Mesa of Lost Women

Rating: 0.5 out of 10.

A contender for the worst movie ever, this 1953 patch-job is a mind-boggling series of failures. Built upon existing footage from an unreleased picture, this one includes spider women, mad scientists and evil dwarfs, and still manages to be deadly dull. 0/10

Mesa of Lost Women. 1953, USA. Directed by Herbert Tevos & Ron Ormond. Written by Herbert Tevos & Orville H. Hampton. Starring: Jackie Coogan, Paula Hill, Robert Knapp, Tandra Quinn, Harmon Stevens, Nico Lek, George Barrows, Allan Nixon, Richard Travis, Samuel Wu. Produced by Melvin Gordon & William Perkins. IMDb: 2.8/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

The most prevalent description of this bewildering tale is ”a really bad fever dream”. Another fitting attribute is ”something almost approximating a full-length feature film”. Mesa of Lost Women is one of those films that you love after seeing it, because it’s so ridiculously bad, but sitting through it is a nightmare.

The film opens with a dishevelled young couple dragging themselves through a desert. They keep walking for a good five minutes while Lyle Talbot delivers a neverending narration that would make Vincent Price seem understated and subtle, about how puny and foolish Man is, thinking he owns the world; ”Consider, even the lowly insect that man trods underfoot outweighs humanity several times and outnumbers him by countless billions. In the continuing war for survival between man and the hexapods, only an utter fool would bet against the insect.” And this just goes on and on and on as Lyle Talbot kills time by listing all the modern conveniences that this couple has left behind the venture into the Muerto Desert … The desert of DEATH: roads, air-conditioned automobiles, electrics … statistics (?) … until finally they are picked up by an American oil prospector and his colleagues in a jeep.

The film concerns a Dr. Araña (Jackie Coogan), who lives in a cave in the Zarpa Mesa in the desert of DEATH in Mexico, where he is injecting spider venom into the pituitary gland (what would horror films do without the pituitary gland?) of women – and vice versa? Thus he creates a race of superwomen, who are also mute and constantly sultry and obey his wishes. The men he injects turn into dwarves and the spiders get big as dogs. One day he sends for a Dr. Masterson (Harmon Stevens) to help him with his work, but Masterson freaks out, gets injected with something, escapes, goes crazy, gets locked up in an insane asylum and escapes to a honky-tonk on the border of Mexico.

Jackie Coogan as the mad scientist and Tandra Quinn as a spider woman.

Here he meets rich old Jan van Croft (Nico Lek) and his gold-digger wife Doreen (Paula Hill), whose plane has broken down. She is the women of the prologue. The two are accompanied by manservant Wu (Samuel Wu) and pilot Grant Phillips (Robert Knapp) — the guy in the prologue. There’s also one of the spider women doing a very long and ”erotic” (?) dance. She is Tarantella (Tandra Quinn). Joining the party is Masterson’s male nurse George, or ”George the Male Nurse” as he is billed (George Barrows without his gorilla suit). Masterson shoots Tarantella and kidnaps the rest of the posse at gunpoint, and force them to take off in the half-functioning plane (because he is crazy, that’s why). Tarantella is seen coming back to life, because, as is explained earlier in the film, she is “indestructible” But it turns out Wu is secretly in cahoots with Dr. Araña, and has tampered with the plane and the gyrometer, so that they crash land exactly on Zarpa Mesa.

Most of the action takes place on the dark mesa by the hull of the airplane, where the posse begin to bicker and line up from left to right, struggling to all fit in the shot. There’s some romance between the pilot and the chick, romance as written by a 10-year old. Sometimes one of the troupe goes wandering in the dark woods for no apparent reason and gets killed by some unseen menace, one of the spider girls, or in one instance a giant jumping spider. And while this goes on, we have some arbitrary cuts to laughing dwarves (John George and Angelo Rossitto). Eventually the survivors – Phillips, Doreen and Masterson – are taken down to the cave of Dr. Araña and his lab, where Masterson is cured and we have a little wrestling and the pilot and the chick escape while Masterson blows up the lab.

Robert Knapp and Paula Hill as the romantic couple.

And now I will take you back again to the beginning of the film, the prologue. We meet Grant and Doreen wandering in the desert, as described earlier – they have now escaped the horrors of Araña. The couple is picked up by the oil prospectors (Allan Nixon and Dan Mulcahey) and their Mexican guide Pepe (Chris-Pin Martin), actually billed ”Pepe the Jeep Driver”. The only time we see him near the vicinity of a jeep he is in the passenger’s seat. Now remember – this all happens in the beginning of the movie. They are taken to the prospectors’ office, where all the actors basically stand on top of each other to fit into frame, and Phillips raves on about the superwomen and Dr. Araña’s strange experiments. And to get the movie going, he starts to tell his story: ”Well it all started at the border…” But then the narrator kicks in again, because the screenwriters have just realised that it didn’t start with Phillips, but with Masterson. But Masterson is not around for the prologue, because he died, and Phillips doesn’t know Masterson’s story. This is a conundrum. How to solve a flashback scene when all those who were involved in the flashback are dead? The screenwriters solve it by giving the flashback to Pepe, who is so much a stereotype that he actually rolls his google-eyes and says ”Dr. Araña, ay caramba!”. And for some reason Pepe now knows the story of Masterson! We never know how this is possible, because all he says is ”Dr. Araña, ay caramba”. That’s when we cut to Masterson and the spider women in the desert and the movie gets going…

Harmon Stevens as Masterson, Nico Lek as van Croft and Paula Hill as his girlfriend Doreen.

So there you have it. It might sound like fun and camp, with giant spiders and mad scientists and evil little people and plane crashes and spider women. But really, the overall sensation of this film is one of utter boredom. The spider women don’t really do anything spidery. The just stand around and look sultry and stiff and sometimes hold out their hands like claws. The only time you get a good look at one of the spiders, it looks like a stuffed toy you win at an amusement park, and sort of stands ashamed in a corner, where Araña hides it behind one of those screens that women change clothes behind in old movies. Another time we see the belly of a spider as it jumps van Croft. And that looks just like what it is. A big prop that some stage hand throws at the camera. Or perhaps it hung on wires. Same result. Most of the movie is just people standing in a line talking about things that we don’t really care about. 

To give you an idea of the sloppiness of the script: spiders are constantly referred to as insects and hexapods (six legs), although the spider props nevertheless have eight legs. The proper thing to call them would of course have been arachnids and octopods. No explanation is ever given as to why Masterson decides to show up in the tavern. Wu is apparently both manservant to van Croft, who has no connection whatsoever to Araña, and at the same time Araña’s henchman, again this goes unexplained. Tarantella is “killed” at the tavern and the posse then leave without delay by car and plane, but somehow she still manages to get to the mesa before them. Despite the fact that Masterson is a feeble little man, and Phillips and George could easily have overpowered him, they never try to disarm him, even though they have plenty of opportunities. And so on and so forth.

Tandra Quinn entertaining a spider in a promo shot.

Another thing that makes the film almost unwatchable is the music, if you can call it that. The whole film is engulfed in a butterfingered strumming Spanish guitar, accompanied by atonal banging on a piano (I’m not exaggerating – someone is sitting by a piano, banging for dramatic effect on seemingly random keys). At first I thought they had dragged some stage-hand who knew a few guitar chords into a recording studio, but it turns out that the music is actually written by Hoyt Curtin, who would garner fame for his compositions for a number of animations, including Jonny Quest, Scooby-Doo, Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Battle of the Planets, Super Friends, Yogi Bear, GoBots and Smurfs.

This is not just one of the worst movies ever made – it’s actually two! In 1950 production began on a film called Tarantula, written and directed by one Herbert Tevos. However, the finished film was deemed so bad it was unreleasable, so it just sat there. A year later the rights to the film was picked up by Howco Productions, who hired Ron Ormond, by that time best known for his cheap Lash Larue westerns, to film additional scenes in order to make it ar least ”approximate a full-length feature film”. The finished result is literally one film made on top of the other.

Jackie Coogan and Robert Knapp.

Some have speculated that Herbert Tevos had left Tarantula half-finished, but according to B movie guru Tom Weaver, who actually found and read the original script, Tarantula is essentially in Mesa of Lost Women in its entirety. According to his post at Monster Kid Classic Horror Forum – which is THE authority on forgotten horror and sci-fi films, the film basically follows ”the homicidal maniac” Masterson as he kidnaps the posse, as they crash on the mesa, start bickering, fight off some unseen menace, bicker some more, get killed by a hairy claw, get chased by some giant spiders and escape in a helicopter. The only scene that Ormond omitted was the final scene. The dance scene was in the original film, but in that movie Tandra Quinn was just a dancing girl, there were no spider women, no dwarves, no mad scientist, no narration. Just a bunch of people getting kidnapped by a maniac, crash on a mesa, bicker, have a lame love story and escape.

For many years there was a theory going that Mesa of Lost Women would have been a lost Ed Wood movie, that Wood would for some reason have written and directed it under the pseudonym of Herbert Tevos and then been replaced, or that he might have produced it. The mistake is understandable, as there are a lot of Ed Wood staples that show up both in front of and behind the camera. But in fact, there is no evidence that Wood had anything to do with the film. But Wood and Ormond were very good friends, and both were also friends of Bela Lugosi, so it is quite conceivable that Ormond was part of the posse of outcasts and misfits around Wood. As both were struggling filmmakers who needed to pinch a penny, and both needed cheap but reliable actors and crews, it is not that strange that they would draw from the same pool of people that they normally would hang around.

Tandra Quinn.

Which brings us to Herbert Tevos, director of the unreleased film Tarantula, not to be confused with Jack Arnold’s cult classic with the same title from 1955. When I first took a crack at reviewing this film a few years back, there was no information whatsoever about Tevos either on IMDb, Wikipedia, or really any other online resource. Even the people who worked on Tarantula seemed to have known very little about his true identity, and he had no other discernible movie credits.

According to people who worked on the movie, interviewed by Tom Weaver, Tevos claimed to have been a big star director in Germany, and to have directed Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel (1930), which, as we know, was directed by Josef von Sternberg. According to Tandra Quinn, Tevos had tried to make the unknown Quinn his protégé, telling her he was going to make her a star, even changing her last name. How much of his bolstering the other people in the crew actually bought is unclear, but 18-year old Quinn at least bought it to some extent. In the book I Talked with a Zombie Quinn recalls: ”He tried to be my Svengali, and kinda dominate my every move. He wanted to make this exotic character out of me, and came up with the screen name ‘Tandra Nova’ for me”. Quinn changed the last name, since ”Nova” reminded her of boxer Lou Nova

Well, nobody seemed to know who or what Herbert Tevos was, so I started to do some digging, and came upon a clue in the always reliable Monster Kids Classsic Horror Forum, where the likes of Tom Weaver hang out to trade information. Here I found that someone had received a letter from Tevos‘ son, confirming that his real name was Herbert (von) Schoellenbach, and had worked st a “technical capacity” at German film manufacturer Agfa in Binghampton, New York. I started digging around German online archives, old immigrations records and the archives of film Agfa, and by cross-checking the information given to Weaver about Tevos, was able to gig up a bit more information about him, and updated his profile on IMDb. More on this digging a bit later, but suffice to say that Schoellenbach seems to have been teh head of the paper testing department at Binghampton, and a part-time documentary cameraman, mostly doing scenic photography. He was apparently prone to entertain his co-workers at Agfa (and on the set of Tarantula) with wild stories about his past in the German film industry, and about a treacherous documentary trip to the Amazon from which he emerged as the sole survivor having fought off jungle fever and alligators.

The spider!

Mesa of Lost Women was released in some states as Lost Woman or Lost Women, and was re-released as Lost Women of Zarpa. Reviews at the time were, unsurprisingly, negative. Variety wrote that the film was “obviously made on the premise that product-hungry theatres would to forced to book anything”. The Monthly Film Bulletin described it as “poorly staged and indifferently acted”, and “more ludicrous than thrilling”.

The film has a 2.8/10 rating on IMDb based on 1400 clicks, which is extremely low for the site, and no Rotten Tomatoes consensus. It has a 1/5 star rating on AllMovie, with Richard Gilliam writing: “This is one of those films that’s fun to read about and tedious to watch. The story is more incoherent than non-linear, the characters are woodenly constructed, and the overall film is a dull, tepid mess.” TV Guide continues: “. It’s a toss-up as to which is worse, the script or the direction”. Bill Warren in his book Keep Watching the Skies calls it “a stupefyingly inept movie” and “a leading contender for the worst film of all time”. Warren writes that “Unlike the well paced but otherwise just as silly Cat-Women of the Moon, this tale of spider women is dull, unpleasant and tiresome”. And in The Sci-Fi Movie Guide Chris Barsanti notes: “This is one of those bad films that is SO bad, it can’t even properly be called a B picture; a “wanna-B” is more like it”. John Stanley in Creature Features gives it 1/4 stars, calling it “turgidly written, directed and acted”.

John George, Tandra Quinn and Harmon Stevens.

Mesa of Lost Women is one of the movies featured in Michael and Harry Medved’s book The Son of Golden Turkey Awards (1986), the follow-up to the legendary The Golden Turkey Awards (1980), where it is awarded for being the “most primitive male chauvinist fantasy”. For some bizarre reason it never featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and that’s perhaps why it’s been left in the shadow of other bad movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Robot Monster (review). Still, it has been gaining reputation in the last decades by being, much, much worse than these two rather fun romps. And it has its defenders among the online critic assembly, even if the defenders themselves admit that their defence is rather feeble. Nigel Honeybone at Horror News writes: ” It’s so hopelessly muddled and misguided that I can’t help but feel affection for it, like an elderly relative that you can’t bear to put down.” And Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster admits that he has “a certain affection for it”. According to Cole, “it has that outrageous over-active imagination that distinguishes the merely bad film from something that pushes on and explores all new worlds of badness”. But Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant shares not these fuzzy feelings: “watching it is like being on drugs. The storyline, the performances and simple narrative logic just don’t add up. The direction is incompetent in a decidedly Ed Wood style: The camera is never in a good position and every insert and cutaway is awkward, like the wrong puzzle piece forced into position. […] these are just symptoms in a film with lapses in judgment that boggle the mind.”

Yes, Mesa of Lost Women is inept in every department, from writing to production through direction to acting, editing, cinematography and music. The dialogue is like something written by a 10-year old and the actors look painfully aware of it. The whole premise is baffling in its stupidity, and there’s not even any point in trying to point out the holes in the logic, because the whole film is a hole in logic. There’s no passion behind the movie that would redeem it, as in Robot Monster or the Ed Wood films. Whatever Schoellenbach was thinking, we will probably never know. Ormond hated the original film and probably just did what he could to try and make at least something out of it. Nevertheless, if you are a friend of bad movies, it is recommendable as a feast of crappiness. And I’ll admit, there are a few laughs in it. As for our spider girl Tandra Quinn, there’s no knowing if she might have developed into a decent actress, but at least she has the fire and charisma, and that dance scene, which she improvised, has gone down in bad movie history. But from what I’ve read, she was probably better off outside Hollywood.

Tandra Quinn and Paula Hill fighting over Robert Knapp.

But let’s dwell for a moment yet on the film’s enigmatic director Herbert Tevos/Herbert (von) Schoellenback. According to the files of Rochester Institute of Technology Schoellenbach was head of the paper testing department at Agfa Ansco in Binghampton, New York in the mid-thirties. Professor emeritus Ira Current recalls: ”At our gatherings Schoellenbach regaled us with his biography; his experiences as a motion picture cameraman, his expeditions to the Amazon, and his association with Richofen, the World War I German aviation ace (Current presumably means Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron”). He had been the cameraman on an expedition up the Amazon River when everyone became ill with fever. He was able to escape, alone, back to civilization but had buried several thousand meters of exposed motion film in the jungle.” Bill Warren in his book Keep Watching the Skies claims that Schoellenbach had a ”long connection with filmmaking”, but doesn’t elaborate further, stating that Taratula/Mesa is his only known movie credit.

The German National archives DO actually list him as one of people having had correspondence with Karl Vollmöller, who wrote the screenplay for Blue Angel, so there might be some grain of truth to Schoellenbach’s involvement, however minuscule, in that movie. Under the Freedom of Information Act, there was released a notification of a report made by the FBI Alien Enemy Control in 1942, of the detention of a Herbert Schoellenbach for interrogation in Los Angeles, presumably because of his German background, but the documents give no further information. As a pointer of what he might have been doing after Tarantula tanked, there’s an archive of the ”Annual Reports of Yellowstone National Park Superintendents”, that lists ”Herbert von Schoellenbach, cameraman of the General Photo Sales corporation” as one of the ”distinguished guests” at the park in 1957. Another newspaper clipping from the Carlsbad Current-Argos (New Mexico) from April, 1937, states “Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Schoellenbach, scenic cinematographers from New York” as “visitors of special intrerest” at the Carslbad caves. A family ancestry site gives Schoellenbach’s year of birth as 1896 in Germany, and places his death at 1988 in Los Angeles. The records further state that he served in WWI. There’s also a record of him registring for the draft in 1942 in Los Angeles, which may be when he was interviewed by the FBI.

Robert Knapp and Paula Hill in the prologue.

That’s really all I can dig up on the elusive Herbert Schoellenbach. What we do know is that he worked as a cameraman at least from the thirties through the fifties, apparently with a special interest in scenic and wildlife photography. This gives credence to his stories about a documentary expedition to the Amazon, of which there conveniently is no footage from, as he claims to have buried the film in order to get out alive. There is mention of him having had something to do at least on the fringes of The Blue Angel, made in 1930, which suggests he did have something to do with the film business in Germany in the early thirties and late twenties. As he is documented as having worked at Agfa Ansco in New York in 1934, we can surmise that he moved to the US some time between 1930 and 1934, possibly as a result of the Nazis taking power in Germany. Or perhaps he was already employed by Agfa Ansco, and simply relocated to head up the company’s paper testing department in NY. Why or how he ended up directing Tarantula on 1951 is anyone’s guess, but Tom Weaver’s interview with Tandra Quinn at least suggests he harboured dreams of becoming a Hollywood director, much in the vein of Ed Wood. Apart from the odd mention as “cameraman” in newspaper footnotes, there seems to be no information of his activities after 1951, but we can surmise that he left Hollywood behind after his experience with Tarantula. We know that Schoellenbach was married and had at least one son, and presumably lived in the US until his death, in 1988 if my detective work has been correct. Of course, if anyone reading this blog can connect me with any living descendants, I would be happy to learn more about this obviously interesting man.

We know a lot a more about the director of the second film, built on top of TarantulaRon Ormond. Born Vittorio Di Naro, Ormond started his career under the moniker Rahn Ormond as a vaudeville artist and stage magician, until he almost accidentally fell into filmmaking in the late thirties, first as a writer and producer of cheap western films, and in 1950 as a director, thanks to his friendship with western mini-star Lash La Rue. He shifted gear in 1953, when he was asked to do new footage for Tarantula, a film he claimed to have hated, and after this became known as one of he most infamous exploitation directors in the States, covering both horror and sci-fi and sexploitation and gore.

Jackie Coogan with an unidentified spider woman.

After a short break following Mesa of Lost WomenOrmond and his wife, vaudeville performer and dancer June Carr, who co-produced many of his films, made one of his most notorious films, Untamed Mistress (1956), about a woman being brought up by gorillas. It was their first roadshow film, and had a lewd marketing strategy, insinuating heavily inter-species sex, which was never carried out in the movie. Nevertheless, it was a hit, and was followed by a string of other pics, best known probably the ”frigid wife” sexploitation drama Please Don’t Touch Me (1963). After relocating in Nashville, he started courting the local country scene, and in 1966 released the country music exploitation movie The Girl from Tobacco Row, starring Tex Ritter. He had a religious epiphany in the early seventies, when he survived a plane crash, and now was dead set on spreading the word of the lord in his films. Not that his Christploitation movies were any less lewd and gory than his previous films. He made five four more films in the seventies, all of them with heavy religious imagery of death and hell and about the importance of Christian morals in the fight against communism. Ron Ormond was also a writer of esoterica and Eastern mysticism.

The three first-billed actors are Jackie Coogan, and the two guys who pick up Doreen and Grant in the desert, played by Allan Nixon and Richard Travis, despite the fact that the have little more than five minutes of screen time. All three were friends of Ormond, and probably did their roles practically for free for a good billing. Coogan was at the time not seen as much more a washed-up kid star, and the two others were B movie bit actors. Travis did appear in over 80 films or TV series, and even got decent billing in a couple of other films. He appeared in the serial The Green Hornet Strikes Again (1940) and actually played the lead in Missile to the Moon (1958), and appeared in the small role of the general in Cyborg 2087 (1966).

Allan Nixon, Chris-Pin Martin, Dan Mculhey and Robert Knapp.

Jackie Coogan, who one might think would be great, is the biggest bore of all in Mesa of Lost WomenCoogan, who was the child protégé of Charlie Chaplin (The Kid, 1921), and later became famous for his over-the-top antics as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family (1964-1966), decided to underplay his character as much as he overplayed Fester.

As with a lot of child stars, Coogan’s career dwindled when he hit maturity, and he had a rough spot for some years, especially since his mother and step-father denied him the approximately 4 million dollars he made as a child actor. He didn’t even legally have any right to them according to California law. Because of a public uproar, California passed the so-called Coogan Act to make sure child actors’ rights were protected in the future. Coogan left Hollywood for the war in the early forties, and when he returned in 1945, his career was pretty much washed up, and he was broke, so he did a handful of B movies, and even Z movies, like Mesa of Lost Women. He transitioned into TV, but it wasn’t until the late fifties that he started getting recognised again, and it took until the early sixties before he got his second breakthrough with important roles in both McKeever & the Colonel (1962-1964), and of course The Addams Family.

Jackie Coogan in a promo shot.

Lyle Talbot does his wonderful narration on this film, and much like Jackie Coogan, Talbot was an actor who was seen as having his best days behind him, although Talbot was still very active, appearing on nearly twenty TV shows and close to ten films in 1953 alone. That was pretty much the story of his career, having over 300 credits in film or TV between 1931 and 1987. In later years he said that he never once turned down a role, no matter how small or bad. Stage magician and actor Talbot got called into Hollywood in the early days of sound cinema, when the studios needed ”actors who could talk”, and was quickly established as a ”matinee idol” and leading man of B movies, and was one of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild. His activity in the union angered studio brass, who quit offering him leading roles, and he instead transformed himself into a sought-after character actor for B films. In film, he is probably best known for having appeared in three Ed Wood movies: Glenn or Glenda (1953), Jail Bait (1954) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

Talbot worked on a few little-known semi-sci-fi films in the thirties, and was quite a pioneer regarding DC Comics. He played Commissioner Gordon on the second Batman film serial in 1949, Batman & Robin. He was also the first actor to play Lex Luthor in a live-action film, in the serial Atom Man vs. Superman in 1950, opposite the first Superman, Kirk Alyn, whose work we have covered in the review of the first Superman serial. He appeared in Untamed Women (1952) and Tobor the Great (1954, review), and had a recurring role in the film serial Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953-1954). His last role was a small uncredited part in the sci-fi spoof Amazon Women on the Moon (1987). But he was probably better known as a fixture on television from the mid-fifties onward. Most fans would know him from his role as Joe Randolph in 74 episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harry (1955-1966).

Tandra Quinn doing her spider dance.

Paula Hill as Doreen isn’t really all that bad, considering the tepid lines she has to utter, she does lend the film a certain credibility as the gold-digging, chain-smoking blonde marrying for money. Sadly, this was her only major role. She appeared in about a dozen B movies, including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), and transitioned into television, as many actresses, in the fifties, before she quit the business in 1958. She made a surprise return in 2000 in a bit-part as a Hollywood manager in the comedy Chump Change, starring writer-actor-director Stephen Burrows and ex-porn star Traci Lords.

Tandra Quinn, the mute spider girl, is featured heavily in the film, and the movie is probably best remembered for her (unnecessarily) long dance scene in the taverna, and she was utilised heavily in the marketing of the movie. There was a short ad with her kissing Knapp, with the narration: ”Have you ever been kissed … by a woman like THIS?” – a shot that isn’t in the film. Quinn, born Derline Jeanette Smith in 1931 was a child dancer and model, and was pushed into acting by her mother, who had her auditioning for a number of film roles in the forties. She finally did get a seven-year contract with Twentieth Century-Fox in the late forties, but never had a chance to make a film. She was dropped quickly as someone at the studio though there was ”something wrong with her face”.

Robert Knapp and Tandra Quinn.

According to the afore mentioned interview by Tom Weaver, Quinn/Smith had a near-fatal accident with an apartment heater when she was two years old, which nearly burned off half of her face. The burns themselves were hardly noticeable by her teens, but the damage to the bone structure in her face lent her features an asymmetrical quality, which I think adds to her personal look, but apparently Fox didn’t consider her pretty enough. By 1950, then only 18 years old, she met Herbert Tevos/Schoellenbach, who swept her up in his Svengali-like way and told her she was going to be a star. In Tarantula, however, the dance scene was her only appearance in the movie. After the film was finished and canned, she was brought back a year later with most of the rest of the principal cast by Ron Ormond, who apparently saw much of the same feisty qualities in her that Schoellenbach had seen, and promptly made her the actual star of the movie, despite the fact that she had no lines. Someone from the team behind Neanderthal Man, released only weeks after this film, must have been around during production or seen some early screening of the film, since she was cast in another mute role, as the housekeeper/panther woman in that film. She did two other films in 1953, and then got married and quit acting. In her own word, she had been so beat down by years of rejection, that she had mental illness and had become a compulsive eater. In the interview she says that this she later lived a very happy married life, travelling a lot with her husband and becoming very interested in gold-digging, later became a nutritions expert and worked at one time for gold-mining company. She has a lot of laughs about her cult fame and her brief acting career in her interview with Weaver. I strongly recommend that you try and find the book.

Regarding the many, many mute roles in this film and other from the era, they have a perfectly reasonable explanation. Actors who played mute roles got paid less than actors with speaking roles, so you could get together a rather large cast without losing a lot of money by keeping them silent throughout the film.

Chris-Pin Martin.

Mesa of Lost Women actually contains a lot of interesting actors, but I’ll bore you out of your wits if I go into them all. But we should mention some of them. The short, rotund Chris-Pin Martin was a memorable character actor, often playing the same sort of Mexican stereotypes he does in this film. Let’s hope he didn’t have to say ”Ay caramba” in all of the movies. He appeared in over 140 films from the twenties to the fifties, including Rouben Mamoulian’s The Mark of Zorro (1940) and John Ford’s The Fugitive (1948). Mesa of Lost Women was his last role. Harmon Stevens only had seven film roles, and if you watch his acting in this film, it is obvious why. He had a bit-part in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review).

George Barrows, as George the Male Nurse, was a prolific bit-part actor, and most of all one of Hollywood’s top gorilla men. He made most of his living playing gorillas or ape men in a suit of his own design. But he also had a number of roles outside the suit, and this one is probably one of his biggest. The man was built like a brick wall, and I suppose you had to have some stamina in those suits. We have encountered him before on this blog, as the robot monster in Robot Monster, see that review for more on Barrows.

George Barrows with Paula Hill and Robert Knapp.

Then there’s Dean Riesner as an Araña henchman. Riesner would go on to become a successful scriptwriter, and Clint Eastwood’s go-to guy from the late sixties to the late eighties. He collaborated on Coogan’s Bluff (1968), Dirty Harry (1971), Play Misty for Me (1971), and numerous other Eastwood films. He also wrote for Blue Thunder (1983) and John Carpenter’s patchy but underrated drama Starman (1984).

The two dwarves are played by two of Hollywood’s most prolific and talented short actors, John George and Angelo Rossitto. George was actually born in Syria as Tufei Filthela, and acted in close to 200 films from 1916 to 1961, including Lon Chaney Sr’s The Road to Mandalay (1926) and the masterpiece The Unknown. He also appeared in Island of Lost Souls (1932, review) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review). Rossitto’s career spanned 60 years from 1927 to 1987 and he appeared in a number of great films, as well as many TV series. He was in Tod Browning’s controversial Freaks (1927), Cecil B. DeMille’s Sign of the Cross, and had small uncredited roles in a bunch of classics. A prolific sci-fi actor, he appeared in The Mysterious Island (1929, review), Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), The Story of Mankind (1957), Brain of Blood (1971), Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), The Clones (1973), The Dark (1979), Galaxina (1980), and the film he will be forever remembered for – Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome (1985), where he made a huge impact as The Master.

John George and narrator Lyle Talbot.

And then there’s the lost women. First of all we have the two best friends in real life, Dolores Fuller and Mona KcKinnon. Fuller, of course, is immortalised (albeit unrealistically) by Sarah Jessica Parker in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), as Wood’s girlfriend. In real life, she was indeed that, but also Wood’s provider, associate producer, location scout, wardrobe manager and much more, as well as an actress. At the time she held up a steady job as a double for one of the stars in a popular TV show – a three day a week job, as he told – who else? – Tom Weaver in his book It Came from Horrorwood. She starred in Wood’s films Glenn or GlendaJail Bait and Bride of the Monster (1955, review). After that she engaged in her other career as a songwriter, best known for writing hits for Elvis Presley movies. Anything about Fuller should not be gleaned from Sarah Jessica Parker’s portrayal of her in Tim Burton’s biopic, as that portrait is not even remotely based on the real Fuller. As opposed to the movie character, Fuller was very supportive of Wood, his transvestism and his filmmaking. McKinnon, with whom Fuller shared a house at a time, appeared most of Wood’s movies, which along with Mesa pretty much makes up all of her acting credits.

Sherry Moreland had 20 credits, and appeared as the blind Martian girl in Rocketship X-M (1950, review). Katherine Victor was a multi-talented woman who worked as an animator, architect, actress and lots of other things. She was typecast in horror and sci-fi films in the fifties, and appeared in Invasion of the Animal People (1959), had the female lead in Teenage Zombies (1960), appeared in Creature of the Walking Dead (1965) and again played the lead in The Wild World of Batwoman (1966), credited as the 40th worst movie ever made on IMDb, and appeared in Frankenstein Island, which escapes IMDb’s Bottom 100 list by not having gathered the required 1 500 votes. In the eighties and nineties she made a career at Disney as a continuity coordinator and animation checker some of Disney’s lesser known films, but mainly on the company’s TV shows.

Left: Unidentified spider girl. Right: Dolores Fuller.

Suzanne Ridgeway was a prolific bit-part actor who appeared in everything from Citizen Kane (1941), one of the best films ever made, to From Hell It Came (1957), one of the worst films ever made. B movie starlet Margia Dean is claimed to have been one of the spider girls, although she vehemently denies it.

And that’s just the actors. The movie credits almost every artistic and technical staff double, since the artistic team got completely overhauled when Ormond took over the movie. Considering some of the talent behind the camera, it is almost unbelievable that the film looks as bad as it does – but it only goes to show that without a script, a capable director, and some amount of money and time, it is very difficult to make a good-looking movie. Some of the ”talent” involved only have a handful of other credits, but the two cinematographers, for example, are not to be sneered at. Although mostly involved in B movies, Gilbert Warrenton had been in the business since 1916, and was cinematographer on the brilliant and highly influential Universal horror-mystery dramas The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928). Both films were directed by Paul Leni, and served as precursors, of sorts, of the Universal monster movies of the thirties (some may argue they were better than the Draculas and Frankensteins of the following decade, and I would almost be inclined to agree). In 1956 he filmed the below par jungle sci-fi film Jungle Hell (review), starring Sabu, and worked on The Atomic Submarine (1959), Flight that Disappeared (1961), the colourful Jules Verne adaptation Master of the World (1961), starring Vincent Price and Charles Bronson, and Ray Millands post-apocalyptic Panic in Year Zero! (1962).

Robert Knapp and Paula Hill.

The other cinematographer on the project was none less than the master Karl Struss, who won an Oscar for his work on F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two People (1927), and was nominated for Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, review), Cecil B. DeMille’s Sign of the Cross (1932), Alfred Santell’s Aloma of the Seven Seas (1941). As if that wasn’t enough, he had his hands all over Robert Florey’s Hollywood Boulevard (1936), and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1942), as well as Limelight (1952). He was chiefly responsible for the amazing quality of the sci-fi horror film Island of Lost Souls (1932), and filmed the surprisingly good Rocketship X-M (1950). He went on to shoot several more sci-fis: She Devil (1957), Kronos (1957), The Fly (1958) and The Alligator People (1959).

Orville Hampton acted as dialogue supervisor, and IMDb also adds him as an uncredited screenwriter, which means he probably wrote the new script along with Ormond. He also wrote for Rocketship X-M, Red Snow (1952), The Alligator People, The Atomic Submarine, Flight that Disappeared, The Underwater City (1962), Space Stars (1982), as well as a number of sci-fi TV shows. Hampton was nominated for an Oscar. Wardrobe supervisor Oscar Rodriguez also worked on I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), How to Make a Monster (1958), The Phantom Planet (1961) and The Creation of the Humanoids (1962). Special effects man Ray Mercer worked on Return of the Ape Man (1944), Superman and the Mole Men (1951), as well as the following Adventures of Superman TV serial (1952-1953), Master of the World, The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) and Panic in Year Zero!

Janne Wass

Mesa of Lost Women. 1953, USA. Directed by Herbert Tevos (Herbert von Schoellenbach) & Ron Ormond. Written by Herbert Tevos & Orville H. Hampton. Starring: Jackie Coogan, Paula Hill, Robert Knapp, Tandra Quinn, Harmon Stevens, Nico Lek, George Barrows, Allan Nixon, Richard Travis, Lyle Talbot, Chris-Pin Martin, Kelly Drake, John Martin, Candy Collins, Dolores Fuller, Dean Riesner, Doris Lee Price, Mona McKinnon, Sherry Moreland, Ginger Sherry, Chris Randall, Diane Fortier, Karna Greene, June Benbow, Katherine Victor, Fred Kelsey, Samuel Wu, Margia Dean, John George, Angelo Rossitto, Suzanne Ridgeway. Music: Hoyt Curtin. Cinematography: Karl Struss, Gilbert Warrenton. Editing: Ray H. Lockert, Hugh Winn, W. Donn Hayes. Set decoration: Ted Offenbecker. Makeup: Harry Ross, Paul Stanhope. Sound: Charles Clemmons. Special Effects: Ray Mercer. Wardrobe: Oscar Rodriguez. Produced by Melvin Gordon & William Perkins for Ron Ormond Productions.

10 replies

  1. Interesting well-researched piece about Mesa of Lost Women – which I ironically love; though the guitar music is nauseating. Overall I feel it is a like a surreal dream and unlike any other film; in parts beautifully filmed. I love Tandra Quinn (1931-2016); whom I located in 2005 through research. We became correspondents and friends; and put her in contact with Tom Weaver. I also greatly admire Paula Hill (1926-2000), who I feel was the best actor in the picture – and deserved bigger breaks in her career in Hollywood. Robert Knapp (1924-2001) was also pretty convincing. Your ‘unidentified spider girl’ is Karna Greene (1932-1975). Thank you ! Best wishes from London UK~

    Liked by 1 person

  2. PS I was touched to see you first published this piece on February 15th; actually the birthday of actress Paula Hill (credited in the movie as Mary Hill; she was born Paula Mary Hill !) in 1926; and sadly also her date of death in 2000.

    Liked by 1 person

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