Mesa of Lost Women (originally released as Lost Women) is a 1953 science-fiction film that was in the 2004 DVD documentary, The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made. The movie also won the award of "Most Primitive Male Chauvinist Fantasy" in the 1986 book, Son of Golden Turkey Awards.
Dr. Aranya (Jackie Coogan), a mad scientist, creates giant spiders in his Mexican lab in Zarpa Mesa. His motive is to create a master race of superwomen by injecting spiders with human pituitary "growth" hormones and people with spider hormones. Human women develop miraculous regenerative powers (repair damaged tissue, re-grow lost limbs) Human men mutate into disfigured dwarves. Spiders grow to human size and intelligence. Aranya invites another scientist, Dr. Masterson, to join him. Masterson visits Zarpa but is horrified at the project. Aranya has him injected with some drug which turns Masterson into doddering simpleton. Masterson (hinted at being a demented killer) escapes the asylum. He visits a cantina. A rich man (Jan van Croft) and his young American fiancee also visit the cantina while their private plane is repaired. They were on their way to Mexico for their wedding. Masterson joins them and fawns over Doreen. Tarantella, (the lovely Tandra Quinn) one of Aranya's best spider women, does a strange and sensual dance for Masterson. He shoots Tarantella (though she repairs and recovers later). Masterson then hijacks Van Croft's group and forces them to fly in the un-repaired plane. They crash land onto Zarpa Mesa. Soon the small group begins to be killed off one by one by giant spiders. Grant (the pilot), Doreen and Masterson are captured by Dr. Aranya. Masterson recovers from his drug-induced imbecility and sacrifices himself to let the others escape, blowing up the lab. Grant and Doreen then wander out into the desert until they're picked up by an oil surveyor, who they tell their terrible tale to...
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). Mesa of Lost Women 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. There are enough holes in the plot, non-sequetors and loose threads that Mesa frustrates the average viewer. This may be due to heavy-handed editing and/or the movie's murky parentage. At a superficial level, Mesa seems like just another exploitation film, promising audiences some cheesecake, like Prehistoric Women ('50) and Wild Women ('51).
The movie is often criticized for its horrible acting, most notably from Coogan and from Harmon Stevens, who plays Dr. Leland Masterson. The plot is far from straightforward, the direction eclectic at best. The loud and repetitive musical score, by flamenco guitar and piano, is often cited as maddening. The music used in the movie was also used by Ed Wood Jr. in his movie Jailbait.
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. It has been said that the project was halted because Tevos was too difficult to work with, though there is scant evidence one way or the other. 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, though this too is difficult to confirm. Aranya is so pivotal to the plot, that he must have been in the original screenplay and not invented later. Tevos is no HG 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.
Missing Heat -- The promotional posters imply rather salacious elements which the movie does not contain. This could be a marketing hype, typical of the exploitation genre, but this theory doesn't quite fit. Usually, with exploitation films, there is some element of suggestiveness. The promotional posters simply overstate it. In Mesa, however, the spider women engage in no romantic liaisons with "normal" men. This nearly total non-sequitur may suggest an original plot thread which was edited out. What may be a surviving trace of that original sub-thread may be the cantina scene which has Tarantella sitting at a table with a pair of local men. She doesn't seem so freakish as to bother those young men. The rest of the cantina folk seem to calmly accept her bizarre dance. Perhaps, in the original thread, she danced similarly to lure other men to Zarpa for Aranya to experiment upon. It's not like Zarpa saw a lot of foot traffic.
Good vs. Evil -- Tarantella is Aranya's sensual creation. The other spider women are stoic. She 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.
Wu People find van Croft's valet a confusing character. Wu and Tarantella know each other (nodding to each other in cantina). It is probable that Aranya used drugs to make human minions to operate in the outside world. (including, for example, the wordless 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. As a drugged-minion, Wu is supposed to be odd. The control-drug made Masterson demented rather than compliant. Wu eventually tries to resist Aranya's will (moral objections) and gets killed for it. Wu's rebellion helps set up Masterson's later rebellion against Aranya. Wu, as Jan van Croft's valet, appears to have been on a mission to bring Doreen to Zarpa. Wu tampered with the plane's compass, sending them 100 degrees off course (but ON course for Zarpa). Apparently, the Wu/Doreen thread explains how Aranya gets his 20-something white women to experiment upon.
The "lost comb" is another plot feature that confuses people. It's a symbolic object 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 the pilot, Grant, don't hit it off well at first, but during the post-crash crisis, he's heroic and caring, while van Croft becomes more and more 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.
Tarantella is very different from the other spider-women. She is like Dr. Moreau's panther woman -- a special project, pushing the envelope of the essence of woman-ness. This could stem from additional work by Aranya, or be due to her being a Latina. (The other spider women are white.) In a sort of Shakespearian twist, Tarantella appears to develop feelings for Masterson. How else to explain her being many miles from Zarpa, in the town Masterson was hospitalized in? Her odd but sensual "spider" dance for him in the cantina seemed to come as a response to Masterson fawning over Doreen. Was it a sort of spider courtship dance? Masterson's ultimate rejection (he shoots her) is actually a deeper analogy of civilization-morality confronting (rejecting) animal-sensuality.