REVIEW: MESA OF LOST WOMEN

CAST

Jackie Coogan (The Addams Family 60s)
Robert Knapp (The F.B.I.)
Lyle Talbot (Atom Man vs Superman)
Paula Hill (Hot Cars)
Harmon Stevens (The Day The Earth Stood Still)

The film opens with a brief scene serving as its introduction. A man is being caressed by feminine hands. The next shot includes the face of the woman, Tarantella (Tandra Quinn). A brief kiss between her and the man, ends with his lifeless body falling down. A disembodied voice asks the audience “Have you ever been kissed by a girl like this?” The narrative properly begins in a desert. A narrator (Lyle Talbot) mocks the overblown ego of humanity, a race of puny bipeds which claims to own planet Earth and every living thing on it. Yet, they are outnumbered by the insects, and the Hexapods are likely to survive longer than humans.The narrator then claims that when men or women venture off “the well beaten path of civilization” and deal with the unknown, the price of their survival is the loss of their sanity.
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During this narration, the film introduces its protagonists Grant Phillips (Robert Knapp) and Doreen Culbertson (Paula Hill). The narrator explains that the two of them are lost in the “great Mexican desert”, the “Muerto desert”. They are nearly dead from dehydration and sunburn when discovered by an American surveyor and his Mexican companion. These characters are identified as Frank (John Martin) and Pepe (Chrispin Martin). The two victims of the desert recover their senses in “Amer-Exico Field Hospital”, somewhere in Mexico. Grant starts narrating his story to Doc Tucker (Allan Nixon), foreman Dan Mulcahey (Richard Travis), and Pepe.
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The film flash-backs to events occurring a year earlier in Zarpa Mesa. Famous scientist Leland Masterson (Harmon Stevens) arrives, having accepted an invitation Dr. Aranya (Jackie Coogan). Aranya (name derived from the Spanish araña for spider) has reportedly penned “brilliant” scientific treatises, and Masterson looks forward to meeting him in person. Masterson is genuinely intrigued by Aranya’s theories, but his host informs Masterson that his work is not theoretical. He has already completed successful experiments, creating both human-sized tarantula spiders and human women with the abilities and instincts of spiders. His creation Tarantella has regenerative abilities, sufficient to regrow severed limbs. He seriously expects her to have a lifespan of several centuries. His experiments have had less success in male humans, who simply turn to disfigured dwarfs.
Image result for mesa of lost womenMasterson is horrified and denounces Aranya and his creations, proclaiming that they should be destroyed. In response, Aranya has him injected with a drug, turning him into a doddering simpleton. The front page of a newspaper called Southwest Journal explains that Masterson was eventually found wandering in the desert. He was declared insane and placed in an asylum. Some time later, Masterson escapes the “Muerto State Asylum”. He is next seen two days later, in an unnamed American town of the Mexico–United States border. Also present there are Tarantella, businessman Jan van Croft (Nico Lek), and his fiancée Doreen. They were heading to Mexico for their wedding day, but their private airplane had engine problems and stranded them there.[1] Jan’s servant Wu (Samuel Wu) is seen exchanging glances with Tarantella. It serves as the first sign that he is working with her.
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Masterson is tracked to the bar by his nurse at the asylum, George (George Barrows). The entire bar and its patrons observe Tarantella perform an energetic dance. Masterson apparently recognizes her, pulls a handgun, and shoots her. He then takes Jan, Doreen, and George hostage. He heads for Jan’s private airplane and he forces pilot Grant to prepare for takeoff, despite the pilot’s protests that only one engine is fully functional. The airplane departs with Doreen, George, Grant, Jan, Masterson, and Wu aboard it. Meanwhile, Tarantella regenerates following her apparent death, and leaves the bar.
In mid-flight, Grant discovers that someone sabotaged the gyrocompass, resulting in them flying towards the wrong direction for most of the flight. Wu’s facial expression allows the audience to learn who was the saboteur. The airplane crash-lands atop Zarpa Mesa, where the creations of Aranya were expecting them. For a while being, the creations simply observe them from afar. The film follows the activities of the stranded group for quite a while. There is sexual tension between Grant and Doreen, culminating in a passionate kiss. Meanwhile, the group dwindles with the deaths of first George, secondly Wu, and lastly Jan. Wu is confirmed to have served as an agent of Aranya, but one who outlived his usefulness. The last three members of the group are then captured. Grant soon recognizes that their captor’s name is identical to the Spanish term for “spider”, “araña”. Aranya cures Masterson from drug-induced imbecility, hoping to recruit him. This backfires as Masterson uses his intellect in a suicide attack. He allows Doreen and Grant to escape, then sets up an explosion which kills himself and everyone else. The flashback ends and we return to the hospital. He fails to convince anyone but Pepe of the truth in his story. Yet the finale reveals that at least one of Aranya’s spider-women has survived.Image result for mesa of lost womenThis movie is just plain fun. I consider it a budding cult classic. I say “budding” only because it seems to be relatively unknown. Jackie Coogan, who rocked as Uncle Fester of The Addams Family TV series, rocks as a mad scientist. Harmon Stevens is just as much a hoot as the insane doctor. Tandra Quinn, who plays Tarantella, is a major babe and her dance number shows it. Samuel Wu, who oddly enough plays the character Wu, speaks only in what sounds like an ancient Chinese proverb dialect and comes off as ludicrously funny. The deadly spider-girls are all pretty, the dwarfs are actually all dwarfs, the voice over is cool and crazy, and parts of it are over the top in ways reminiscent of Plan 9 From Outer Space. I love this thing. Its in a class of its own and ought not be compared to other films. It is what it is and needs to be viewed that way. Its a gut buster. Want your own personal cult classic that no one else knows about? Adopt the Mesa of Lost Women.

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REVIEW: ATOM MAN VS SUPERMAN

 

 

CAST

Kirk Alyn (When Worlds Collide)
Noel Neill (Music Man)
Tommy Bond (Five Little Peppers at Home)
Pierre Watkin (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)
Lyle Talbot (Batman & Robin 1948)
Jack Ingram (Man Without a Star)
Don C. Harvey (The Scarlet Coat)

Atom Man vs. Superman was a Columbia serial of 15 installments. It’s notable as the second live action version of Superman to hit the big screen. It’s penchant for campy sci-fi gadgetry was a precursor to the Silver Age. As with the 1948 Superman serial, the budget is quite low and the special effects have been added in as animation, though some improvements have been made – notably closeups of Superman with his hair and cape blowing while in flight. I like that the first episode, ‘Superman Flies Again’, wastes no time on Superman’s origin. It doesn’t even waste time introducing Luthor, even though he wasn’t in the first serial. It is mentioned that Luthor is Superman’s arch-enemy, but other than that it presumes you know who Superman and Luthor is before it begins – something the modern Superman film franchise could take note of. With the second episode, the series slips quite a bit. There are a number of plot holes (mostly concerning who has a special coin and who knows they have it), and there are several moments of bad acting. There’s a lot of use of gimmicky gadgets, and Atom Man himself looks kind of funny with a giant sparkly head mask. On the plus side, the effects are a bit better than in the last serial, with the film sped up in parts to make it look like Superman is moving at super speed. The ship rescue was a nice touch, showing that Superman still has other work to do besides fighting Atom Man.

The third episode keeps things moving, with Superman rescuing Lois from a fall from a skyscraper, putting out a blazing oil fire, rescuing Luthor from an assassination attempt, and saving Jimmy and Lois when their airplane becomes disabled. Though his part is small, the highlight of the episode is Lyle Talbot as Luthor, who is clearly the best actor in the series. And, even though he has a somewhat silly script to deal with, his portrayal of Luthor as a no-nonsense businessman may be the best ever, possibly even superior to Gene Hackman’s version in the 1978 film Superman.

The fourth episode is both good and bad – Superman rescues Lois and Jimmy in a perfunctory sequence, then they go back to the Daily Planet where they celebrate Lois’ birthday – only to have a fake gift transport her into the clutches of Atom Man. The episode has some great ideas – particularly Superman’s plan to get himself ‘captured’ to save Lois, but it seems to move from idea to idea too fast to capitalize on them.

The fifth episode is one of the best written episodes of the series. Superman enlists the help of the Daily Planet to post a fake news story about a shipment of plutonium – a material Atom Man needs for his plans – as a trap. But Luthor is too smart for this and turns the tables, sending a henchman into the trap to be captured and interrogated – thus revealing information about a secret package at the check room at Central Station, knowing that Superman would go there and investigate, inspecting all the packages with X-Ray vision. And leaving an inert material that converts to plutonium when subjected to X-Rays, allowing Luthor to get his hands on actual plutonium!

The sixth episode has a lot of things that really annoy me. There is an appalling lack of understanding of science – in addition to the X-ray vision turning the alloy nails into plutonium – and they just open up the box and look at them with no protection, there is the part where Luthor teleports a henchman wearing just a business suit into outer space, then brings him back a couple minutes later just fine. Later Luthor decides he now needs radium, and so he plans to steel it from a reduction plant. A little of this could be excused by the era, maybe it wasn’t yet common knowledge that space is a vacuum, but it really seems they didn’t even try to be respectful of science.

There’s also a lot of ridiculous plot and action points, for example, Lois escaping some thugs by throwing powder in their faces, the bad guys getting radium from a hospital safe by just asking for it and showing no credentials, the reduction plant having a vault that has a lethal gas booby trap, and Jimmy driving right onto a bombing range (no fence, gate, guard or anything) and there happening to be a bomber on a test run to drop a bomb right on him. There are a few good points in this one too, though. Lyle Talbot’s Luthor is particularly devious – when his henchmen fail him he threatens to sentence one to the vast doom of space and asks them who it will be, then when one of the men volunteers, he says that he’s brave – and then he chooses to sentence the other one instead. Also, unlike most of the chapters where all the Superman special effects are animated, this one actually has a pretty realistic looking scene of Kirk Allen overturning a villain’s car and then ripping out the engine and using it to bar the upright door from opening.

Episode 7 is a great episode – as the rough halfway point, it acts as a summary on Superman. Lex Luthor reveals that he acquired the records of Jor-El’s final pleas. In something that has been copied and re-used in many times in Superman stories since, we find out that Lex Luthor knows more about Superman’s origins than Superman himself. It also has the added twist on the end of Krypton that the planet-wide upheaval was caused by a decaying orbit – a pretty good science based explanation for the time. This is accomplished quite deftly in this episode by using a lot of found footage including natural disaster footage, and clips from the original Superman Serial.

The eighth episode provides something of a twist: we finally learn what exactly the ’empty doom’ is – it’s not so much a place (though it could involve displacement in space as well), so much as it’s a form of incorporealness. Superman is unable to affect the physical world. Though he does somehow manage to find a way to send Lois and Jimmy a message via her typewriter (possibly because it’s electric). There’s a lot of unexplained stuff, from how he types, to what is the empty doom, to more mundane things like why does everyone willingly stand under Luthor’s main arc without restraints, and what exactly does Lois keep in her purse that enables her to club thugs unconscious with it… but overall, the fantasy elements of this episode are a nice change of pace, even as poorly explained as they are.

Episode 9, ‘Superman Crashes Through’ takes things too far. In addition to the profound misunderstanding of outer space which I’ve been able to excuse up to this point, we also discover that Luthor’s synthetic kryptonite doesn’t work when exposed to air, and when Superman finally manages to get the drop on Atom Man, it turns out to be just an Atom Man robot. Things get better in the second half, but not enough to save this installment. Episode 10: ‘Atom Man’s Heat Ray’, despite its title, isn’t as grandiose as you might suspect. The heat ray itself is a small device Luthor’s men use to make the doorknob to a payroll truck too hot to touch after they’ve trapped some patsies in it. Storywise, this is a pretty good episode, but there are a few really dumb bits in it. At the start of the episode, Jimmy gets his foot stuck in a railroad tie, just as a train happens to be coming, necessitating rescue by Superman. In another part of the episode, Lois catches Clark coming in through a window (after having made an appearance as Superman), and the best thing he can think to cover his tracks is that he “just woke up” on the window ledge. But on the whole it’s a better than average episode, and even Jimmy gets to punch out a bad guy.

I liked episode 11 for a lot of the subtle attention to details. Luthor holds a press conference, and from the way his office is decorated, one can see that he is a man that likes/admires horses. Later when Lois is reporting with her TV crew on a flood, the camera they are using is not a mere prop – she asks for a closer view and the camera man rotates lenses. It’s subtle touches like these that make some episodes, such as this one, just a little better than average. The flood itself is a mixture of stock footage and models that cuts together better in some places than others, but once again it’s good to see Superman in action saving lives rather than just fighting bad guys.

Episode 12 is a fairly good episode, most of the characters behave in intelligent ways (except perhaps Lois in covering the flood – but risk-taking is normal for reporters and it’s not out of character), and the acting is actually pretty good. Lyle Talbot’s reaction as Luthor to a pad being stolen from his office, for example, is very well played. This episode also features one of the smoothest transitions between Kirk Allyn in costume, and the animated Superman, right on screen (rather than the usual Clark ducking behind a rock and emerging as Superman type thing). There is a sense that the series is finally starting to come to a climax.

Luthor’s pseudoscience gimmicks come fast and furious in Episode 13. Heat rays, death rays, camera devices that see everywhere, flying saucers that for all their sophistication are just used as ramming devices. Pretty much all science and logic goes out the window this episode, but at least it’s counterbalanced by the feeling that things are moving toward a climax.

Luthor pulls out all the stops in Episode 14, ‘Rocket of Vengeance’. He attacks Clark and Lois’ plane with a Flying Saucer, attacks Metropolis by means of his perennial favorite tool: an earthquake, orders Superman shot with an Atomic Projector, and finally launches a missile strike on Metropolis. As you can see, at this point the series has been reduced to gimmick-after-gimmick, thankfully everything will resolve in the fifteenth episode.

Like most serials, the final installment is a bit more exciting than the others, but overall the series maintains a pretty even level, unlike a feature film which steadily builds to a climax. The title of Episode 15, ‘Superman Saves the Universe’ may be a bit of hyperbole; by this time Luthor is on the run, and the biggest threat he makes is against one city (Metropolis) on Earth, never mind anyplace else in the universe. It’s overall pretty good though, a full plate of action that makes the episode seem to fly by faster than the previous ones. It should be noted that Kirk Allyn, though his performance throughout is  he generally does a pretty good job as Superman, but the real standout in the cast is Lyle Talbot as Luthor, who does an excellent job of providing a down-to-earth performance, even amid a plot that is rife with over-the-top gadgets and gimmicks.

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REVIEW: BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949)

 

CAST

Robert Lowery (Adventures of Superman)
Johnny Duncan (Plan 9 From Outer Space)
Jane Adams (Angels in Disguise)
Lyle Talbot (Atom Man vs Superman)
Ralph Graves (Ladies of Leisure)
William Fawcett (Gunsmoke)
Leonard Penn (Spartacus)

Those familiar with Batman and Robin only through Warner Bros.’ franchise or 20th Century-Fox’s campy TV series (and subsequent feature) may be surprised to learn that Batman’s big screen debut dates all the way back to 1943, in a serial produced by Columbia Pictures. The Batman, as it was called, was followed years later by Batman and Robin (1949), an enjoyable 15-chapter serial. The one-a-week chapter play was running out of steam by 1949; the burgeoning medium of television was killing the market for such things. Moreover, Republic and Columbia, the leading producers of serials in the late-1940s, were cutting corners by recycling the same footage — cars sailing off cliffsides, planes crashing into mountains, dams bursting, etc. — over and over, and unimaginative, budget-conscious writing resulted in one serial’s script playing pretty much like any other. In standard movie serial plotting, the villain of the piece is The Wizard, a hooded criminal mastermind operating from the caverns of a remote island base. (As usual with such villains, he has a lot of all-purpose futuristic equipment stacked atop sturdy wood tables.) As usual for chapter plays, The Wizard’s identity is kept secret until the serial’s climax, though its writers surely want viewers to think it’s eccentric, paralyzed inventor (William Fawcett), who secretly sits at an electric chair-type device decked out in neon that enables him to walk around unaided.

The Wizard’s henchmen steal a fantastic new invention which allows the operator to control moving vehicles of any size from extreme distances. Gotham City’s Commissioner Gordon (Lyle Talbot) enlists the aid of crime-fighters Batman (Robert Lowery) and Robin (John Duncan), the secret alter-egos of wealthy — and, in this serial, outrageously lazy — playboys Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. Also on the case is plucky photographer Vicki Vale (Jane Adams), who is unaware that Batman/Bruce and Robin/Dick are one and the same. According the IMDb, Vicki Vale’s popularity was boosted by the serial’s success, prompting Batman creator Bob Kane (who is credited in tiny print onscreen) to make the character more prominent in the comics. He reportedly based her design on Marilyn Monroe, though Jane Adams, a brunette, is rather matronly in Batman and Robin. Some will want to watch Batman and Robin solely to mock its now dated thrills and limited budget, others will be drawn to the DVD’s attractive cover art (see above) and perhaps mistake it for something else. (Columbia’s large font “1949” on the box art seems an effort to stave off lawsuits from Warner Bros. and Fox.) Batman and Robin is an easy target next to, say, Joel Schumacher’s over-produced Batman & Robin (1997), whose honeywagon budget alone probably eclipsed the entire cost of the serial.

It’s certainly easy to laugh at Bruce and Dick grabbing their superhero costumes out of a file cabinet drawer or, in one scene, Dick putting the top up on his late model Mercury convertible so that Bruce can change into Batman. Really, though, by serial standards of the day, Batman and Robin is above average: the two-heroes-for-the-price-of-one premise is a novelty, and it has a lot of energy in some of its action set pieces. There’s a long fight sequence atop a moving train that’s pretty elaborate for a serial, and there’s enough going on in each chapter — mysterious submarines, underground lairs, futuristic gadgetry — that only the most cynical audiences wouldn’t be entertained.

Lowery and Duncan are only okay as Batman and Robin. As Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, the script forces them to behave like sloths around Vicki, and though physically right (at least by late-1940s standards), neither is exactly bursting with charisma. Lowery’s fleshy features suggest Johnny Weissmuller, while Duncan’s Robin/Dick doesn’t so much resemble a Boy Wonder as he does Michael Rooker’s Henry the Serial Killer. Character veteran Talbot is no match for Neil Hamilton’s earnest Commissioner Gordon on the TV show, while Eric Wilton’s Alfred the Butler is all but invisible.