How about the fact that it’s set in a remote, lonely part of Mexico, where Dr. Araña has a crazy science lab hidden deep in a cave where he experiments with spiders? “Hey, Araña means spider in Spanish!” proclaims one of the unlucky souls sucked into the scientist’s orbit. (So there’s also the crackling dialogue.)
The Wasp Woman was the first feature in my Mini-Marathon of Cult Horror Movies about Female Monsters — and it shares something in common with Mesa of Lost Women: the theme that science is dangerous. But whereas poor Janice Starlin believed the wasp venom would make her look younger with no side effects (oh, woman’s vanity and foolishness!) Dr. Araña has less scientifically justifiable aims.
He just likes to see what happens when you mess around in a crazy lab with humans and spiders.
Sure, Mesa of Lost Women suffers from some writing, editing, acting, and directing foibles — remember, I’m not conducting this marathon because I expect these films to surprise me with their high quality. But if you look past the interminable, nonsensical voiceovers and your own guffaws at the hairpin plot twists, we get back to Tarantella. Because out here in the Muerto Desert (yes, it’s that subtle: muerto) some very strange gender dynamics are at work, just like we’d hoped when we started this marathon.
Tarantella’s body looks like it’s been cross-pollinated with hydraulics, but in fact it’s the implantation of a spider pituitary gland that makes her so … arachnoid. She doesn’t speak; her eyes are always bugging out; her hands are often clenched in fingernail-y claws. One can only admire how her strapless dress stays up (can we chalk that up to the spider blood in her veins?). Cue the Bitch Semiotic!
Oh, she’s a bitch all right. These 1950s sci-fi horror films are full of references to all those female bugs that eat their mates. Tarantella will gaze hungrily at whatever man comes into view — all of whom turn into jelly with a single glance at her.
Let’s remember that movies like Mesa of Lost Women had the fundamental role in American culture of the 1950s of providing just enough titillation and spookiness to allow teenagers to keep up the heat while they make out in cars parked in drive-in theaters. This film succeeds.
Scariest of all, Tarantella knows how to dance. In a bizarre sequence of events so convoluted it’s not worth explaining, Tarantella arrives at a little bar where the mariachi music begins and she shakes her badunkadunk. It’s utterly bizarre and hypnotic. “She’s fascinating!” says the riveted Jan as he watches her. “As a dancer, of course,” he adds as a quick cover-up to his blonde fiancée.
Oh, this video is so deliciously whack.
There’s a terrific blogger over at the brilliantly titled blog And You Call Yourself a Scientist! who’s written the most extensive, knowledgeable assessment of this film that I almost feel overwhelmed. (Almost.) This blogger makes a particularly astute point about how boring these movies often are. Having deferred most knowledge to that blogger, let’s talk about the Bitch Semiotic and the role of the sexpot monster in films like this.
Point 1: Tarantella is guilty of any number of vague crimes of the sort that women commit against men, but she’s really only a serf who follows Dr. Araña’s evil directives. She dances, but she never speaks. She hypnotizes in order to lure men into her web and uses that killer body of hers to ensure men’s doom. Can you say “bitch on wheels”? All of this makes the motivations of Janice Starlin from The Wasp Woman seem unbelievably sensitive and complex in contrast.
Point 2: I’m wondering how often these Cult Female Monsters engage in what we might call the Sexy Dance of Death — and whether any of the others could possibly touch the weirdness of Tarantella’s. Is the Bitch Semiotic of this genre of cult horror films especially reliant on elaborating the monster’s bitchiness via dance? Stay tuned for more on this subject! This film provides not just the Sexy Dance, but also the patented Cat Fight® so essential to portrayals of women.
And finally, Point 3: to fully explore the subject of the Bitch Semiotic in Cult Horror Films with Female Monsters, I’m starting to see that we need to break them down into categories. In the vein of the abovementioned blog And You Call Yourself a Scientist!, I’m thinking about categories something like this:
- Science gone wrong (The Wasp Woman, Mesa of Lost Women, etc.)
- Religion gone wrong (the appalling Cobra Woman, for example)
- Bitten! (monster bites woman and transforms her into a monster, revealing all manner of fascinating infection fears)
- Bitchez from outer space (I can hardly wait!)
- Family curse (à la Cat People)
These categories will, I think, clarify even more the universe of the mid-century male psyche about women and gender. And I’m fairly convinced that Bitchez from Outer Space needs to come next, aren’t you?