Countdown to Halloween: "W" is for The Wasp Woman (1959)
At 63 minutes, the theatrical version of The Wasp Woman (1959) is perfectly efficient with its storytelling, and that story is perfectly simple. It's the 23rd movie directed by Roger Corman, who also makes a cameo appearance as a doctor at the hospital, and I'd say his creative machine was firing on all cylinders. It's not his best film, but neither is it his worst and it shares the common characteristic of most of them: it's entertaining.
Sales are dipping at Janice Starlin Enterprises, as its founder (Susan Cabot) ages and no longer represents the company's purpose or its target audience. ("I can't stay a glamour girl forever.") She hires Dr. Eric Zinthrop (Michael Mark), a scientist who has experienced some success with reversing the aging process by extracting an enzyme from the royal jelly of the queen wasp, to continue developing his formula in hopes of adding it to the company's line of cosmetics.
At first, she isn't forthcoming about the project with the company's board of directors and they are suspicious of Dr. Zinthrop. It turns out they should be, although it's not really his fault that Starlin gets impatient and begins injecting herself with the formula before it's been fully tested. In fact, in an effective scene, she sneaks out of the lab after taking a shot, not noticing that the feline previously given the formula has become a hideous monster cat.
We know from this, even if not from any number of were-animal movies, that something bad is going to happen to Starlin. These are the lessons, you know… be careful what you wish for, don't mess with Mother Nature, hold your darned horses, etc. The biggest lesson, though, is never use yourself as a test subject! The one familiar element we're missing is evidence of Starlin's self-awareness of her new malady.
The morning after Starlin injects herself with the formula, her secretary comments that she looks "so different." Here's where the high-def Blu-ray version of an old B-movie can be a curse. At the beginning when Starlin is supposed to be aging, the tricks used to convey the image are revealed. Here, I wanted to shout at the screen, "Why don't you just wipe off those makeup lines someone drew on your forehead and pluck your eyebrows?"
In fact, I appreciate the dime store budget makeup effects that make Cabot look like a wasp woman more than I do the simple old age makeup. I've heard people disappointed that we don't see the same image on screen that we do on the poster: a giant wasp with a woman's head. To me, though, there's nothing wrong with the normal sized woman with a wasp's head. In fact, it gives me a great idea for this year's Halloween costume.
Zinthrop is so disheartened by what happened to poor kitty that he wanders into traffic and gets hit by a car. He then becomes the focus for the plot particulars for the rest of the movie. As mentioned, other employees suspect him of something. Also, head wound or not, Starlin wants him back in the lab so the company can have the best year ever, and once he gets back to the lab we know he can help create a solution to the wasp problem.
Not only do I like the appearance of the wasp woman, I like her method of attack, best demonstrated in one specific scene. Her hand has become a stinger, so she disables a victim by stabbing him, then, like a vampire, bites him and drinks his blood. It's pretty graphic; we see the blood actually running down his neck. Even though The Wasp Woman is filmed in black and white, it's kind of disturbing to watch.
The climax becomes a little frenzied as it races to the finish, barely overreaching the one-hour mark. While the threat is neither realistic nor scary, it's still well-crafted and suspenseful. It ends with a final shot that's icing on the budget monster movie cake. The Wasp Woman is an easy watch and a lot of fun. Not only would I watch it again, but I'd recommend it as an example of a movie that's actually able to use its budget to maximum effect.
Written by Leo Gordon
Story by Kinta Zertuche
Directed by Roger Corman
Starring Susan Cabot, Anthony Eisley, Barboura Morris, William Roerick, Michael Mark, Frank Gerstle RT 63 min.
Home Video Shout! Factory (Blu-ray)
Part of the Countdown to Halloween. Click here for a list of all the blogs participating. Each offers its own distinctive month long celebration of the chilling holiday we all love.