Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"The Mesa of Lost Women": The Worst Movie Ed Wood Did Not Direct

Edward D. Wood, Jr. is the greatest worst director in the history of American cinema, bar none.

"Plan 9 From Outer Space", "Jail Bait", "Bride of the Monster"...all of Ed's films are peerless examples of low rent inspired incompetency.

But while Ed was cranking out his treatises on suburban smut peddlers ("The Sinister Urge"), lovelorn cross dressers ("Glen or Glenda") and dangerous teenage deb gangs ("The Violent Years"), did he also find the time to crank out a south-of-the-boarder pot boiler starring Jackie Coogan and a cadre of deadly spider women?

Of course, I'm talking about "The Mesa of Lost Women", a hypnotically bad and hilariously inept monster movie from 1953 that bad film fanatics have insisted for decades was a lost Ed Wood "mess-terpiece".

Admittedly, "Mesa" does sport many hallmarks of Ed's unique style. By that I mean it's badly acted, has ultra cheap sets, boasts an opening prologue that makes no sense and features Wood leading ladies Delores Fuller ("Glen or Glenda") and Mona McKinnon ("Plan 9") as man devouring "spider women". But it doesn't end there! Lyle Talbot, another member of the Wood stock company, provides the flick's over-the-top narration! The nerve-jangling Flamenco soundtrack by Hoyt Curtin was from "Jailbait"! How much more proof do you need?!

Alas, in their 1986 tome The Son of the Golden Turkey Awards the Brothers Medved proved definitively that Ed Wood did not direct "The Mesa of Lost Women". Instead the (dis)credit must go to a mysterious fellow named Herbert Tevos and veteran exploitation hack Ron Ormand. It was these two gentlemen, working independently of each other, who created this supremely nutty flick--proving that, in this instance anyway, two heads were not better than one.

Like so many Junk Jewels, the back story of how "The Mesa of Lost Women" made it to the silver screen is as entertaining--and confusing--as the flick itself. To fully appreciate the ins and outs of its conception and production, I offer this handy cheat sheet:

  • Herbert Tevos, a mysterious and temperamental Hungarian with no previous film making experience, writes a script called "Tarantula".
  • Tevos begins directing the picture, now called "Lost Women of Zarpa", even though he's never directed a fly to an outhouse.
  • Tevos spends three weeks on the project, but is unable to fully realize his "vision" due to a lack of talent or a lack of money--probably both. Cast members claim Tevos was hard to work for, too.
  • Howco International, which planned on distributing the final film, instead shelves the project for an entire year.
  • Veteran hack Ron Ormand, who made Lash Larue westerns and weird-ass exploitation quickies, gets a hold of the Tevos footage. Because he has nothing better to do, he reassembles the cast, shoots for two weeks and then edits the old and new scenes together. The original title of "Tarantula" is changed to "Wild Girls of the Mesa", then to "The Lost Women" and finally to "The Mesa of Lost Women".
  • Tevos is credited as the film's screenwriter, but he and Ormand share "directing" credit.

Bad movie fanatics are divided on whether Ormand's new footage added to or detracted from Tevos' "vision". In fact, nobody is sure which scenes were shot by which director. In any case, "The Mesa of Lost Women" is so nutty that it's easy to see why people felt that only the late, great Ed Wood could create such a mess.

Now, about the movie: Find a comfortable chair. Pour yourself a cold drink. Put out the cat and take the phone off the hook. Settle in. This is going to take a while.

Our feature presentation begins with shots of the unforgiving Mexican desert and a couple stumbling around half dead. While we watch the couple stumbling, the unseen Lyle Talbot blathers on and on about "the monstrous assurance" of "puny bipeds" who have the gall to believe they "own the Earth!" Of course, in the "continuing war for survival" that rages between man and "the hexipods", only an idiot would "bet against the insect". Got that? Good. Furthermore, Lyle lectures, "Let a man or a woman venture from the well beaten path of civilization (they) encounter amazing, wondrous things! The unknown...and the terrible!"

Just like this movie!(rim shot).

Once Lyle's little soliloquy is over, we return to our hot, dusty, sun burnt couple, who have been saved by an oil company survey team and a local named Pepe. Recuperating in a medical tent, pilot Grant Phillips (Bob Knapp) hysterically begins recounting a horror story featuring a Dr. Aranya (Jackie Coogan), huge spiders, menacing midgets and deadly, dancing "spider women."

As Grant tells it, Dr. A is creating a super race by injecting tarantula juice into the pituitary glands of assorted female subjects. By doing so, the mad doctor has made himself a cadre of lethal ladies who favor flimsy nighties, king-size Lee Press-On Nails and rag mop dreadlocks. These gals are so tough that they can come back from the dead and grow back any limb you happen to hack off. It's Dr. Aranya's plan to rule the world with their help.

Just how happy Dr. A's creations are in their enhanced state is never explained. The girls can't talk, but they do click their nails together every now and then. Besides helping their creator in his lab, the spider women spend a lot of time at the local canteen, where they regularly perform kooky dance routines for the astonished patrons. Why? Well, that's never explained, either. My guess is the girls are sent by Dr. A to cut a rug and lure men back to his lab so he can inject them with tarantula juice. If that is indeed the case, this tactic has achieved decidedly mixed results: while the injected women become indestructible spider babies, the injected men become creepy looking midgets. The good doctor might want to fix that when he gets around to it.

Then one evening at the canteen, in wanders rich, stuffy Jan Van Croft (Nico Lek) and his pesty girlfriend Doreen (Mary Hill). They had been planning to fly to Mexico City to get hitched, but engine trouble has stranded them in the dusty little village where Dr. Aranya is conducting his experiments. And, yes, this is the same canteen where the spider women love to dance the night away. While our couple is enjoying a cocktail (and watching head spider girl Tandra Quinn perform a truly mental two step), a fellow by the name of Dr. Leland J. Masterson (Harmon Stevens) ambles in.

Who is he?

Well, I'll tell you: He was one of the country's leading endocrinologists until he met up with with Dr. A. When he objected to the doctor's crazy experiments, he was injected with "stupid serum" which turned him into a glassy eyed Stan Laurel clone. Now reduced to a complete idiot, poor Dr. Masterson stumbles around warning people about the strange goings-on at Dr. Aranya's place. Naturally, nobody believes him and the guy is locked up in a mental hospital for safekeeping. However, Masterson somehow manages to escape, grab a gun and hot foots it over to the canteen...with hospital attendant George (George Burrows) on his heels...which is where Jan Van Croft and his fiance meet up with him...and Masterson kidnaps them at gunpoint...after he shoots the spider woman Tandra.

Now, you may be asking, where does Grant Phillips--the guy recounting this story-- enter into all this? Well, he's the pilot of Van Croft's plane, the one with engine trouble, remember? With Masterson packing heat, everybody piles into the aircraft--including Van Croft's assistant Wu, who calls him "master"--and off they zoom into the wild blue yonder. But that engine trouble kicks in again and the plane crashes right in Dr. Aranya's backyard...which is just what the mad doctor wanted! See, Wu is in cahoots with Dr. A, who plans on turning Doreen into a spider woman and the rest of the guys into midgets. Meanwhile, a giant spider picks off attendant George, Wu has a change of heart, Van Croft dies (don't ask), Masterson regains his sanity and blows up Dr. Aranya's lab and Grant and Doreen escape into the desert...where they are found by the surveying team.


As you can see, "The Mesa of Lost Women" is one confusing, complicated movie. With mad scientists, giant spiders, spider women, killer midgets and unhinged endocrinologists all cavorting on screen, you can't help but think Herbert Tevos, who wrote the script, is either a genius or a crazy person or both.

I vote for both. However, Mr. Tevos is no position to defend either himself or his film because the guy has vanished from the face of the earth! Herb is not listed in connection with any other film ever made since 1953. Because of this, Ed Wood fans have insisted that "Herbert Tevos" was merely a stage name used by the Woodster. However, as noted earlier in this post, surviving cast members told the Brothers Medved back in '86 that Tevos was, indeed, a real person. Off his dot to be sure, but real.

So, after reading and watching and experiencing "The Mesa of Lost Women", what final thoughts can I leave with you to ponder? Plenty!

*"Aranya" is Spanish for spider.

*Jackie Coogan, who played Dr. Aranya, was a major child star during the silent era; he co-starred with Charlie Chaplin in "The Kid", among other efforts. He was also the inspiration for "The Coogan Laws", which decreed that parents of child actors were required by law to put half their kids' earnings into trust. By the time he made this flick, Coogan was on the comeback trail and would later win the role of "Uncle Fester" on "The Adams Family" TV show.

*George Burrows, who played the ill-fated hospital assistant George, was better known for his career as a gorilla in various low rent monster and jungle movies. In fact, "The Mesa of Lost Women" was one of George's few human roles. In the classic "Robot Monster", George not only played "Ro-Man", but his boss "The Great One". One of the reasons George was so in demand as a movie gorilla was because he had his own monkey suit.

*Robert Knapp, who played the hero Grant Phillips in the flick, is listed as both "Robert" and "Bob" in the credits.

*Cast member Allan Nixon previously appeared in "Prehistoric Women" (1950) as "Engor" before acting in this flick. What role did he play? Oh, watch the movie yourself to find out!

*The Son of Golden Turkey Awards voted "The Mesa of Lost Women" as the "Most Primitive Male Chauvinist Fantasy in Movie History".

*The film never explains how Dr. Aranya came to find his various spider women. The title says they were "Lost". How did they become so? Did he kidnap them, advertise on craigslist.org or what?

*The headache inducing soundtrack for "The Mesa of Lost Women" was created by Hoyt Curtin, who would later go on to create music for the classic cartoon series "The Flintstones".

*The midgets in this movie are even creepier than the midgets in "Phantasm"--and if you've ever seen "Phantasm", you know that's quite an accomplishment.

Although "The Mesa of Lost Women" is not an Ed Wood film, it comes as close to the real thing as possible.

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