When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

Where has this film been all my life?

Like a lobotomized Vincente Minnelli shooting CHILDREN OF PARADISE on a Roger Corman budget, this movie’s first half-hour wraps delirious yet barely-syntactical filmmaking around reams of metered, self-consciously crafted text.

Like CHILDREN OF PARADISE, Carl Dreyer’s GERTRUD, or THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE, this is a film of words, words and more words.  Voice-over narration and hyper-polysyllabic dialog push this movie from beginning to end.  Yet every step of the way camera shots, sequences and montages from the one-armed paperhanger school of filmmaking (e.g., knowing how to do it well but seriously hampered somehow in execution) ameliorate the parade of verbiage with a shuffled slideshow of cinema tropes.

According to IMDB this film was started, abandoned, then completed by a different creative team.  It may be this duality of vision and motivation, plus the struggle to tie loose ends together while hoping for narrative cohesion, that creates a film form that is both claustrophobic and non-committal in its point of view. 

The film leaps into overdrive from its opening shots of a bedraggled and disoriented mid-century couple wandering the desert like Harry Truman’s vision of MANON LESCAUT, accompanied on the soundtrack by prattling open-mic poetry rhetoric read by former Warner Brothers player and Ed Wood collaborator Lyle Talbot, (e.g., “Strange:  the monstrous assurance of this race of puny bipeds with overblown egos, the creature who calls himself “Man.”  He believes he owns the earth, and every living thing on it exists only for his benefit.  Yet how foolish he is!  Consider:  even the lowly insect that Man trods underfoot outweighs humanity several times, and outnumbers him by countless billions…”). 

Demented from the get-go?  You bet!  Yet, as often happens with visionary overreach, there’s no place to go but down.

[Again, since this work was abandoned and then rescued like the man and woman in the opening shots, it’s hard to ascertain why/how the creators blew their best wads in the first half-hour.]

After the omniscient point of view established at fade-in, the narrative splinters into multiple POV flashbacks (actually, according to the counter-realistic dictates of the script, we’re led to believe the majority of the flashback unspools in the mind of a Mexican campesino who was nowhere near the action).  Yet the story also candyflips its narrative regression through the reconstruction of events told by the man they just picked up wandering through the desert (the Muerto Desert to be precise, get it?).

While the points of view may be slivered and shattered, and the script and direction passed through various hands, there is one anchor throughout the film:  the approximately forty-five seconds of soundtrack music (composed by Hoyt Curtin, who also wrote TV’s Meet the Flintstones theme).  Curtin’s melange of ersatz Flamenco guitar and dissonant piano is no more than a riff, yet it repeats through the film with the frequency of a Thanks-for-Holding call center loop and induces similar effects upon the listener.

You can tell it's a mesa of lost women because there's a woman in a nightie and high-heels scaling an escarpment.

MOLW‘s flashbacks are bookended with the appearance of Hollywood veteran actor Jackie Coogan (Charlie Chaplin’s child-actor discovery and co-star, ex-husband of Betty Grable, and Uncle Fester of TV’s THE ADDAMS FAMILY), playing Dr. Araña.  (“That’s Spanish for ‘spider’!” one of the cast exclaims during the final minutes of the film.)  Araña, who looks very Clinton Era with his goatee and Elvis Costello glasses, sets the film in motion by creating a spider woman (Tandra Quinn) and driving “world-famous scientist” Dr. Leland Masterson (who acts awfully naïve and stupid) to full-tilt insanity.  This leads the audience to think the Araña story (BTW, that’s Spanish for ‘spider’) is the A-Plot when suddenly we jump forward to the escape of the mad Dr. Masterson as we follow him entering a bordertown fleabag cantina, shooting Araña’s spider woman (who now is down from the mesa and performing nightly in this demi-recherché boîte de nuit), hijacking a pair of well-heeled malcontents and their entourage in a faulty aircraft, and crash landing on that eponymous mesa of lost women, Dr. Araña, mutant dwarfs, and giant spiders.  That pretty much sums up the first thirty-five minutes of this film.

Then, just when things are getting really complicated, the filmmaking craft just falls apart. 

There was a long-running rumor among cineastes that MOLW was an under-the-radar Ed Wood film (as if anything could get lower than a Wood production):  Wood’s girlfriend Dolores Fuller and PLAN 9‘s star Mona McKinnon are two of those women who are lost out on that mesa up there; Wood used the same dementia-inducing music score in JAIL BAIT; and Vampira’s one-time husband is also among the cast.  (Then too, there’s the aforementioned contribution of GLEN OR GLENDA survivor, Lyle Talbot.) 

However, film historian Tom Weaver (whose commentary tracks on vintage horror DVDs are treasured by this writer) got his hands on the original shooting script, interviewed featured player Tandra Quinn (see top photo) and has laid to rest many theories about the collage-like creation of this work (a story that substantiates François Truffaut’s claim that movies are never finished, they’re abandoned). 

After watching this film I wondered:  was the castaways-on-the-mesa part filmed first and then juiced up later with the Dr. Araña scenes, or were the delirious sequences of the first half-hour shot first and then the castaways’ plot added as filler?  Evidently, due to Weaver’s research, novice writer-director Herbert Tevos wrote the castaways-on-the-mesa script and rolled film until the project was halted, then Ron Ormond came in and fleshed out the work with the Dr. Araña material.

WARNING:  BUTTACHES AHEAD!  When the film experience becomes a chain of tableaux like these, it's OK to ditch the movie.

Without Ormond’s input, the film would have been ghastly.  After the motley bunch crash on the mesa, their banter starts to blow (this ain’t FIVE CAME BACK after all).  The lines drop like lead weights and the shots relentlessly depict the ensemble lining up left-to-right and trying to stay in-frame as they emote and enunciate.  (The castaway portion of the film does have one — presumably unintentional — hilarious moment:  the love-interest blonde asks the plane’s pilot, who’s on sentry duty at the crash site, “Can you see anything down there?”  He replies, “Only a black, gaping hole.”  The film then crash edits to the wiggling derrière of one of Araña’s mutant henchmen.)

After reading the original Tevos script, Weaver reported it had none of the dandy endpieces that the final film product gave as payoff:  a quick succession of giant spider attacks, a chick-fight and a BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN-type finale.  Demented?  Absolutely!  Tedious?  No doubt.  Unique?  You betcha.

But why take my word for it?  Here’s the whole darn movie embedded on this page.  You be the judge and jury.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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2 Comments to “MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1953)”

  1. Beautifully rendered portrait of an Ormond family massacre-master-work. I’ve seen this movie more times than my own films, all inspired in some way by it. And you really did it justice as well as sussing out some new nuances, ala the Leland split subject. I went back and linked to it on my own review, so readers can see it, and see it again, and again. As John Lee Hooker said as intro to his song about the flood down in Tupelo, MS, I’ll never forget it and I know you won’t either

    • Doug says:

      Thanks for the encouraging words. If the prose of your reviews are anything like the way you write comments, I’ll have to check ’em out immediately. Looking forward to it.

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