Saturday, January 22, 2022

Mesa of Lost Women is kitsch, but it has 'Tarantella'!


By Steve D. Stones 

Just how bad is Mesa of Lost Women? Well, I may be the wrong person to answer this question, since I’m a peddler of bad cinema. Even by my standards, Mesa of Lost Women is pretty bad. 

With two directors at the helm, Mesa should have turned out so much better. The growing cult surrounding the film may be a result of many principle players of the film having ties to Ed Wood. For example, Lyle Talbot, star of Wood’s Jail Bait, Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space, narrates the film. The annoying music score by Hoyt Curtin is used in both Mesa and Jail Bait. The lovely Dolores Fuller and Mona McKinnon star as spider girls. 

However, this film is much more difficult to watch than any Ed Wood film, which is saying a lot. Another cult aspect of the film has to do with the casting of George Barrows as a sanitarium nurse. Barrows is the actor who put on a gorilla suit and scuba helmet to star as Ro-Man in the infamous Robot Monster. Barrows went on to play another gorilla named Anatole in Hillbillies In A Haunted House. 

Jackie Coogan, who went on to star as Uncle Fester in The Adams Family television show, plays Dr. Arana. Arana conducts experiments in a secret laboratory in the Muerto Desert on beautiful women and spiders. Dr. Leland Masterson, the worst actor in the film, is invited to Arana’s lab to witness some of Arana’s experiments and findings. Arana explains to Masterson that he can inject beautiful women with a growth hormone from spiders, which makes the women become indestructible. Masterson accuses Arana of being mad, so Arana injects him with the growth hormone, which causes him to go insane. 

Somehow Masterson escapes Arana’s lab, ends up in a Mexican insane asylum and then escapes from the asylum in less than ten seconds of screen time. He then makes an appearance at a local Mexican cantina where he becomes infatuated with a pretty blonde, played by Mary Hill. The blonde is getting married later that evening to her much older fiancé. The two sit at a cantina table as Masterson joins them. Masterson’s nurse, played by George Barrows, then joins them at the table in an attempt to take Masterson back to the local sanitarium. 

(Mesa of Lost Woman usually played -- often in the southern United States -- on double bills as the second feature. Below are a couple of old newspaper clips of it in release. It served as a double feature to Barbara Payton in Bad Blonde in a drive in at the Wichita Daily Times, in Wichita, Texas. Note that in one clip, from the Greenville Daily Democrat in Mississippi, it is referred to as Lost Women. That was during its later re-release. In that clip Barbara Payton is not only mistakenly touted as a star in the film, her last name is misspelled. Above is an example of Mesa of Lost Women actually headlining at a southern states drive in in Lubbock Texas' Morning Avalanche.)

One of Dr. Arana’s spider girls named Tarantella, played by the beautiful Tandra Quinn, performs a very bizarre dance in front of the patrons in the cantina. In a fit of rage, Masterson kills Tarantella with a gunshot, and then takes the bride, her husband and Barrows hostage.


I could go on and on with the plot of Mesa of Lost Women, but you get the point in just how bad it is. It should also be noted that Howco Productions, that produced Mesa of Lost Women, also produced Ed Wood’s Jail Bait. This may be the reason why the Hoyt Curtain score is used in both films, and why many of the same actors are used. 

If Ed Wood had directed this film, I feel it would have turned out much better, which may not be saying much. At least the bad elements of an Ed Wood film are funny, campy and enjoyable to watch. The bad elements of Mesa of Lost Women could never rise to Ed Wood’s level of “bad cinema” excellence.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Dracula: Prince of Darkness -- Lee and Shelley shine in Hammer horror


Dracula: Prince of Darkness, 1966, 80 minutes, Hammer, Color. Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Christopher Lee as Dracula, Barbara Shelley as Helen Kent, Andrew Keir as Father Sandor, Francis Matthews as Charles Kent, Suzan Farmer as Diana Kent, Charles ÿBudÿ Tingwell as Alan Kent, Thorley Waters as Ludwig, Philip Latham as Klove and John Maxim as the coach driver. Schlock-Meter rating: 9 stars out of 10.

This is a magnificent horror film. Two English couples are vacationing in Eastern Europe. They are warned by a priest (Keir, who is great) to stay away from Carlsbad, and above all, an unmarked castle. Of course, they ignore the priest's advice and enter the castle. There, with the help of an evil assistant (Latham), Count Dracula (Lee) is resurrected from dust and the night turns to terror for the couples.

The acting is superb, and director Fisher's economical pacing prevents the film from dragging and maintains suspense. Keir, as Father Sandor, is a great vampire hunter, and carries much of the film with his commanding presence. Barbara Shelley as the ill-fated Helen Kent, undergoes an effective transition within the film. The first half of the film she's a repressed, shrewish early-middle-aged wife. However, after falling prey to Dracula's curse, Shelley becomes a beautiful, passionate woman with full cleavage. She literally looks 15 years younger and deserves credit for pulling off the transformation. Waters as Ludwig, an imbecile who helps Dracula, is a capable Renfield clone, and Latham is sinister and eerie as Dracula's living servant Klove.

The film opens with a final shot from Hammer's classic The Horror of Dracula, where Peter Cushing destroys Lee's Dracula. It was the third Hammer Dracula film, but Lee's second playing the man with a cape. Lee produces scares, despite never uttering a word in the film. He is sinister, yet commanding. Not human, he prefers to communicate with snarls and shrieks of rage or triumph. I won't give away the entire ending, but Dracula meets his fate in a rather unusual manner.

One minor quibble: I wish the Hammer films were shot in black and white rather than color. I understand that it worked well in the 1960s, but today the Hammer films are a bit dated because of the color. They would appear fresher if black and white. The forest settings appear realistic and the castle is suitably creepy. It's a must-rent cult film. Better yet, buy it for your collection.

-- Doug Gibson