Immediately, Grant notices that there is something wrong with the gyro-compass: “We’re 100o off-course!” And the sun is where, exactly? Didn’t notice that, huh? Anyway, this point loses some of its importance when the faulty engine starts playing up. Grant initially declares that it’s nothing serious, but then Wu smiles again....and immediately, the engine starts belching black smoke. Damn those inscrutable non-denominational Asians and their eerie powers!

Grant starts looking for somewhere to put down, announcing that he’s, “Making for that mesa.” (Smile, from Wu.) Grant then prepares everyone for an emergency landing, a process that consists predominantly of ordering Doreen to put her cigarette out. She responds by saying bitchily, “Okay, Captain – but can I ask where we are?” What does it matter!? – your plane’s about to crash, you silly cow! Grant heads for the mesa and pulls off very rough short landing. Astonishingly, Doreen fails to make a crack about “seatbelts” and “a bumpy night”.

Guess who's been watching Mesa Of Lost Women?

Immediately, in a touch repeated so frequently, and so disconnectedly, as to border on the genuinely surreal, we get consecutive close-ups of faces, watching. One of those watching, as the others climb gingerly out of the plane, is Dolores Fuller, in what amounts to almost the entirety of her part. George takes Grant aside and brings him up to speed about the Masterson situation and Tarantella’s (apparent) death; a version that includes the assertion, “I tried to stop him, but I couldn’t!” Grant wonders aloud if they can’t get the gun away from him, and George replies, “I’ll try, Captain, you can bet on that!” Hey, over here: I’ll take that bet!

Smoking is resumed, and Grant shows the others where they are on his map: 120 miles south of the border, on a mesa that reaches 600 feet into the air. Wu begins looking inscrutable again, and – after an interval of merciful silence – the soundtrack kicks in again. AACK!!

Wu wanders off on the pretext of collecting firewood, and ends up exchanging a significant look with Microscope Girl; Bo-Hair Girl is also there. They run off to the right. Van Croft then points to the left, exclaiming that he saw something moving. When Wu comes back, he admits to hearing something. That is, he does, but it’s not that simple: Wu really comes into his own here, peppering the (in)action with Confucius-say-like aphorisms; so that when van Croft finally orders him to his death (whoops, spoiler alert!), it’s hard to feel very sorry. So, instead of just replying that it was too dark to see anything, Wu responds to questioning with, “The curtain of darkness veils the sharpest eyes! Wu saw nothing,” he adds, just in case anyone didn’t quite get it.

Grant goes into the plane to collect essential supplies: a torch, a flare-pistol, and a bottle of brandy. Grant fires off the flare, which remarkably enough explodes into fireworks; a close-up of a face reacts. Wu passes the brandy around, and then George announces his intention of “taking a look around”, brandishing a tiny pen-light when Grant objects that they need the only torch at the camp. So George wanders off....and wanders around....and....

Even in a time of crisis, it is important to maintain the proper order of things.

You know....watching George Barrows amble around purposelessly is a lot less entertaining when he isn’t wearing a gorilla suit and a diving helmet.

Anyway, all through this wandering, the soundtrack tries to convince us that something thrilling and dramatic is happening, and at length, something does. Well – not “thrilling” and “dramatic” so much as “mildly amusing”. Microscope Girl looms up – wow, awesome nail extensions! – then sends a telepathic blip towards Bo-Hair Girl, who nods at the manservant. He nods back, looking up with a leering grin as a single hairy leg crosses the image....

George’s scream reaches back to the camp, where there is the usual kerfuffle over who will go and who won’t go to look for him, which is settled when Masterson waves his gun around and announces that he feels like a stroll before dinner. Various Spider-Persons watch from the bushes as Grant decides that to be safe – and to slow things down as much as possible – the five of them will hold hands; or, in the case of van Croft and Masterson, coattails. (Masterson even changes the gun into his off-hand, to facilitate holding hands with Doreen! Does anyone take advantage? They do not.) The searchers inch slowly over the ground that George just covered, and then waste some more time hesitating, and doing a one-by-one, over a narrow stretch that George walked over without thinking twice. Finally, they all stand by George’s dead body, which has two enormous fang-marks in the back of his neck. Owie!

Everyone stands around for a while agreeing that (i) it’s horrible, and (ii) there’s nothing they can do; and then they join hands again and inch slowly back the way they came. On the way back, van Croft wails like a baby over scratching his arm, and then Doreen trips, breaking a heel and ripping her skirt, and being propelled into Grant’s arms....AS THE SIMMERING SEXUAL TENSION ERUPTS INTO AN ORGY OF PASSIONATE EMOTION....almost. Nothing actually happens.

And it never would have happened if he'd been wearing his diving helmet.

Back at camp, Grant dresses van Croft’s arm, and then they all chug down some more brandy.

And then we cut to Araña, fiddling with test tubes in his lab. Thank you! Oh, sweet merciful God, thank you!! Microscope Girl climbs down the ladder, and---

We cut back to the camp. I guess God was just teasing me, like He teased Moses. Everyone starts to settle down for the night, with Grant promising the panicky van Croft that he’ll keep watch. “The darkest shadows of the night will melt away with the morning light,” observes Wu, which is hardly even an aphorism. As Grant stokes the fire, the others bed down, using a piece of plane wing as a head-rest – except for Wu, who gets banished to what looks like a brier patch. Nice. At some point Doreen wakes up and---

---we cut to Araña, saying, presumably in answer to Microscope Girl’s telepathic report of George’s death, “Very good, my dear! Very good. Soon, their nerves will break!”

By the way, in case my writing isn’t making it clear, these Araña bits are inserted completely at random, usually mid-shot in fact; an attempt on Ron Ormond’s part, I imagine, to break up Herbert Tevos’ desperately exciting “wandering and sleeping” footage. For which I shall remain eternally grateful. Araña examines a test tube, and---

---Doreen gets up and walks over to Grant. Oh, boy, here we go. Sure enough, Doreen’s opening gambit is to complain of Grant’s treatment of her. She then jumps without much lead-up to, “You think I’m marrying him for his money!” Grant gives the obvious reply. Doreen makes a case for “security”, to which Grant responds with some sympathy. The back-and-forthing eventually provokes Grant to a somewhat embarrassing declaration. “I want a girl who’s sincere. Real! Someone who’d stick by me when the chips are down. One who wants me only for what I am, not for what I have!” Which, given that on all available evidence, Grant actually has nothing, seems like a sound business-plan. A kiss follows, but Grant breaks things up first by pushing Doreen away, then by reminding her that this was supposed to be her wedding-night. Ouch! Talk about a mood-killer.

The world trembled before the might of....Dr Araña's Arachna-Army!

(Hilariously, Ron Ormond resorts to the same break-up tactic here, inserting a close-up of John George’s face right in the middle of Grant’s philosophical musings.)

A shaky Doreen lights a cigarette. Meanwhile, the Spider-Persons seem to have crept to within about ten feet of the camp. Hey, great “keeping watch” there, Grant! They scatter when they see Doreen looking at them. Doreen waits until they’re all out of sight and then exclaims, “Grant! Look!” Her subsequent protestations wake the others, whereupon she reports seeing, “Women, and little men.”

Van Croft reacts to this story by asking Doreen where her comb is. She waves a vague hand towards her hair and guesses that she lost it while they were looking for George. Van Croft huffs that the comb is, “A valuable heirloom of my family!”, and must be found. He orders Wu to go and look for it.

“Don’t be a fool, Wu!” cries Grant, as Wu asks for the torch. “He who serves well, will also serve in danger,” says Wu. Masterson then – heh! – gives Wu his gun. “A wanderer in the valley of darkness shall have my guidance and protection!” he assures Wu. Seeing Wu determined, Grant says that he won’t try to stop him, but urges him to use the gun if necessary; to which Wu replies, “There is a day to be born, and a day to die”, and wanders off. Slowly. More face close-ups are inserted. And that damned music starts up again.

A veritable class-war then erupts, with Grant and Doreen turning on van Croft. It’s Masterson who gets his goat, though, telling him calmly that he is a coward. Grant blocks van Croft’s attempt at physical retaliation, and (of course) quits his job.

One of filmdom's more embarrassing "The heroes get captured" scenes.

Meanwhile, the subject of all this brouhaha is – gasp! – climbing into the mesa, where he reports to Araña that he has brought Masterson back. Um – hang on. So in pursuit of Masterson, who was incarcerated in an insane asylum near the US-Mexican border for the past year, Wu got himself employed by a wealthy European? Makes sense. Wu asks what will happen to the others. Araña replies that he has “plans” (mwoo-ha-ha!) for Grant and Doreen, while van Croft will be “disposed of”. Wu is unhappy, but bows submissively. Not submissively enough for Araña’s liking, however: with a sharp gesture, he sics Microscope Girl and Bo-Hair Girl onto him....

So, some time later, Grant goes out looking for Wu, using a burning branch for guidance. Really, wouldn’t all of this have kept until morning? Particularly when you’ve got nothing else to do but sit and wait to be rescued. Grant finds Wu’s body – Doreen’s comb in one hand. Pathos! (One does wonder why the Spider-People went to the trouble of arranging that detail.) He picks up the comb, the torch and the gun and heads back to camp; and as soon as he turns his back, a single hairy leg crosses the image....

(What I want to know is, who got to be leg wrangler?)

Grant tosses the comb at van Croft, at which Doreen intuits that Wu is dead. “You murdered him!” she throws at van Croft, before throwing herself at Grant. Then, for no reason at all – someone forgot to dub in a sound effect – Doreen gasps, “They’re coming for us! They’re coming!” Grant orders van Croft to stoke the fire, but he has gone into deer-in-headlights mode. “I can’t stand it! I’m getting out of here!” He bolts into the darkness, and of course runs into---

SUPER-SPIDER!!!!

Quick! Deploy the giant slipper!

As van Croft’s scream dies away, the Spider-People close in. Grant and Doreen are, uh, overpowered (rather embarrassingly, considering who’s doing it) and hauled away, while Masterson – who was Araña’s target all along, remember? – is overlooked. But never mind, because he just ambles after the others anyway.

In the lab, Araña prepares an injection for, yes, Masterson. “He’ll recover consciousness in a moment or so, and be perfectly sane again,” says Araña. Whoa, that’s one hell of an injection. The question of why Araña has gone to so much trouble to restore Masterson’s sanity is left unanswered. Instead, Doreen suddenly notices Tarantella, and that, well, she’s not dead. (She is, however, quite the little mover, considering that the mesa is about 120 miles from that “little Mexican town”, where she danced the previous evening!)

Masterson wakes up and immediately exclaims, “Dr Araña!”, causing Grant to stage-whisper to Doreen, “Araña! That’s Spanish for ‘spider’!” A little late in the proceedings for that interjection, isn’t it? Masterson demands to know why Araña didn’t just kill him? The scientist replies that, unfortunately, he still needs Masterson’s help – hey, that’s not what you said a year ago! – so he’s giving him one last chance. Masterson refuses to have anything to do with Araña’s work, and the disgusted Araña sics Tarantella on him. Sadly, we never do find out what she was about to do, as Doreen, crying, “No! You’re not going to torture him any more!”, pulls herself free of Microscope Girl and, well---

GIRL-FIGHT!!!!

There you go, fellas. Don't say I never do anything for you.

Grant breaks away from Bo-Hair Girl – yeah, you’d think – and grabs Araña. Masterson jumps up from the surgical table and mixes a few handy chemicals. Waving a fuming flask around, Masterson announces that in a few moments, it, and everything else, will go ’splodey. Araña is outraged. “You’re a man of science! You wouldn’t destroy the greatest achievement of science!?”

Masterson retorts that, yes, he is a scientist, but he is also a human being! Oh....one of those. He directs Grant and Doreen out of the lab and tells them to get going. Grant actually chooses this moment to try and get an explanation for what’s going on, but finally does grab Doreen and run. Masterson gloats, “Nothing can survive fire!” and throws down the flask. Everything does indeed go ’splodey, while some superimposed flames dance across the image. We get one brief glimpse of Araña lying on the floor, with SUPER-SPIDER!!!! hunkered over him, and then---

---we fade to Grant telling his story at the hospital. Wait a minute! Wasn’t that Pepe’s flashback? Or at least, Masterson’s? Oh, never mind. “Well, that’s about the story – believe it or not,” Grant adds, correctly interpreting Dan Mulcahey’s expression. Doreen wakes up, and she and Grant embrace. Grant tells her that no-one believes their story, but Doreen, looking at Pepe, concludes, “He does.” But of course, no-one cares what Pepe thinks.

“If anyone thinks I’m going to load one of my trucks with oil,” jeers Dan, “and send it up on top of a mountain, to burn a bunch of imaginary spiders – !?”

"Don't mix those chemicals! You'll blow us all to atoms!"

Aaaaand our narrator is back, smugger than ever.

“Yes, you’re right, Dan. Common sense tells you there isn’t anything to his story – doesn’t it? Giant spiders on a desert mesa! Fantastic! Pepe is just a superstitious native! True, no-one has ever been on Zarpa Mesa....but it’s just like any other bit of tableland. Not a thing different about it. Or, uh, is there...?”

Cue shot of Spider-Woman, glowering into the camera, and fade to black. That damned music erupts upon us one last time, and then---oh, blessed, blessed silence!
.

Footnote:  Special thanks to Dr Freex for his help and self-sacrifice.

Want a second opinion of Mesa Of Lost Women? Visit The Bad Movie Report.

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And Tarantella the film critic says....TWO FINGERS DOWN!!

 
----posted 24/08/2009